Directors’ Fortnight opened this year with a tribute to Martin Scorsese, whose breakout movie Mean Streets graced the sidebar way back in 1973. Down the road at Critics’ Week, however, some equally mean, and more modern, streets were found a little closer to home in the first film by former acting teacher and acclaimed shorts director Jean-Bernard Marlin. Set in Marseilles, Shéhérezade tells the story of 17-year-old Zachary (Dylan Robert), who leaves an institute for young offenders and find himself lured into a world of petty crime, where he begins pimping for prostitute Shéhérezade, AKA Shera (Kenza Fortas).
Speaking at the Deadline studio in Cannes, Marlin recalled the inspiration for the story. “I grew up in Marseilles,” he said, “and I heard a story that took place in a certain neighborhood of the city about a young boy who was working as a pimp and a girl who was working as a prostitute. I really wanted to write this story because it was a subject that was of great interest to me.”
In order to gather information, Marlin and his team spent many hours with prostitutes in the city, listening to their stories and observing their behavior. Casting was an equally onerous task. “We did eight months in the street,” Marlin recalled, “doing a casting session if you like. We went into the streets. We saw people there and we just simply grabbed them and said, ‘Come on, come on, do a casting for us.’ We also took people that had just left foster homes and prisons. For example, the actor who plays Zachary, he’d just left a young offender’s Institution two weeks before. When we see him leave prison at the beginning of the film, it’s actually the same prison that he’d been in, which was amusing. We also tried to take actors who had or who already had the same roles as the characters in my film. I thought it was really important to have real language, real gestures, real attitudes, behavior—even their bodies needed to be real.”
After working with a small crew in real locations, Marlin describes the finished film as more “like a documentary” than a fictional film. Luckily, his cast was on hand at the film’s premiere to assure the audience that it wasn’t, and Marlin’s first-timers were stunned by the voluble applause the film received. “Their reaction was really incredible,” he said. “They were very touched by [seeing the film] and by seeing the reaction of the audience. Some of them even cried. I was very touched to see that. I felt like I had really accomplished something.”
To view Deadline’s Cannes conversation with the Shéhérezade director, click above.