Stéphane Kazandjian

Stéphane Kazandjian: From ‘Sexy Boys’ to Potential Armenian Projects

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By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN/PARIS — Last October French-Armenian filmmaker and scriptwriter Stéphane Kazandjian visited Armenia for the first time as a jury member of ReAnimania Yerevan International Animation film festival, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. This interview with Kazandjian discusses his films as well as his Armenian background.

Stéphane, I first learned about you in 2002 due to your first feature film, “Sexy Boys.” Frankly, comedies about youth are not my piece of cake, but the director’s -ian led me to watch it. And if I am not mistaken, the main character’s family name also has an -ian. Is the film somehow autobiographical?

The main character’s name is indeed Sebastien Kibarian — Kibarian being my grandmother’s maiden name. The film was never intended to be about an Armenian family, but as I was looking for my character’s family name, I thought it might be something meaningful to me too.

Strange as it may seem, “Sexy Boys” is actually quite autobiographical. This is my group of college friends — that I still meet with — and those are the kind of issues we dealt with, as I guess most young adults do. What interested me in this film was to deal with the idea of masculinity. It is a very tricky question when you are in your late teens / early twenties — even later, I am afraid. American teen movies usually deal with the question of “being an outsider/being popular,” but rarely with guys totally lost about the idea “what does it mean to be a man?” Who is the “real” man? The sex god with multiple partners? The quiet family guy? The romantic sensitive friend?

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There is an opinion that very few art professionals of Armenian origin, including filmmakers, deal with comedy, being more inclined to serious, even depressive matters. But your “Modern Love,” followed by “Sexy Boys,” as well as your last feature from last year, “Bad Buzz,” are light comedies as well.

When I got started, I had two screenplays — one comedy (that would later turn into “Sexy Boys”), and one drama. The comedy got made first. And that was it. More seriously, I would love to do drama if this is the right approach for the story I want to tell. But I guess I have a tendency to always try to find what is funny about situations, even depressing ones. It is not a philosophical pose; it is just who I am. For instance, one thing I hate is power. Power over others because you are rich, because you were born in the right family, because you know the right persons… Ridiculing the oppressor is much more effective than just moaning about how unfair life is. When you laugh at people, you stop being afraid of them, just see them as faulty human beings. And it is true also when you laugh at your own faults: Okay, I know, I’m ridiculous, maybe I do not have to pretend to be better than I really am. That is truly liberating. And to me that is the power of comedy.

In your filmography there is also another type of comedy, this time a mockumentary with a serious message, “Moi, Michel G., milliardaire, maître du monde” [Me, Michel G., Billionaire, King of the World]. After talking on human sexuality, gay and sport issues you suddenly were engaged in the world of capitalism. How this sharp transition happened?

A long, long time ago, I graduated from business school. It was a way to reassure myself and my parents that in case my dreams of a career in the film trade collapsed, I would still have a Plan B. Of course, such a background is not something you brag about when you are trying to establish yourself as a creative force. But at some point, I just felt this was also part of who I was. Besides, at that time, we had experienced the 2008 economic crash and my anger at the supposedly “all-knowing, powerful masters of the world” who had led us the brim of collapse was quite strong. So I thought it would be a good idea to try to do something about it. “Modern Love” had been a difficult film to shoot, it suffered from a way-too-low budget compared to its ambitions. I wanted to do something fast, with a very small crew. And hence the idea of “King of the World” came.

You are in Armenia for the first time due to an animation film festival. Do you have any direct links with animation?

Even though I have directed four feature films, my main activity is scriptwriting. In that capacity, I have written two animations feature films: “A Monster in Paris” (starring Vanessa Paradis) and “Sahara” (starring Omar Sy and Jean Dujardin).

Do you believe that your Armenian heritage can be somehow reflected in your films? If yes, so how?

I would not really know. I guess I do have the “Armenian director’s depressed gene” if you consider that in three of my films, there is a death in the family and a cemetery scene. More seriously, I do not know what my Armenian heritage is. One thing that surprised me with that first visit to Yerevan for the Re-Animania festival was how “at home” I felt there. I do not speak Armenian, do not understand it, but still there was a strange feeling of familiarity, of belonging there. Let’s talk again about that in ten years when I’ve completed my therapy!

Please tell us about your Armenian roots and connections.

My Armenian heritage comes from my father’s side — my mom is French. My grandparents survived the genocide as kids and as often the case, after a long travel, being separated, they finally got together in France where part of the family was already established — my great-grand-father was the first archbishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Paris. I grew in a French environment, with touches of Armenian culture — going to the church with my father, eating the great Armenian dishes my grandmother would cook. I tried to mingle with Armenian youth when I was a young adult but I must say I felt out of place. I am in and out of the community, really. Sometimes it feels awkward. But it can also be a great observation point.

Usually people like you after their first visit think about an Armenia-related project. Are you an exception?

I have about a dozen “Armenian projects” in my computer files. Some are about the genocide, some about the French-Armenian community, some are historical dramas, others comedies. I have been trying to find for years for the right angle to do a film that resonates with who I am and be meaningful not only to the Armenian community but to the whole world as well. I have not found it so far, but getting a feeling of Armenia opens new possibilities. So we will see.

The motto of your first feature hero is: “Live with sex!” What is your life motto?

Wow, that is a big one. I am not sure, I never really thought about it. Some days it could be “try your best,” since life has taught me that success is quite a relative notion, so it is better to concentrate on one’s efforts rather than the end result. Some other times, it could be as simple as “be nice,” not “stupidly-naïve” nice, but just respect others, try not to judge them, be compassionate (even with yourself). There is so much violence and negativity in this world that just a little basic “niceness” can really save the day. I’d rather have people remember me as an okay writer-director who was a good person rather than a genius who was a total A-hole. That said, I am not a genius, so