Interview with Joann Sfar on The Rabbi’s Cat (2011)

The only person I love more than Brel and Gainsbourg is Joann Sfar, a French comic artist whose mother was an Ashkenazi Jew from the Ukraine and whose father a Sephardic Jew from Algeria. My favorite comic of his is The Rabbi’s Cat. It’s a warm, critical, wry look at religious and racial issues in Algiers in the 1920s. Here’s a panel. Just look at how he draws that cat. Tell me this isn’t the most true and hilarious representation of a cat you’ve ever seen:

chat_du_rabbin-T1p15s

 

Sfar’s done a couple movies, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life in 2010 (?) and a film adaptation of The Rabbi’s Cat in 2011. I wanted to like the movie more than I did. This isn’t a review of the movie, but basically my issue was that I did not like most of the voice actors. Especially Zlabya’s and occasionally the Cat’s. I just… I just couldn’t. Zlabya sounded like a random girl they pulled off the street and the Cat got pretty slapstick screechy at times. I don’t know. I just couldn’t deal with the voices. The animation is so phenomenally beautiful and suffused with warmth and light that I am even more frustrated that I can’t watch the movie all the way through. (But here’s the trailer! What kills me every time in the comic and the movies is the Cat’s line: “I will never be alone because my mistress will die before me.” Chokes me up. Every. Damn. Time.)

Anyway, what’s interesting about the movie is Joann Sfar himself. He’s a handsome, charming, intellectual-type who wears Pantera t-shirts. (I have a weakness for Frenchmen in Pantera and NIN t-shirts. Don’t ask me why.) Here’s an interview I found with him on the internets about the movie and his family and his work:

Joann Sfar: “I love Arabs and Jews, but I could care less about religion.”

Télérama’s Cinema Wednesday | To defuse the relations between Whites, Blacks, Jews, and Muslims, the author of The Rabbi’s Cat, who is bringing his own comic to the big screen, relies on his hero’s Voltairian mischief.

[June 4, 2011]

It’s the story of a cat during the 1920s who swallows a parrot. Suddenly he can talk (a lot) and wants to (even more) have his bar mitsvah. God shudders and readers are eager; they devoured The Rabbi’s Cat (900,000 copies sold in five volumes, in nine years). It has been a triumph for his “master”, Joann Sfar, who was crushed under the weight of the offers to adapt his comic. He refused seven before deciding to bring it to the screen himself, his caustic, novelistic, shimmering epic, from the casbah in Alger to the heart of the African desert. With the help of his partner, Sandrina Jardel, who wrote the screenplay, and Antoine Delesvaux, who directed, Sfar delivers an animated film which seems to resemble its maker: original and incredibly productive. Barely 40 years old Joann Sfar drew, painted, and wrote more works than three times his age: more than 150 volumes, novels, artbooks, philosophical commentaries (he has a Master’s in philosophy from the university in Nice). His first feature-length film, with real actors (and one marionnette), was released a year ago. Gainsbourg (A Heroic Life), the phantasmagorical biopic of the Man with the Cabbage Head [i.e. Serge Gainsbourg], received the César for the best début film, When does he sleep? Do we have any right to be jealous of him? It’s a meeting with a self-confessed “liar”, a storyteller, crazy about culture and undoubtably less so about religion; Sfar is as chatty, charming and biting as his irreverent feline…

Is it true that you were inspired by your own pet to draw The Rabbi’s Cat?

Sfar: Yes, he’s my “real” cat! His name is Imhotep, like the architect of the pyramids. In fact, he’s not alone: I have three cats, a dog… and two children! Anyway, my wife says I’m a hypocrit because I never pay attention to him except for when the journalists come; I pose with “the Rabbi’s cat”! During our prepwork for the animation, we filmed him for hours, with his devil-may-care attitude, and his narcissism… He really was Voltaire’s Candide, and I that’s what I wanted for my story.

The film relies on a unique technique: you began by filming “real” actors, so you could draw them afterward…

There was, in fact, a “real” shoot for a month. At the beginning of the project, I was extremely anxious. It was the actors who reassured me. With them, the storytelling impetus seemed very simple: as soon as they arrived, in make-up and costumes, I remembered my childhood memories of Molière; Hafsia Herzi, who plays Zlabya, the cat’s mistress, is the young girl to be married in classical theater. Her father the rabbi, Maurice Bénichou, could be found in Tartuffe, but more tender. As for François Morel, we met him during a reading of The Little Prince. He did all the voices, especially the fox’s: super seductive, kind of a jerk, egotistical… No one could have done a better job than him, giving the cat a voice, a true valet of Molière, a Scapin or a Sganarelle. After, I chose to make an animated film and not a “live” movie, because I wanted there to be a homogeneity between the cat and the other characters. I didn’t want to make him the only one to be animated, and so everything had to be animated.

Why choose to do it in 3D?

It wasn’t to make it more realistic. On the contrary, I was looking for a “paper cut-out” quality that allowed me to forefront what I wanted to in the story: the cat, the décor… The result was images tender and colorful, evoking a bit of Matisse, and others. And then the 3D aspect let me reach kids, and families. If someone had told me that I made a high-brow feature-length film for adults, I would be extremely disappointed.

Is this story, full of imams, rabbis, and theological debates, a parable about religion?

To be honest, I made the comic for personal and egotistical reasons, without the least intention of moralizing. But it’s been 10 years since then, during which I toured with the comic in the ZEPs [zones of educational priority, i.e. underprivileged areas], in the middle and high schools. This allowed me to measure the book’s effects. One day, a little girl said to me, “We didn’t want to read your book, but in the end, we really liked it, because we saw that Jews and Arabs were equally dumb.” This was exactly what I wanted: to defuse the relationship between Muslims, Jews, and Christians… When I began the prepwork for the animated film, I had become very conscious of this pedagogical dimension. It caused me a lot of grief, because “messages” can really weigh a film down, even blow it apart. For example, when the old imam looks straight at the viewer and says “Our God does not hate. He loves science.” It’s too direct, but I couldn’t leave the least ambiguity, I could risk to not be understood on the matter. A few days ago, while we were filming promos for the film, I blurted out: “We had to stop pretending that religion is sacred.” Brassens said that we have to criticize the uniforms, but not the people who wear them. I adore Arabs, Jews, but religion pisses me off.

It must have upset some people…

It hasn’t shocked anyone in the theaters yet! I even saw some ultra-orthodox people laughing their heads off. What I’ve tried to show is that, in both Jewish and Muslim families, there’s a lot of joking around on the issue than people imagine. My criticism comes from the inside [of this space] because I am myself Jewish.

You’ve set the beginning of your story in Algeria, where part of your family is from…

I chose the Maghreb in particular because it’s neither a Promised Land nor a land of nostalgia. It was the same mixing, the same mess, sixty years ago as it is today. This observation allowed me to be pragmatic. True political courage today means refusing to debate ideas and to crowd in together with everyone. Before having a debate on secularism, we eat together. My Ideal Republic would be [the city of] Nice, where I grew up; we were all shoved in together: Whites, Blacks, Jews, Muslims, and we were exposed to the most horrible racism in the world, but it never occurred to us to stop hanging out together!

Nevertheless, your attitude toward colonialism [in the film] is unambigious, through the parody of Tintin…

Three weeks from the release of the film, my friends were worried about my noggin, not because of the Islamists, but because of Hergé’s copyright holders. The fear wasn’t necessarily where they thought it was! I learned to read through Tintin, and I have a lot of affection for him. I hope that people sense that. It’s not the character that’s the issue in the film, it’s the dominant zeitgeist of the 1930s: the way people arrived in Africa saying the stupidest things imaginable. Tintin’s been making fun of Blacks and Jews for sixty years. If I can, for a few seconds, turn it around on him, we’ll survive.

This “African Jerusalem” that your heroes are searching for in the desert–is that a reference to Zionism?

I’m not one of those either/or people about questions like this. If I were in Israel, I would doubtlessly be on the extreme left. On the other hand, I have trouble understanding why people condemn it here. The creation of the state of Israel after the Second World War was an acknowledgment that Europe had failed to protect the Jews. I have a great deal of affection for the peoples who live there–I visit often. It’s a very complex place, like many other corners of the world. But the quest that my characters undertake is above all a reflection on one’s roots, and on the illusion that everything used to be better. The Promised Land of the future, or of the Golden Age in the past, I could care less about. Only the present interests me.

As you started the adaptation, you said: “At least if the film is a failure, it will be my fault!” Now that it’s over, what do you think of the movie?

It’s full of mistakes! Like the comic, like Gainsbourg (A Heroic Life)… But I like trying things that are unedited, that I haven’t mastered yet. It’s the clumsiness that’s moving. The weak part of my stories is always their structure. They have something organic, diluted… As much as I have the feeling with my books that I’ve opened a wound that reminds me of me, I’m not absolutely sure my movies are interesting. I have no regrets. I almost want to have four or five [movies] behind me so that I can see it a little more clearly.

They say you always have a thousand irons in the fire at the same time. What makes you so prolific?

My anxiety. I’m incapable of assessing myself: I vacillate a thousand times a day between moments of extreme pretentiousness and moments of absolute deprecation. I have a Scheherazade Complex: I earn my living writing and if I stop, they’ll cut off my head. I’m perpetually dissatisfied with the work I’ve just finished, and that drives me to want the next one, and the next, and the next. Most of all I don’t want to fall into a caricature of myself. About that, for example, I’m in the middle of finishing a sort of semi-pornographic Foto-novela for Dargaud [Publishing company], with ska chicks and huge tigers fighting each other. People say often that I’m a dabbler, but it’s not true! As proof, there are certain areas where I don’t really adventure, like music. I play the ukulele for fun, with my friend, but I harbor no illusions! I’ve never really done anything beside tell stories!

What’s the status on this famous “New Comics” which you helped create in the 90s?

I don’t like that term. It sound like the New Wave [of cinema], which is nothing like us at all! But it’s true that there is a generational effect with the arrival of Christophe Blain, Marjane Satrapi, Lewis Trondheim, David B., and it’s true that we worked in the same studio, that we brought a slightly new style and taste [to comics]. But that doesn’t make us an “art school”! We’re too individualistic, to different. Even when we collaborate on comics, it’s just for fun, not to write manifests. We never claimed to be “alternative.” Or at least I haven’t. I’ve just asked that comics be taken as seriously as literature. At it has been, because now we have the same diseases as literature: over-production, a lack of critique… At the moment, Comics aren’t doing very well– the big publishers have lost a part of their identity, independent publishers are killing themselves by cutting off the branches that are the best growers…

You’re directing the BD Bayou line at Gallimard Youth [a brance of Gallimard Publishing]. And, as if you weren’t busy enough, you’ve just designed the exposition on [Georges] Brassens at the Cité de la Musique [a group of institutions dedicated to music in the 19th district in Paris]…

I dressed up as Brassens in Gainsbourg (A Heroic Life) and, in order to do that, I had to get permission from his estate. So when someone proposed the exposition to them, they said, “Ask that schmuck over there to do it!” It was a lot of fun to do, inasmuch as if Gainsbourg is a poet who fascinates me, Brassens is a kind of mentor. His vision of life suits me.

His influence is apparent in your work. What’s the influence your family has had?

My mother was a pop singer, and she died when I was very young. So I grew up between two dominant men, my maternal grandfather, and my father, who had very oppositional views on existence. My grandfather’s whole Jewish-Ukranian family was deported. During the war, he was the doctor for the Alsace-Lorraine Brigade. His crowning achievement was having saved the right hand of André Malraux, who, in thanks, awarded him French nationality. He was a very cultivated, very caustic fellow, who had done rabbinical studies when he was young, but became totally anti-clerical. The only things that interested him in existence were love, science, and literature. When I was little, he used to say something I really liked: “When you see all that’s happened, either God doesn’t exist or he’s a rotten bastard.” My devil-may-care attitude I get from him.

And your father?

He’s a Mediterranean Jew, very handsome, an excellent pianist, a champion water skiier, a brilliant lawyer in Nice, but now retired. A Casanova, but at the same time, a very traditional man, very attached to religion. His claim to fame is having been the first to put the Neo-Nazis in prison in the 70s. What I got out of that was, in 5th grade, having to walk to school between two gendarmes [regional soldiers], because my class was vandalized by people who wanted to intimidate him. They called us in the middle of the night, they sent us coffins… It didn’t faze him at all.

When I was 13, on the day of my Bar Mitzvah, I was attacked and robbed in the street. My father yelled at me because I hadn’t been able to fight off my attackers, and my grandfather congratulated me on not having taken any risks. That sums up a lot of things about my childhood. I loved them both equally, but I have never chosen between irony and a punch to the face. I’m capable of doing both.

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2 thoughts on “Interview with Joann Sfar on The Rabbi’s Cat (2011)

    1. That was the first one of his I bought, I believe. I was tired of vampires when I read Vampire Loves, but I remember it being entertaining enough that I wanted to read more of his stuff. I remember struggling with his drawing style. It’s somehow aggressively ugly and charming and frenetic all at the same time. His debut novel came out last year and that’s about vampires, too, in 1917 in Odessa. He’s a big fan of the horror genre, if I remember correctly. Frankly, I’m just relieved his vampires don’t sparkle. But Rabbi’s Cat and Klezmer are still my favorites. Klezmer because it features one of the greatest quotes ever about storytelling, “The truth is so ugly it ought to be forbidden. I’m inventing you a story; it’s the most basic courtesy.”

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