About Across the sea

By Olivier Pélisson

Saïd Hamich Benlarbi’s second feature film is a moving melodrama. This novel of a film tells us a decade-long story set in Marseille, transporting us from here (France) to there (Morocco), touching us with its humanity in each and every scene. The rich, complex characters are also part of the thrill of that epic, set to the tune of Raï music. The vision of an insightful, yet melancholic director with a big heart. 

Saïd Hamich Benlarbi’s interview

The first idea came to me a long time ago. I was studying production at Fémis. In a scriptwriting workshop, I had imagined a love story set in Marseille between two young migrant workers, with Raï music. I then produced many films, and - very unexpectedly and quickly - directed Return to Bollène, which was vital for me. Later, The Departure allowed me to think things through more carefully in my work. I then picked up the project for Across the Sea. Very quickly, the triptych raï/exile/melodrama became self-evident. I had a very clear objective, I didn’t want a great speech, but only touch upon this - somewhat unfathomable, and therefore cinematic - feeling of exile, and the people in exile. 

I was lucky enough to work with the cinematographer Tom Harari, who is a great cinephile. I very quickly wanted to make a melodrama, drawing from works by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), Ettore Scola (We All Loved Each Other So Much), and Todd Haynes. We chose very stark visual contrasts, slick frames and more movement than in my previous films, while at the same time seeking as much fluidity as possible around the characters. Despite the very emotional aspect of the film, the frames needed to serve a purpose. That sums up our work on the film: blending the breadth and generosity of the story with the minimalistic perspective. 

I’ve never played any instrument, and I bitterly regret it. I was only able to make Across the Sea because I listened to a lot of Raï music, singers like Hasni, Nasro, Fadela, etc. This type of music was very important for the French Maghribi community. It even became the music of exile by itself migrating from Algeria to France. So, naturally, our characters would have this melancholic tune by their side at different moments of their lives, either played live or on a car radio. 

Anna Mouglalis and Grégoire Colin quickly became the obvious choices for Serge and Noémie. They’ve got this great thing, a timbre, deeply human eyes, a depth that sets them apart. And they still have something disquiet, something rebellious. Nour was more difficult to find. We needed someone who could evolve over ten years, who would have a candid, bright side, but would still be believable as a migrant. I couldn’t find the right match during casting. I was then told about Ayoub Gretaa, who is mostly seen in Moroccan series. I quickly saw that he was very sensitive, he had the right energy, and he could just as well dance or look, and was comfortable acting silently. So young, and already so mature.

At La Semaine de La Critique