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Alexandre Amiel was alarmed when his 11-year-old son asked the day after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket in Paris: “Why do they hate us?”
The veteran filmmaker’s answer is an unflinching exploration of racism in France at a time when the nationalist politics of presidential candidate Marine Le Pen have become part of the political mainstream, and racially-motivated attacks are on the rise.
“Why Do They Hate Us?” (“Pourquoi nous détestent-ils?”), which gets its US premiere on Sunday as part of the Colcoa festival of French film in Los Angeles, is a documentary with a difference.
Like a non-fiction version of Mathieu Kassovitz’s groundbreaking 1995 movie “La Haine,” Amiel’s three part documentary is told from his own perspective as a Jew but also through the eyes of a black man and Arab woman.
“We did three stories with people who are not especially victims of racism, but are going to take the audience by the hand and bring them a narration with two sides,” says Amiel, 43.
“First, it’s your own story and then it’s an investigation of what racism is today.”
Part one was made by Lucien Jean-Baptiste, whose comedy “La premiere etoile” (2009) was nominated for best first film at the Cesars, France’s equivalent of the Oscars.
The filmmaker, who has Caribbean roots, investigates how blacks are represented in French society with right wing radio host Henry de Lesquen, who wants to ban what he calls “negro music.”
– ‘Purge’ –
In part two, comedian Amelle Chahbi, who is of Moroccan descent, looks at the Maghrebian community in Paris to see if integration is working, and confronts a fascist at a march.
She asks the activist how he would keep Muslim numbers down and he replies, chillingly: “We need a president leading France who is a real nationalist, who will carry out a purge.”
In part three Amiel meets Jerome Bourbon, the publisher of anti-Semitic newspaper Rivarol, who asserts, matter-of-factly: “Before, when we were a Catholic country, we wouldn’t have had a Jew at the table.”
Amiel — a “cultural but not practicing Jew” and a highly-regarded former TV reporter — originally made “Why Do They Hate Us?” as a trilogy of television documentaries shown in France last year.
Clips of the filmmakers’ exchanges with extremists were viewed online nearly 20 million times, prompting their theatrical release as one two-hour movie.
France’s National Human Rights Commission, which produces an annual report on racism, found last year that attitudes to immigration have been softening since the dark days of the global financial crisis.
Half of French nationals claimed not to be remotely racist compared with 43 percent in 2014, while just eight percent believed that some races were superior to others.
But these surveyed attitudes fly in the face of a darker reality — that hate crimes against minorities are rocketing, up 22.4 percent in just one year to 2,034 incidents in 2015, with anti-Muslim hate crimes more than doubling.
– ‘Outsider’ –
Meanwhile French Jews, the largest community outside of the United States and Israel, have been fleeing at a steady pace since the mid-2000s.
Anti-Semitic hate acts actually fell slightly from 2014 to 2015, but Jews are still the target of more than 20 percent of France’s total incidents despite making up less than one percent of the population.
On Sunday it had emerged that pro-European centrist and self-proclaimed political “outsider” Emmanuel Macron would stand against the Front National’s Le Pen in a run-off for the French presidency, with the mainstream parties dealt a historic snub.
Macron, the favorite, is campaigning hard for the Jewish vote while Le Pen — who wants to eliminate dual citizenship for French Israelis — is hoping her open hostility to Muslims will help gloss over her toxic family history of anti-Semitism.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Macron is the candidate Amiel, a liberal on the left of the political spectrum, says he “dislikes the least.”
“Here, Trump was elected. In England, we didn’t believe that they would leave Europe and they did. Maybe we learned a little bit from what happened elsewhere, we showed that we can sometimes be more intelligent. It doesn’t happen often,” he told AFP in Los Angeles.
“We’ll see in two weeks but everything is in a good way. Trying to be optimistic doesn’t make you more clever but it makes you more happy I think.”
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Soon after the London duo soon to be known as Oh Wonder first recorded a song and posted it on SoundCloud three years ago, the pair emailed the music-sharing site. Something was surely wrong.
“Every other project we’ve been part of, it was texting all our friends and on Facebook saying, ‘Please come and listen to my new song!'” Oh Wonder’s Josephine Vander Gucht said about the group’s marketing at the time.
This time was different.
“We put the first Oh Wonder tune up anonymously on SoundCloud and within the first three days it was, like, 100,000 plays,” she told AFP, still delighted.
There had been no mistake — the music had found an unexpected global fan base. A new song followed every month, and now Oh Wonder enjoys more than 4.6 million monthly listeners on Spotify.
With a minimalist R&B sound built by piano and drum machines, Oh Wonder is defined by Vander Gucht and Anthony West singing in unison — her mellifluous, soul-tinged vocals subtly undergirded by his sturdy instrument.
“I think the sound of Oh Wonder is our two voices together… to strip everything else back and let those voices do the talking, as it were,” West said alongside Vander Gucht, the pair completing each other sentence’s much as if they were making music.
– New album and unexpected tour –
Oh Wonder — a name the duo chose on a whim — has embarked on extensive touring, showing visible joy on stage when throngs of fans sway in recognition of their songs.
The pair played the two weekends of Coachella, the premier festival that closed Sunday in the southern California desert, enjoying a key sunset slot.
“Our band was never conceived as a live project at all,” Vander Gucht said at the festival.
“So the fact that we have been pulled into this area of playing live is insane and the fact that we’re playing Coachella is even more mind-blowing for us.”
Now signed to the world’s largest record label group Universal, the band releases the album “Ultralife” on June 16. Although technically Oh Wonder’s second album, it feels like the first because the self-titled debut album was mostly a collection of earlier songs.
The title track to “Ultralife” reflects the duo’s evolution to a fuller band, joined by a bassist and drummer.
Seeking a fresh space to explore their sound, Vander Gucht and West wrote much of the album in an Airbnb-rented apartment in Brooklyn’s artist haven of Williamsburg after falling in love with New York.
“It’s a non-stop city,” West said. “London does sleep at night but New York doesn’t, so it gave us a good energy.”
– A global reach –
The album offered unexpected freedom for musicians accustomed to singles, Vander Gucht said.
“With an album you can say, oh no, I’ve got that ballad, I’ve got that disco-inspired tune, I won’t write another one,” she said.
“Even if you’re in the confined guidelines of the structure of an album, it can actually facilitate some more experimentation, I think,” she added.
The two first met when the classically trained Vander Gucht was playing a small gig at a London pub and West, a rock producer, fiddled with the lighting. It took them time to realize they had musical chemistry, a dynamic they still find eerie.
“It’s really weird when we write lyrics,” Vander Gucht said with a laugh. “We say the same thing. It’s a bit creepy, like Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant in the ‘Music and Lyrics’ Hollywood movie.”
The two credit their breakthrough to the rapid rise of streaming, which gives listeners instant access and makes it easy for fans to share with friends.
Vander Gucht said she is continually amazed by Oh Wonder’s global reach.
“We have people saying, ‘Please come to Jakarta.’ And I say, what? I’ve never even been to Indonesia!”
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