Set against the backdrop of the 7 July 2005
bombings, London River tells the story of a friendship which develops between
two seemingly unconnected people – Elizabeth (Brenda Bleythn) and Ousmane
(Sotigui Kouyate). Both of them
have come to London to search for their children who are missing in the
aftermath of the bombings.
Although they come from different religious
backgrounds – Ousmane is an African Muslim living in France and Elizabeth is a
white Christian living in Guernsey, they share the same hope of finding their
children alive. Putting aside their cultural differences, they give each other
the strength to continue the search and maintain their faith in humanity. Director
Rachid Bouchareb (Days of Glory) talks about the film.
Issues of race, nationhood, community and kinship
lie at the heart of your films. What were your specific motivations for making
I would say that all my films are concerned with the
subject of meetings between different people, from different countries and
different worlds. This theme of meetings is always at the heart of my films,
because the characters are always on a journey. And this phenomenon goes beyond
the characters on screen to the actors themselves. I find the concept of the
meeting between Sotigui Kouyaté, an African actor, and Brenda Blethyn, a
British actor fascinating – beyond the fact of their friendship, it’s a human
connection between two people of different nationalities, religions, universes.
It allows one to go beyond the cinematic encounter and affords the film a level
of truth about the meeting and the different cultures of these two individuals.
You’ve said in an interview that the subjects you
choose to film allow you to find yourself. Did you find yourself within London
In as much as this is a film about the problem of
being a Muslim in Europe, then yes, this film concerns me personally. I was
living in France at the time of the World Trade Centre attacks, and I felt the
after-effects. Suddenly it was more difficult than ever to be an Algerian in
How were the bombings perceived in France at the
I’d compare it to the impact of the Madrid bombings in
France. Really, there wasn’t much coverage in the press, and I’d say that the
attitude of the French population at that time was… well, I didn’t hear
people talking about the attacks like I did after 9/11, not with the same sense
of urgency. It was as if after the initial crisis, that is, the World Trade
Center attacks, nothing could be as shocking. Nothing that came afterwards
could have the same effect.
The subject matter is quite sensitive…
I hope that people who see the film will understand
that the event itself is just starting a point. My film is less about the
bombings themselves, and more about the meeting between these two people that
takes place in their wake. That’s what was important to me, that these two
people who meet are united by the same problem, which is their desire to find
their children. And the story is about these two people, a man and a woman from
very different backgrounds but faced with the same fears, the same anxieties.
It needed a crisis to bring them together, but that crisis could have been
something else, the September 11 attacks for example.
London River is first and foremost a human drama,
about how people react to events such as these, how they come together in the
same place and forge a connection. Events such as the attacks of 7/7 naturally
divide people, but at the same time they also bring them together. They need
one another. People have to come together in the face of such crises. It’s an
What research did you do for the film?
The coverage we see of these events on our televisions
is already very strong, we don’t need to add to it, but to give these dramas a
human face. Although the film contains archive footage of the events and their
real life victims, I didn’t do a lot of research into the impact of the attacks
on the people that lived through them – interviews with families affected and so
forth. Rather I was interested in taking these two actors, living with them,
seeing how they would approach their characters and what relationship would
develop between them: their encounter. This is what lends the film its
universality. Whether I had made the film with Chinese actors, Indians, Arabs,
or actors from other parts of Europe, it would have been the same, concerned
with these same fears, worries, dramas.
I didn’t want to have to stick to the historical facts
and eyewitness accounts – these things are there in the film, on the
televisions we see on screen. But for the story I wanted to go beyond that, to
find something deeper.
There’s a beautiful physical contrast between the
Exactly. That’s why I needed those two actors and no-one
else. It’s a very important element of the film. In fact, you might say it is
the film. The film has a rough, documentary aesthetic, which is quite a
contrast from the polish of Indigènes…
After the precision that Indigènes demanded, I wanted
complete – absolutely complete – freedom on this film. I wanted to forget
cinematic aesthetics entirely, to put aside all technical discussions. All that
concerned me was the characters. We had a district of London, two actors, 15
days, and we were working day to day. There was little light, a very small
team. Working like this I was free from the obligation to spend a long time
preparing scenes, rehearsing, setting up shots. It was very refreshing to work
like this, with very little preparation or preamble. In fact, the week before
we started shooting I was in Cannes, judging the festival competition, and from
there I flew straight to London to begin the film. I didn’t spend weeks in
advance thinking about the film; I arrived with a clear head. And as a result both
the shoot and, I think, the film, were much more spontaneous and much more
What is the role of faith within the film? Although
the first two scenes show the protagonists at prayer, in most other ways,
religion seems strangely absent from the film.
Quite simply, the two protagonists each live with
their own faith serenely. Because one can have faith, and live with it, and be
a good person. Just like that. There are plenty of people who have their
beliefs. It is part of who they are, but it doesn’t necessarily define them.
Politics, faith, nationality – these things aren’t the same. That’s why you
have the character of the policeman, who tells Ousmane that he, too, is a
Muslim. That is, not all Muslims are Arabs: there are Muslims in China, in Russia, in Eastern Europe.
There are Europeans who are Muslims. In France. In London. I wanted to show
this. One thing that stands out is the constant failure of connection between
people, even between loved ones. Both the protagonists know so little about their
I think the great problem of our times is a lack of
communication. You see this in global politic relations. Is there any
discussion? Is there any understanding? People don’t talk to one another any
more, the world has difficulty doing this. You see it every day on the news.
Rarely do we see people sitting round a table for days on ends conversing,
talking things through. No. Instead we see people armed, at war. This problem
begins at the level of personal relations, and the solution can only start here
In many ways the film seems to be summed up by the
line that she speaks, “our lives aren’t so different”.
It’s true. Our lives aren’t so different because we’re
not so different, whichever of the four corners of the globe we might live in.
In our thoughts, our feelings, our fears, our joys, our hopes and worries – our
lives, they’re not so different at all. They’re the same.
There’s a strong juxtaposition between the rural
and the urban.
I wanted to show the manner in which both of these
characters live somehow outside of the world, and to show the futility of this.
She lives on her island, he lives in the forest, but one can’t continue like
this. One can’t remain completely isolated.
And yet both characters return to their rural
retreats. What are we to make of the film’s ambiguous ending?
It’s completely up to the spectator to decide what
might happen next. Life goes on. The farm, the forest: these are their homes,
their work and their lives. What else would they do but return to them? I think
the spectator can draw his conclusion from this ending, by putting himself in
the place of these characters.