Premiere of Petit Pays: a hard, yet beautiful film

On Monday evening the chairman of the FIFO jury, Éric Barbier, presented a premiere of his film Petit pays, at the Liberty cinema, as part of the festival. The audience filled three rooms in which screenings took place simultaneously. Everyone was moved by the power of this fiction film depicting reality.

Silence. The screening has come to an end. The credits are accompanied by music by Gaël Faye which bears the same title as his book and Éric Barbier’s film: Petit pays. ‘We were talking about it: this is the first time that we have experienced such silence at the end of a film’, say four friends discussing what they had just seen. On Monday evening, the chairman of the FIFO jury, who is also the director of several films, presented a preview of his latest work: Petit pays, adapted from the book by Gaël Faye. At the start of 1993, ten-year old Gabriel is living in Burundi with his little sister Ana, his French father and his Rwandan mother. It’s a happy childhood spanning school and friends. But the political situation in Burundi deteriorates. Gabriel still does not understand what is going on but witnesses the strife. ‘This child, cocooned by childhood, begins to see cracks in his paradise. He suffers from his parents separating, then the situation of these small countries, Burundi and Rwanda, explodes. A coup takes place in Burundi which leads to civil war, and then the Rwandan genocide. In the book, the family echoes the story. This is very strong, explains Éric Barbier.

The novel was a huge success and was awarded the Goncourt des lycéens prize in 2016. The question of the film adaptation soon arose and after meeting several people, Éric Barbier chose Gaël Faye. ‘We especially agreed on the way to tell this story, what we could show and how we could show it.’ The two men set to work on the history of Burundi of which curiously, few traces remain from the 1990s. ‘We looked for documents about Burundi. Without finding any… We realised that there was nothing from 1991 to 1998. The best documentary reference for me was a fiction film, filmed in 1990. The director filmed in the street, the people, the clothes at the time, etc. This is a documentary source. The important thing for Petit pays is that there are these people who tell their stories.’ The great majority of the film actors were inhabitants of Rwanda and amateurs regarding cinema (the film was shot in Rwanda). Some of them told their own story through fiction. ‘The idea was to keep a trace of this past. The film approximates documentary work in the sense that I realised the importance of having archives, information and written texts. For me, it’s idealistic to think that documentaries will change the world, but they are vital to comprehend each other’s cultures.’

Petit pays recounts ‘little’ stories that reveal the bigger picture. ‘I often asked Gaël’s opinion about the scenario, script and editing. He gave me many things: images and films from his childhood. He supplied me with an abundance of material. We couldn’t go to Burundi as it’s a closed country. These days it’s complicated to visit. But I went to Rwanda where I met many of his friends, Burundians, who were from this period. I did a huge amount of work in preparation and told myself that I could tell this story. And this story is a matter for the whole world.’ A story that is a ‘wake-up call’ for viewers. ‘It came as a real shock’, confesses one of them. ‘It was very beautiful and very disturbing too.’ Another viewer confessed that she hadn’t read the book and would perhaps not plunge into it straight away but maybe ‘digest’ the film first. For another, she knew the story but not in any detail and she was particularly moved by ‘this piecemeal narrative as it is seen through the eyes of the child who doesn’t understand everything’. Éric Barbier came to answer questions from the audience, who remained silent and stunned by this strong and real story. A fiction film with a powerful influence.

Lucie Rabréaud / FIFO 2020