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Aude Léa Rapin on her film ‘Heroes Don’t Die’: “To live better, people need to believe in something”

The idea of reincarnation is one we all toy with at some point of our lives. Maybe it's sparked by a person we meet who seems eerily familiar to us, or perhaps a place we visit where we feel so simply at home, like we've lived there before. Whatever it may be, none of us know how it all will turn out anyway. So French filmmaker Aude Léa Rapin finds her own purpose and explanation in the story of her latest film 'Heroes Don't Die' which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

A still from 'Heroes Don't Die' featuring  Adèle Haenel and Jonathan Couzinié
A still from 'Heroes Don't Die' featuring Adèle Haenel and Jonathan Couzinié

‘Heroes Don’t Die’ gives a whole new meaning to the idea of a road trip to find ourselves. It revolutionizes the concept and turns it upside down. Imagine, three friends embarking on a journey to discover the history and life of a man one of them thinks he has reincarnated as upon birth. From Paris to Bosnia, two women and one man set out to discover his past — his previous life past that is!

So, now that I’ve got your attention, lets talk about this wonderful film which premiered in Cannes in their sidebar Critics’ Week this May. Aude Léa Rapin is one of the most vibrant filmmakers today, one to watch and she just happens to be an exceptional woman. How’s that for perfect.

The synopsis of ‘Heroes Don’t Die’ reads simply enough, on the Critics’ Week site:

“On a street in Paris, a stranger thinks he’s recognized in Joachim a soldier who died in Bosnia on 21st August 1983. Thing is, this is the very day Joachim was born: 21st August 1983! Thrown by the idea he might be the reincarnation of this man, he decides to go to Sarajevo with his friends Alice and Virginie. In this country, haunted by shadows of the war, they put their hearts and souls in discovering Joachim’s past life.”

Yet the film, for me, went even deeper than the actual plot. It reignited within me questions I’ve always pondered about reincarnation and I knew I couldn’t wait to sit down with the filmmaker herself, to ask a few questions that — like her film — veered a bit off the beaten path.

Following is the resulting interview, from a beach in Cannes, with the wind blowing softly into the microphone of my recording device, adding another layer to the questions and answers shared between Rapin and me.

This idea of reincarnation is quite cool but also that it would happen on a very specific day, which is central to your story. Where did the inspiration come from?

Aude Léa Rapin: It started in real life. I met a beggar on the streets of Paris and he had found an original way to make money. Everyone that was passing by he would tell them names that weren’t theirs. And lives that weren’t theirs. I stopped and looked at him. I was on the opposite side of the street and was just watching how he was trying to get people to stop for more than two seconds. I went back home and thought, what if I start a story with someone believing in that guy? A story that guy is telling my character. That’s how the reincarnation idea came about. Also, I really wanted to got to Bosnia Herzegovina, it’s a place for me that haunted my childhood. I was seven when the war started in Bosnia and I got this souvenir [remembrance] from memories, from daily news my parents watched when I was a child. I would wait every night to see what was happening. I imagine children do that with Syria at the moment. Or a few years ago for Baghdad. For me it was Sarajevo. 

To see Sarajevo today, a place haunted by the dead people from the war. I thought that was a good background for a story like that.

Filmmaker Aude Léa Rapin

Why do you think we as human beings like to believe in reincarnation, what is the pull?

Rapin: I don’t know if as human beings we are really designed to think about death as a dead end. That there is really nothing after death. To live better people need to believe in something so if you don’t believe in God, which is my case for example, I need to believe in something. And I don’t know if I believe in reincarnation, I’m not sure if it’s true, or if I’ve already reincarnated several times. I don’t know if I feel like that, but it makes me feel better to think that it could be. And it could be also for the people I love. 

At the beginning of the project, I really wanted to face the vertigo of our own death, that we are not supposed to live forever which is vertigo for me, when I start thinking about that. This film made me feel better about the whole idea about dying. 

We often have this feeling that we’ve been somewhere before, even if we never visited the place in this life. It’s happened to me in cities where I’d never been before, to walk around like I knew the secret streets and alleys. 

Rapin: Yeah, like why do we feel familiar with somebody and not familiar at all with somebody else, or even hate someone at first sight? I have no idea but I do know it’s happening to you, it’s happening to me, you know. And I like the idea that sometimes when you start a love relationship maybe we’ve been knowing each other from another life. Which is a really cool, magic thought.

Do you believe in magic?

Rapin: I do believe in magic! And I don’t think we are designed to approach life only with our eyes and ears. There are so many other things going on, things we cannot explain and I don’t want to rationalize things, I like it when things seem magical. Maybe they are not but I like to think they are. It’s a way of living things, it makes life much happier and better. That’s probably why I always struggle getting on with people loving science for example. Because they have to explain everything and it’s not that I don’t want to explain things but it makes me depressed that everything can explained.

Cinema for me has that attraction. I mean, proper critics will tear apart a film very scientifically, but I go to watch a movie with my heart, as well as my eyes. 

Rapin: Thank you for that. 

It’s just easier for me, because I don’t know how to explain everything I feel inside a movie theater, and I think there is something beautiful in the unexplainable aspect of a film. Like your film to me, I wrote very little down while watching it, but I carry a lot of it here, in my heart.

And now a very mundane question, how did you find your trio of actors?

Rapin: Two of them are really good friends. I’ve been working with them in the past in my short film. And Adèle [Haenel] was someone I really wanted to work with, we had met several times and were getting on well and I had this feeling that she could be this person. Her character in the film is really close to who I am, and we have a similar approach to life, I had this feeling and the film tells me in the end that I wasn’t wrong. That it was a good intuition. 

I didn’t look at press notes for the film, and there was a part of me that thought it was you in that role — the filmmaker acting in the film. 

Rapin: It’s cool although in France she’s too famous now to create that illusion. But it is exactly the aim, so you got it right.

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