Les Heritiers An Overlooked Box Office Success Offers Hope Amid Post-Attack Tensions
“Once In a Lifetime” (Les Héritiers), a rather overlooked feel-good film released a month before the deadly assaults on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, is pulling crowds of film fans across small town France, with a message of hope for today’s “multicommunautaire, multiconfessionnelle” society.
Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s film which opened in France on December 3 last year, has so far “grossed over USD 3 million and pulled off a delicate balancing act between the emotions stirred by the atrocities of the Holocaust and those of the students living in a world full of confusing religious and cultural constraints”, according to Variety magazine.
The Observatoire de Satisfaction says 430,000 tickets for the film had been sold across France by January 12, just days after 17 people died in 72 hours of terrorist outrage in Paris which saw leading left-wing cartoonists, journalists, police officers , shoppers and a building supervisor slain and 22 others injured. Among those murdered were Jews, Muslims, Catholics and those of no faith. The three presumed Islamist terrorists behind the atrocity died during shootouts with security forces bringing the two separate siege events to an end.
The film was inspired by a true account of a dedicated teacher’s efforts at a Paris school whose students are drawn from a wide range of religious, cultural and language backgrounds and difficult social circumstances. The tale, filmed against the raucous organised chaos of a modern urban classroom, shows how the pupils nevertheless succeed, against all expectations, to win a national competition for the best history project about the Holocaust.
Les Héritiers tells how the teacher, played in the film by the Ariane Ascaride, challenges her under-performing lower-stream class at Lycée Léon Blum de Créteil, a Paris suburb, to enter the history contest.
The students all from turbulent and troubled mixed community neighbourhoods, and widely considered to be beyond educational redemption, form a team for a common project that changes them forever. Les Héritiers is a true story inspired by one of the high school students whose account of the event convinced producer Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar to make the film.
One day, she told Europe 1, she received an email from Ahmed Dramé, a high school student, who asked her to review a film script he attached. While the plot was “a little cliche-ridden” the director said she was set to wondering “why a boy of his age, still in high school, would write such a positive story about his school”. She set off to meet him and learnt that in 2008-2009 Ahmed Dramé had had a very special experience at his school. “His life and that of all his fellow classmates was totally transformed after they won the national competition based on the theme, “the Resistance and Deportation,” she said.
“I think these students realised that whatever their differences, their origins, religions or ideas, they could, by bringing all of these attributes together, create a great common value,” she said.
The film is firmly focused on how “people make their own destiny.” It shows in a subtly fascinating way, the transformation that occurs for a group of socially-disadvantaged adolescents, and particularly for Malik, who in the film is played by Ahmed Dramé himself, who also worked with the producer in writing the script.
In an extraordinary testament to what inspired teaching can do, Ahmed Dramé, is now an actor and a screenwriter. He has just been nominated for the ‘Revelations’ category in the 2015 César Award (France’s top national film award), an achievement which just six years ago, few ever dreamed would be possible.
The film has been overwhelmingly praised on social platforms like Twitter (hashtag #LesHeritiers) and offers a ray of hope at a time when media reports suggest some schools in troubled areas may be failing to socialise difficult pupils. This followed reports from teachers in a number of socially-deprived suburbs surrounding Paris that students, among them many Muslims, had refused to observe a one-minute silence ordered by the Education Department, in memory of those who died in the terror attack.
The government has been quick to insist there should be no confusion between Muslims and the Islamists blamed for the Paris shooting atrocities but the official line has so far failed to convince parts of the country where there are fears about further attacks and indiscriminate retributions.
The level of official concern about the tensions over Islamist terror (a political perversion of the religious teaching) and the religion of Islam practiced by a large proportion of France’s estimated 6 million Muslims, was clearly reflected in recent remarks by Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls.
He told Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic magazine: “It is very important to make clear to people that Islam has nothing to do with ISIS,” Valls told me. “There is a prejudice in society about this, but on the other hand, I refuse to use this term ‘Islamophobia,’ because those who use this word are trying to invalidate any criticism at all of Islamist ideology. The charge of ‘Islamophobia’ is used to silence people.
“Valls was not denying the existence of anti-Muslim sentiment, which is strong across much of France. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, miscreants have shot at Muslim community buildings, and various repulsive threats against individual Muslims have been cataloged. President Francois Hollande, who said Thursday that Muslims are the ‘first victims of fanaticism, fundamentalism, intolerance,’ might be overstating the primacy of anti-Muslim prejudice in the current hierarchy of French bigotries—after all, Hollande just found it necessary to deploy his army to defend Jewish schools from Muslim terrorists, not Muslim schools from Jewish terrorists—but anti-Muslim bigotry is a salient and seemingly permanent feature of life in France (…)
“It appears as if Valls came to his view on the illegitimacy of ‘Islamophobia’ after being influenced by a number of people, including and especially the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner and the writer (and fatwa target) Salman Rushdie. Rushdie, along with a group of mainly Muslim writers, attacked the use of the term ‘Islamophobia’ several years ago in an open letter (…)”
French film critics were lavish in their praise especially as the film has had to compete with another huge box office success, the top-ranked Christmas release: La Famille Bélier.
The film critic of the 20 Mins newspaper called it an “intelligent feel good movie (…) “Les Héritiers” (…) démontre qu’on peut faire un feel good movie intelligent. Total respect !”; while Journal de Dimanche said: “Les Héritiers” is a beautiful, true story, emotional, educational, inspiring, driven by its actors and director, who take us along with them from the very first minutes.
Leftwing magazine Le Nouvel Observateur called it a magnificent portrait gallery (…) le film est (…) une magnifique galerie de portraits. ; and Le Monde, a little less generously, accused it of being full of clichés while conceding Ariane Ascaride, gave a magnificent portrayal of the role of teachers (in today’s environment).
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Read Arun Kapil’s account of the film and its socio-economic context here: “…A notable feature of Créteil’s multi-ethnic demography is its Jewish community, which numbers some 20,000—mainly of Tunisian and Moroccan origin—and with some 15 synagogues, making it one of the largest in the Île-de-France. The different ethno-confessional populations have lived in bonne entente since the immigration waves began in the 1950s, though there have been incidents in recent years, the worst being the antisemitic crime this past December 1st, committed by three lumpen immigrant-origin youths (two African, one Maghrebi) and that happened in the area just behind the Lycée Léon Blum…”
Story: Ken Pottinger