Chocolat, the true story of a slave who became a clown, opens FrancOfilm. Its star Omar Sy tells us about the modern relevance of the story, and his controversial Oscars comments.
Omar Sy on why Chocolat is so relevant to modern audiences
This year’s FrancOfilm opens with the regional debut of Chocolat, based on the true story of a former slave who became 19th-century France’s first-ever black clown.
The film’s star Omar Sy – who appeared in the blockbuster Jurassic World last year and was the Dubai International Film Festival Audience Choice Award-winning Samba in 2014 – hopes modern audiences will learn from the story of Chocolat.
“I was touched by this powerful story,” he says. “To be born a slave, get away from this status and become such an artist is just incredible.
“Above all, I want his story to be known. I want him to become famous again. I cannot imagine the willpower he had to have to follow this lifepath.
“I find it interesting as well to follow his rise and fall – society had evolved and blacks were not the scapegoat or the punchbags any more. They could not be made fun of, at least officially.
“I would love to know what the audiences take from it, especially in the contemporary situation when the world is in a turmoil.”
Although the story takes place more than 100 years ago, many of the issues it raises about race remain relevant. Sy recently found himself at the centre of the #Oscarssowhite controversy when he was quoted in the French media as supporting a boycott of the Academy Awards.
Speaking to The National before Sunday’s ceremony, he was keen to set the record straight.
“I am glad that you are asking me this question,” he said. “My comments were completely misrepresented by the media. I am not an American and I would not have dared to criticise the Oscars as a foreigner. I could comment on the French César awards if I feel like it, but not on the Oscars. I am not in a position to suggest quotas either.
“If I had to compare the US and France, I would say that in the US you have a lot more diversity on screen, both in cinema and on TV, than France – but in France, diversity is better represented in the awards.
“What I said, exactly, is that from the moment someone feels excluded and mistreated, that he or she is not receiving the recognition he feels deserving, he has the right to express it, and the issue has to be raised in public.”
This is the second year in a row that Sy has starred in the FrancOfilm festival’s opening film – last year’s event opened with Samba. But the actor’s schedule has prevented him from attending the UAE screenings.
“Seriously, I wish I could be there,” he says. “My schedule is just over overbooked. This is crazy. But I am not going to complain.
“Last year, for the Samba screening, I was shooting Chocolat. This year, I just got back home to Los Angeles after being away for five months, first for the production of another film, followed by several weeks dedicated to the promotional tour for Chocolat’s release.
“As I am talking to you I am in the process of moving to a new house. I look forward to enjoying my wife and kids. I am simply seeking to have a normal life as a family for a few weeks.
“I definitely want to come to the region and to Dubai in particular and I will, eventually. It is an exciting city and I know it is a great destination for the kids.
“Who knows, one of my next films might kick off francOfilm again next year?”
A film for the modern audience
Author and historian Gérard Noiriel wrote Chocolat: The Real Story of a Nameless Man, the book which inspired the film, and he helped to adapt it for the big screen.
Widely regarded as a pioneer in the academic study of French immigration, he says that the film may be more relevant to modern audiences than it first appears.
“A lot of things have changed since Chocolat’s era,” he says. “At that time most of the French had not met any black people yet. The name that has chosen for him stigmatised his skin colour without shocking anybody. The French republic was starting what was labelled its ‘civilising mission’. Unfortunately, nowadays there are some similarities. The gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ [foreigners or those of foreign origin] persists, in a way. Prejudices against Roma, Muslims and refugees shows that stereotypes are still alive in some circles.
“But this is not specific to France. The respected French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, demonstrated that in every society, and at all times, the natural tendency of the people is to reject the foreigner or the one who is seen as different.
“I sincerely hope that the audience of the UAE who see Chocolat will not think that it is only a French story. This is, unfortunately, a universal story about a man suddenly finding himself in an unknown environment and fighting for his dignity.”