In theaters this August 4, De bas niveau is the first feature film by Yassine Qnia which brings together Soufiane Guerrab and Souheila Yacoub. AlloCiné spoke with the director during the Cannes Film Festival where the film was presented at the Fortnight.
Presented at the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, De bas niveau is the first film by Yassine Qnia which brings together Soufiane Guerrab (Lupine, La Vie scolaire) and Souheila Yacoub (Les Sauvages, Climax). This social drama tells how Mehdi, in his thirties, tries to get by with a few small burglaries.
But these small breakages in industrial zones no longer bring in as much as before and the proposed alternatives do not interest him. Mehdi then questions himself while trying to win back his ex-partner Sarah, mother of her one-year-old boy whom he adores. While De bas niveau is now screened in French cinemas, Yassine Qnia had answered some of our questions in Cannes.
AlloCiné: You were the winner of the Creation Prize of the GAN Foundation in 2019 for the screenplay of De Bas Etage and in 2021 you present this first feature film at the Directors’ Fortnight. Tell us about this film’s journey to Cannes.
Yassine Qnia: I started writing in 2016/2017. And after a lot of rewriting, I am offering the film to the GAN Foundation in 2019 to be able to get help which is very interesting for a first film. Beyond the financial aspect, there is also this recognition which is good. And I got this help, as well as that of the CNC, and I was able to shoot my film with a small but good saving for a first feature, that is to say a little less than a million d ‘euros.
We then shot the film in November 2019 and finished it as best we could in October 2020. It was a long wait because of the health crisis which turned everything upside down but the selection for the Directors’ Fortnight was a very nice surprise and a nice gift. It is also very heavy to carry because when we see the annals of the Fortnight and the people who have passed by, we wonder if we really belong there.
With the closing of theaters and the health crisis, I had time to question my film and see what is going and what is not. The film didn’t have a classic route, like many others of late.
Where did the idea for the story of De bas niveau come from?
The idea for De low floor stems from a frustration that I myself experienced, which is the financial difficulty of emancipating oneself, of being autonomous and of taking charge. I wanted to talk about financial and emotional pain. I have often filmed failure in my short films, it’s a situation that I like to stage and I wanted to film failure again in my first feature. I learned a lot from movies where the characters failed.
How did you work on the character of Mehdi and his rather tragic journey?
It was quite simple because I had the chance to work with Soufiane Guerrab who is an actor with a lot of experience. He quickly understood his character which was a little different from his previous roles. It was rather a work of presence and control of space and time. You did not necessarily have to rush to take out your lines, but above all to assert yourself sometimes in moments of silence.
To choose my actors, I don’t pay attention to the films they make before. I pay more attention to who they are in real life. When these two actors were proposed to me, I went to watch some of their interviews, in videos or in writing. This is where I manage to detect a personality, a way of expressing myself. At this point, I can make a choice.
Indeed, Soufiane Guerrab also asserts himself in the sequences in the car when he watches his ex-partner but also when he is scouting for his burglaries. These scenes switch the film into black thriller.
It’s a genre that I particularly like. So it is true that there is a deceptive side in the film since we start a little in this genre with a breakage and then we quickly fall into the sentimental and social chronicle. I worked on it. But it’s a genre that I really like, I only read that, I really like the stories of gangsters, of police officers.
In the future, I would like to do maybe the opposite of this film, that is to say to start from something rather simple to tighten up with something darker and tense. There is an actor that I have in mind every time and I told Soufiane that it would be good for him to behave a bit like that in the film, it’s Humphrey Boghart. This genre makes it possible to put on a certain spectacle in the cinema and to see things that people wouldn’t necessarily do in real life.
How were Soufiane Guerrab and Souheila Yacoub chosen for this film?
It happened very simply through a casting director who offered me their profiles. To choose my actors, I don’t pay attention to the films they make before. I pay more attention to who they are in real life. When these two actors were proposed to me, I went to watch some of their interviews, in videos or in writing. This is where I manage to detect a personality, a way of expressing myself. At this point, I can make a choice.
It was like that, I did not do a casting, I was offered profiles and I watched their interviews. And I took actors that interested me the most. I find watching the actors’ previous movies to be very misleading, it’s a reality of a director who filmed a character at one point.
This is your first feature film with professional actors, didn’t you really apprehend the shoot?
It went pretty well. We filmed before confinement for five weeks. It was sometimes complicated because even if a budget of one million euros is very correct, it remains tight. The main difficulty was that there were a lot of sets for very few days. It was difficult to put on a real scene. When we arrived on a set, I barely had 1h30 to film so it was difficult to do more than a shot, a reverse shot and a slightly wider shot.
But I’m happy to have learned with this shoot that you have to manage your script better with a tight budget, it’s very beneficial and it will serve me for my next projects. The failure is promising. In addition, the collaboration with Soufiane and Souheila went very well, we formed a real team. They had ideas, looked after each other and exchanged a lot.
With these constraints that you mention, did you modify the script during the shooting?
Sure ! I had to cut 20 pages three weeks before the shoot. In fact, by cutting, I unfortunately removed scenes that would have done me good in the edit and kept sequences that I ultimately did not leave in the final edit. There were a little softer and more comical scenes that could have brought a little more lightness. But I repeat, it allowed me to learn. This first film is a crazy experience that brought me a lot.
You seem very lucid about your work and in search of lifelong learning. Are you already working on new projects?
Absolutely, although I don’t know if they will be successful. I was lucky to make a first film and to be validated by a Cannes selection and a producer who follows me. It is incredible luck. Now, towards the public, I have to think about what I can do best. So I write, I develop things and I am looking for a film that could live up to the responsibilities that are mine today. I put the pressure on myself but a good pressure.
Interview by Mégane Choquet on July 16, 2021 in Cannes.