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‘We tried to portray their humanity’

Étienne Comar, left, is pictured with actor Lambert Wilson, who plays Christian de Chergé, the prior of the monks of Tibhirine (Imagenet/AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

The discovery of the decapitated heads of seven French Trappist monks in Algeria in May 1996 shocked France and provoked a great outpouring of public emotion. Over 10,000 people gathered in Paris’s Place du Trocadéro to show their solidarity with the murdered monks.

Earlier that year, in March, the monks had been abducted from the Tibhirine monastery in the Atlas mountains by a group of 20 armed men. For many, their decapitation also marked the climax of Algeria’s civil war between Islamist rebel groups and the Algerian government. The monks’ bodies were never found, which raised questions about who had actually killed them, Was it the Armed Islamic Group, which had taken responsibility for their kidnapping, or was it a botched rescue attempt by the Algerian military?

As the discussion focused on the way in which the Trappists died, Étienne Comar saw another, more important story: why did the monks stay in the face of certain death? Comar is the writer of Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men), a film based around the story of the Tibhirine monks which has become a surprise success and is likely to be the French submission for the Academy Awards.

“I was already trying to write about it in 1996,” he says, “when it was still totally contemporary to see a coalition between the Muslim community and the Christian community. Before 2001, Christians and Muslims living together in communities was not a problem, but this changed. It was interesting to look this in light of Christian de Chergé’s spiritual testament. When the monks were killed, the event really shocked people.”

Until the Algerian civil war, the monks in Tibhirine coexisted peacefully with their Muslim neighbours. But things started changing. When some Croatian labourers were killed near the monastery, Fr Christian de Chergé, the prior of the community, sensing danger, composed a moving testament which was opened after the monks were killed. In it, he anticipated that he might be a victim of terrorism and forgave those who he sensed were about to kill him. He also warned readers against judging Algeria and Islam by the standards set by the Islamic fundamentalists. Fr de Chergé’s letter is read out and becomes the voiceover at the end of the film as the monks trudge through the snow in captivity.

Although Comar tried to write about these Algerian Trappists immediately after the events it took his father’s death, toying with the idea of leaving the industry and a sleepless night at the beginning of the Cannes Festival, 10 years later, for the project to begin in earnest. Flicking through channels on the television in his hotel room Comar, so the story goes, came across Emmanuel Audrain’s documentary The Testament of Tibhirine.

“In fact, in 2006, on the 10th anniversary of the monks’ deaths, there were many controversial works being produced about their execution,” he recalls. “There were also some books, the diaries of the monks and so on, there was Clerge’s letter, the documentary and other materials being made public, but somehow we in France were missing what was important. Not a lot was being said about their lives, but I felt the media coverage obliterated the real story about the monks, about their engagement on the ground.”

Comar adds: “The story of their lives was very important for the film. I thought, what is the hidden face of the iceberg? The drama here, before their execution, is so much more interesting. Why had they wanted to be in there in Algeria when it was dangerous for them?”

The film shows the life in Tibhirine in its simplicity. The monks till the fields and go about their work, mingling with their neighbours, giving them medical aid, personal advice and even offering them their sanctuary because the settlement near the monastery lacks a mosque. The universal prayer of the Church punctuates the scenes and the psalms function almost like a chorus throughout the film. Life grows darker as the situation in Algeria deteriorates. The villagers are frightened. So are the monks. Very little focus is put on their death. Rather, Comar and the film’s director, Xavier Beauvois (known as a bit of a maverick within the French film industry), focus on the months, days and hours leading up to the kidnapping. They look at the struggles each member of the community goes through before accepting the possibility of imminent death.

When Comar contacted Beauvois the director was interested but insisted that all the fictional parts which Comar had added be excised from the script. For the sake of authenticity – and this is one of the amazing aspects of the film, it gets community life so right – the two men got in touch with Henry Quinson, a former trader turned monk turned layman. He was to be the monastic adviser to the film and had known some of the Tibhirine monks, as well as having translated a significant book about them.

Comar says: “He [Quinson] was a young monk at the time of the execution, so he stayed during all the shooting so we could be sure to get all the details right. We wanted to be careful and make sure everything was true, like a documentary. Xavier Beauvois is very interested in working with a true realism, to get the atmosphere and the people right.”

Quinson led them through questions of Scripture and theology and once the actors had been cast they spent some time in Quinson’s former monastery, the Abbey of Tamie, living the monastic life.

During the casting for the film, Comar and Beauvois were looking for faces and characteristics which resembled those of the actual monks who had been killed. They wanted to use the precedent set by monastic life and use a lot of silence for the film, which meant it was important for the actors’ faces to bear some resemblance to those of the monks and they had to understand what the monks were going through, Comar explains. The emotions the monks were going through were simple, very deep but also human. Once chosen the actors were told to read the background materials about the characters.

The film’s success, spread by word of mouth, took its creators somewhat by surprise. Comar says he is not a commentator so finds it difficult to explain the film’s appeal, but he believes that people liked the cast and the atmosphere created by the slow rhythm of the film. He says that perhaps the values and the topics covered by the film are things that people wanted to hear now. In some ways the monks have chosen a life which is the reverse of contemporary society, involving the gift of self and the possibility of fraternity. For many in France, he says, the monks’ peaceful and friendly coexistence with the Muslim community was also part of the appeal, that people could see dialogue between the two religions was possible.

Des hommes et des dieux gives a far more sympathetic treatment of religious life and the Church than most people are used to, without being saccharine. Was that intentional?

“It is sympathetic to their humanity, which is more important than the question of faith,” Comar says. “We tried to portray their humanity, their doubts. The monks are real people who are doubting their position in a way that everyone can understand because they are in a dangerous situation.”

He explains that the situation evokes emotions that anyone can be sympathetic to, but that it could just as well have been set in a Tibetan monastery with all the problems that Buddhist monks face there.

“Everybody can understand the dilemma and the problems they are facing,” he says. “They are not being presented with the life of a saint, which is inaccessible to many people.”

Des hommes et des dieux is now on general release