London may be home to over 100,000 Arabs, but the larger Arab-origin community in Paris is arguably far more famous. It is therefore not surprising Hold Back, an award-winning French film about a black Parisian who wants to marry his French Arab girlfriend is currently doing the rounds of private London film screenings.
The director Rachid Djaïdani originally intended to make his film about a black man attempting to make it as a comedian without any of the right connections. However, over the nine years it took to complete, Djaïdani’s partner (and lead actress of Hold Back) gave birth to a child. Inspired by this and the marriage of his own Sudanese and Algerian parents, he changed the plot to focus on a cross-cultural love story.
“Rashid knows how to write but he decided not to write for this movie – all the scenes are improvised,” actor Kamel Zouaoui told an audience after a screening at the Dash Café. “There is a mixture of two stories, Romeo and Juliet, which is very British, and the other story is Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”
Djaïdani relied on his actors not just to produce the quick fire dialogue that gives the film its energy, but also the kindness of their hearts. “None of us made this movie to be paid, because with Rachid, generally the guy calls you and says ‘I’m shooting, what are you doing this afternoon? Would you mind giving five minutes of your time? Don’t even think about money because I have no money,” Zouaoui explains.
The actors were also kept in the dark about what was happening next, with plot twists explained at the last minute: “Every scene was made like that – ‘OK Kamel, just tell him that you don’t want him to marry your sister because he’s black. Good luck.’”
While outsiders often associate the French Arab community with the Parisan suburbs, or banlieues, Hold Back was deliberately filmed in the city centre. Other movie staples, such as an attempt to kill the would-be Romeo, also conceal surprises.
“There are a lot of clichés in this movie on purpose,” says Zouaoui. “Just to show that we know the clichés but we take another direction.”
The result is a fast-paced, humorous glance into a city both multicultural and distinctively Parisian. “It seems all of us in this movie took a little of his personal cuisine to build the movie,” he says. “It’s not a perfect movie. It’s a human movie.”