Go West: David Oelhoffen takes to Algeria for his humanistic Western ‘Far from Men’
The Western is often thought of as a uniquely American genre. No matter that one of the world’s most famous Westerns, The Magnificent Seven, is based on a Japanese film—mentioning the genre tends to bring up images of tumbleweeds, Manifest Destiny, sharpshooters with Southern drawls and a rugged John Wayne riding through a dusty town square embodying the platonic ideal of what it means to be a man in the good ol’ U S of A.
This Friday, May 1st, sees the limited release from Tribeca Film of a Western that very much subverts those genre expectations: Far from Men, the third feature from French director David Oelhoffen. Based on Albert Camus’ short story “The Guest,” it tells the story of a schoolteacher, Daru (Viggo Mortensen), tasked with escorting a criminal, Mohamed (Reda Kateb), to the nearby town of Tinguit, where he will be tried and almost certainly executed for the murder of his cousin. All this takes place against a backdrop of political unrest that shortly after the film takes place would erupt as the Algerian War of the ‘50s and ‘60s, at the end of which Algeria would win independence from its one-time colonial ruler, France.
I had the chance to speak with Oelhoffen at this month’s Tribeca Film Festival, where Far from Men made a pit stop after debuting at the Venice Film Festival last year. Though not set in America, Oelhoffen sees his film very much as a traditional Western, at least in terms of form. Specifically, he cites the “humanist Westerns” of Anthony Mann (Winchester ’73, The Man from Laramie) as a key influence. Camus’ original story, though a scant 12 pages long and missing the journey of the two men that makes up the bulk of Oelhoffen’s script, has “elements of the Western,” the writer/director explains. “The prisoner to be escorted is an element of classic Westerns. Big and rough landscapes. The little school” in the middle of the desert.
Where Far from Men diverges from the norm is that, says Oelhoffen, “the myth behind this film is not an American myth—about the conquest of the West, for instance. It’s about French universalism.” Just as Mann showed the “contradictions” inherent in the myth of taming the Old West, so too does Oelhoffen seek to do the same with his own country’s colonial history. “The French schoolteacher [Daru] brings civilization and universalism [through his school],” he explains, teaching young Algerians about French rivers that they’ll never see instead of educating them about their own country. “It’s what France and Europe were supposed to do in Africa: bring civilization. And the film, I think, shows how this myth has been perverted and turned against the population.”
It’s a tall order, but one that Oelhoffen achieves through his portrayal of the shifting relationship between Daru and Mohamed. Though they initially seem very different, as the film progresses they—and the audience—begin to realize how similar they really are. By the end of the film, they’ve transcended their cultural barriers and achieved mutual respect. That wasn’t in Camus’ original story, in which Mohamed doesn’t have a backstory or even a name, though Oelhoffen read extensively from the author’s other writings to keep Far from Men consistent with Camus’ “sprit and what he was,” if not “The Guest”’s exact text. The character of Daru also underwent a makeover: “In the short story by Camus, he’s a Frenchman. He has a very clear identity. And in the script he’s from Spain, of Spanish descent. He’s not completely French. He has a quite complex identity. He’s an outsider, the same as Mohamed.”
That outsider status is part of what made Viggo Mortensen Oelhoffen’s number one choice to play Daru. (Only after, of course, he learned that Mortensen speaks French, which he does throughout the film, along with Spanish and Arabic.) Says Oelhoffen , Mortensen “brings this Western atmosphere, because he’s done a lot of Western-like films. Also, his identity is very complex—you don’t know if he’s Canadian or Danish or Spanish. [And] Daru’s main problem is not belonging to any community. And I think Viggo”—whose eclectic career has spanned indies like A History of Violence and The Road, foreign films like Captain Alatriste: The Spanish Musketeer and Hollywood blockbusters like the Lord of the Rings trilogy—“doesn’t belong to any [filmmaking] community. He’s everywhere and nowhere, the same as Daru.”
“Thanks to his journey with Mohamed, [Daru] realizes a lot of things about himself,” Oelhoffen continues. “He realizes he’s part of an unfair system. He realizes that he’s not Algerian, as he thought. He realizes that he’s not French, as he thought… It’s not a story about a white man helping an Algerian man. It’s about them helping each other, which was a very important thing for me.” Here, we glimpse a theme that Oelhoffen kept coming back to during our conversation: One of fraternity, of brotherhood, of not letting prejudice and cultural differences get in the way of a mutual understanding. “My goal was to show how difficult it is to achieve fraternity, real fraternity, in a chaotic world… It’s very complicated, it’s very tough, but it’s necessary. It’s the only way to move forward. It’s very difficult to achieve, and when you achieve it, when you reach it, it’s very fragile and you have to watch it very carefully, because it’s something that’s like a house of cards. It can collapse at any moment. These two characters achieve fraternity, brotherhood, between the two of them. And it’s important, even if it’s only two people. It’s a good start.”