This film is an adaptation of the book Mohammad, my mother and me*. Benoît Cohen tells the true story of France, his mother, who welcomed an Afghan refugee. What interested you in this scenario?
Fanny Ardant: I immediately liked the subject of this film. While I am not someone who is politically involved, this story spoke to me. And would I be ready, like France, to experience this adventure? Or should I put extra locks on my door because I’m told the world is getting more and more dangerous? It’s not that easy to welcome a stranger into your home. Especially since certain political speeches seek to comfort us in this fear of the other. However, everyone can say to themselves: why not me? Do I have the ability to reach out?
Nawid, how does your journey of exile connect with that of Reza, this Aghan refugee that you play?
Nawid Elham: We are both from the same ethnic group, the Hazaras. Our families live in very difficult conditions in Afghanistan. I left my country at 14. On foot, by car, I made the journey to Austria where I lived in hostels for four years. Arrived in France in 2020, I worked as a salesperson in a pastry shop. I was selected to act in the film and today I’m going to theater school while working in the restaurant business. My dream is to become an actor!
FA: What Nawid says is very strong: beyond his refugee status, he carries a dream within him. This is also the case for Reza’s character, who has a much broader identity than his immigrant status. He is not giving up on his dream: to study political science in France to, one day, become Minister of Education in his country of origin.
What did you know about Fanny Ardant before filming with her?
NE: Benoît told me: “You’re going to tour with Fanny Ardant.” I replied: “OK, but who is it?” (Burst of laughter from Fanny.) So I googled her name and said: “Wow! What an adventure! What a great experience filming with Madame Fanny Ardant!”
FA: Playing opposite a young man who doesn’t know who you are, it’s a gift from heaven! I found it great, because we found ourselves tied.
You both play real-life characters, and yet the film has a great romantic feel…
FA: Ecco! That’s what I always say! Benoît wanted to tell the story lived by his mother without making a documentary. The characters are complex: Reza is where you don’t expect him and France surprises with his audacity and his freedom.
France is both bourgeois and non-conformist. A point in common with Reza, the young refugee who reads The rebellious man of Camus?
FA: An alliance quickly forms between these two rebels. We always believe that a middle-class woman must embody the values of her caste. But do we always have the ideas of our environment, our nationality, our profession or our portfolio? Clichés are reductive for individuals.
France and Reza come from two worlds foreign to each other. Throughout the sequences, everyone questions their own representations…
FA: That’s the whole story of the film! The meeting of two humanities beyond two states of life. The light of one illuminates the shadow of the other. Reza gradually understands the sufferings and difficulties of France, widowed and in conflict with her son. I liked this idea that my character was not Madame Perfect. Reza also suffers, has nightmares, France finds herself powerless in the face of his trauma, despite his good will. The very fact that the young man plans to pursue a higher education goes against France’s representations. She wants to protect him from failure, to find him a job, it’s a maternal reflex. This is what I experienced when I told my parents that I wanted to do theater. Seeking to protect me, they asked me to continue my studies.
Are these characters experiencing paths of redemption?
FA: Yes, everyone opens the door to a room never visited within themselves. It is always through others that this inner journey is realized: we lose our certainties and we open our hearts. Like in the movies. Art touches the sensitive and reaches the human part of each person, acts more than a long speech.
The character of Nawid, although far from his family, maintains a very intense bond with them. Deep down, isn’t he less alone than the character of France?
FA: Reza, who left his entire family immersed in the hell of war, finds himself in a tragic situation and knows that these ties of the heart are the most important. He arrives in a society of comfort and hyperconsumption, where we have lost the sense of connections and human warmth. He’s the rich one, very close to his family.
Nawid, this brings us back to the famous gloves that you showed us earlier…
NE: They are leather, very hot, worn. My family gave them to me just before I left Afghanistan to warm my hands. They protect me completely and constitute a guarantee of happiness. The paths I took from Afghanistan to Austria are horrible and unspeakable. I’m lucky to be alive. Really.
How do you experience these family ties today?
NE: I would like to be near my family. But the situation in the country is terrible. My three younger sisters are forced to stay at home, unable to go out or study. Like many Afghans, I dream of changing things, of returning to my country to be useful. We, the exiles, hope one day to help change the situation.
FA: That’s magnificent! And Nawid will become a great actor and he will, one day, have weight to weigh in on the debate!
Fanny Ardant, you wanted to share this interview and our coverage with Nawid. For what?
FA: To remain consistent with the film, so that one illuminates the other. We carry this story together and we need to talk about it together. When Nawid speaks, he addresses subjects that I am not familiar with. His presence is essential. His voice is perhaps even more important than mine.
My France To Me: this triple-meaning title is very rich. It evokes at the same time a France somewhat locked in the past, a welcoming France and a France land of asylum…
FA: All that and it even has a fourth meaning: “Ma France à moi” also means “My mother to me”. Benoît Cohen tells the story of his mother, whose name is France, and pays tribute to her.
Nawid, is the France that Reza dreams of the one you met when you arrived?
NE: I feel at home here, a feeling I have never felt in the other countries I have passed through. When I arrived, I was very happy to find work in a bakery, to meet very generous people there. Paris is truly the welcoming city, the city of my dreams, the one where I can learn the profession of actor.
FA: And what an incredible opportunity to discover the classics of the theater, to want to read all of Shakespeare while enriching these texts with one’s own interiority…
Fanny Ardant, are you passionate about literature?
FA: I started, very young, by reading theater. In the evening, in my room that I shared with my sister, I read aloud. “You sleep?” “Yes,” she replied. “Well no, you’re not sleeping since you’re answering me!” (Smile.) And I read him entire passages from plays by Claudel and Racine. Because I found that everything that was very beautiful should be shared. “You’re boring me!” she grumbled. I wanted to do theater. Like Nawid.
In 2013, Le Pèlerin asked you: “What would you like to say to God?” You had this very beautiful response: “Take me in your arms”. Is it almost a loving response? Does love open to the spiritual?
FA: I was raised Catholic. I didn’t like the rules but I agreed with what he said about love. On a television show, I was once asked who I would like to meet. I answered: Jesus. Invited at the same time as me, the singer Mika replied: Elvis Presley. And I imagined a dinner: Elvis Presley, Jesus, Mika and me. (Laughs.) I really like mystics like Saint Teresa and Saint Francis of Assisi who chart their own path like Jesus. I also read a lot of the philosopher Simone Weil. I was dazzled by his commitment, by his capacity for forgiveness. People sometimes think that mystics are crazy, but they are clairvoyant, like poets. They know more than us but we don’t hear them because we want proof. Claudel’s theater, very embodied, reflects this mysticism. In Midday sharing, the crazy love, of absolute freedom, between Ysé and Mesa, overwhelmed me.
“Like me, François Truffaut placed love above everything,” you once confided. What taste for cinema and life did he pass on to you?
FA: The passion for doing things. For me, great directors are those who know how to share their passion, those who put all their marbles on the line with each film. I do not exercise a profession but a passion for which I was trained by the theater. When you say the words on stage, you feel like the queen of the world! Then the curtain falls and the lights go out. Dark, mediocre life resumes. Success or not, what matters is this time spent on stage, which fills you up.
Do you go to the cinema a lot?
FA: Yes! And I’ll see anything, because I don’t read the newspapers to find out what’s in fashion. What an absolute pleasure to enter a dark room without knowing what you are going to see. And once we get out, we find ourselves on the tarmac… I can have very lively discussions around the films. I like that cinema doesn’t teach me to think but to feel. A director must open all the emotional and sensitive floodgates. I like people to talk to me about carnal, incarnate things.
Christmas and December 31st are approaching. How will you celebrate them?
FA: I like the idea of bringing my whole family together at Christmas. It’s a ritual that I hold very dear.
NE: I was born on December 31, 2001. I’m going to celebrate it with the friends I made here. In my language, Nawid means “happy new year”.
* Mohammad, my mother and I, by Benoît Cohen, Ed. I read, 288 p. ; €7.20.
The Biography of Fanny Ardant
March 22, 1949. Born in Saumur (Maine-et-Loire).
1979. The ladies of the coast, by Nina Companeez.
1981-1983. The Woman Next Door and Roll on Sunday! by François Truffaut.
1986. Melo, by Alain Resnais.
1996. Ridiculous, by Patrice Leconte.
2002. Eight women, by François Ozon.
2013. The good days, by Marion Vernoux.
2022. The young lovers, by Carine Tardieu.