When I speak with director David Dusa he is still chuffed that the audience stayed in their seats at the Tribeca Film Festival screening of his debut feature, Flowers of Evil. Nobody left before the question and answer session. “It has never happened before!” he tells me, as if trying to convince himself.
It is rare that an audience remains seated when the lights come on and it's an overwhelming response to the freshness of the French production. Flowers of Evil is a love affair between two young adults: Gecko, an Algerian-French hotel bellhop and parkour-style dancer; and Anahita, an Iranian student exiled from her country after the presidential elections in 2009. Theirs is an unlikely pairing. Gecko, played by non-actor Rachid Youcef, is uninhibited. Images of him dancing in the open, urban spaces of Paris abound and his physicality is luminous, offering a kinetic energy to the frame. When we meet the guarded Anahita (played by theatre actress Alice Belaidi in her first screen role), she is struck by Gecko's dancing.
“The way he occupies the public space—he's the king of his domain,” Dusa (pictured) explains. “He's free. As [Anahita] says in the film, 'In Iran you have a double life, inside and outside, so to do those things in the street is a potent symbol of freedom.'”
Anahita's lifeline is social media. It allows her to connect with her community at home. Dusa uses YouTube footage filmed in Iran during 2009 and splices it into his own fictional narrative. He also overlays Twitter text to create the sense of immediacy of Anahita's cyber-world. Hers is a life that exists beyond the physical borders of Paris. It is the only world that she is truly connected with, despite her blossoming love affair with Gecko.
As an onlooker, Dusa observed the Iranian responses to the 2009 elections from his home in Europe. He was both interested in the geopolitics of the region as well as in Persian culture itself. “When the demonstrations began and people started to use social networks to get images to us and to organise the revolution, I was completely amazed,” he says. “I never understood the power that social media could have. I started collecting these videos, not knowing what I wanted to do with them.”
At the same time, Dusa was developing a friendship with Rachid. “I spent a lot of time with him. Maybe once a week we met. Slowly, he opened up. In many ways the character of Gecko is very close to him. Like Gecko, Rachid is an orphan. His apartment in the film is where he lives in real life, right on the highway. When I met him, he was working as a bellhop in a luxury hotel. I think the film was born in the meeting place between the YouTube videos and Rashid.”
It was central to Dusa's working methodology that the found images became personal to a foreign audience. “The reason we started writing a fictional story around this documentary footage was to make the images intimate to us,” he says. “You need the carefree love story, two beautiful young people meeting and enjoying each other, so that these images can have a deeper impact.”
Dusa and his team utilised footage from over 50 sources. He deliberated over using the video footage and made his selection under advisement, contacting those who posted the footage when possible. “It's a complicated task,” Dusa admits. “Many of these people are in hiding. They don't want police to know that they participated in the demonstrations. Also, the people who uploaded these videos are not necessarily the same people who made them. Some of these videos were smuggled out of Iran and uploaded from America, Canada and Europe.” The production did not use footage that was copyrighted but used non-attributed material liberally. “We made the decision that as long as we stayed true to the initial intentions of the videos, which was to make people aware of what was going on in Iran, and portray what the demonstrations were all about, then we just downloaded the images and used them.
“The Iranian footage is filmed by 50 different people and is basically 50 different points of view,” says the director. “It's completely eclectic. What we tried to emulate in the shooting of the fictional footage, was to also use different styles, as if it was also shot by different people. It was the only way to incorporate the documentary images. The lack of homogeneity in the film is actually what makes it homogeneous.”