Following in a long tradition of French films about labor-related protests, Rémi Allier’s “Little Hands” begins in a chemical plant where tensions are boiling over upon hearing the news of its imminent closure. But as the plot unfolds, the focus shifts towards a young baby, who is kidnapped by one of the aggrieved workers. Using an intense handheld shooting style, “Little Hands” presents a unique and ultimately poignant perspective. With the film recently being shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film, I caught up with Allier to discuss its social context and his “magical” experience of directing a baby. Below is an edited version of our chat.
Shane Slater: French cinema has a long history of films about labor struggles and worker protests. What made you want to tell this story from a child’s perspective?
Rémi Allier: I think the issues of social crises and violence are very important. And I think that trying to address that through a child’s perspective was a way to bring new light to the subject and to bring curiousity.
SS: Where you always clear about how much of that social context you wanted to show?
RA: To me, the subject wasn’t actually what was at stake in the factory. The subject is more about the way the baby perceives it. So my point was to make things blurry. Here in France or in Europe we are really familiar with the subject. As soon as we see some workers and managers and we understand the factory is about to close, we understand the situation. We don’t need any more context really. So the idea was to try to make the audience understand things the way the baby would understand them. He just sees people angry with each other, shouting and fighting. And he’s worried about that because he sees his parents in a bad situation. But that’s the only context we get.
SS: Have you noticed contrasting responses to the motivation behind the kidnapping throughout the world?
RA: Yeah, when I presented the film in Telluride, the way the audience reacted there was completely different to the audiences in Europe. When I was in Telluride, people were only talking about the emotions, the relationships and the fear and anger. While in Europe, people talk a lot more about the social context because they bring their own point of view and ideas. And the discussion always turns political, especially in the context of the yellow vest protests. People really made a lot of links between the film and the social crisis and struggles in France. It’s really interesting to see and it makes the discussions very rich, as we compare our points of view.
SS: Working with young children can be so unpredictable. What was the most surprising thing about your experience?
RA: The most surprising thing was that it was kind of easy in the end. People tend to say the one thing you shouldn’t do in film is work with babies and it’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for my whole life as a filmmaker. I started studying filmmaking about 11 years ago and the first day I said I want to film babies and the teachers made fun of me, saying I shouldn’t do it and would never do it. I’m a bit stubborn, so I kept exploring that. And it’s been really easy for me because I was so prepared and so aware of the things I would have to deal with.
We had an amazing baby, Emile, who was just so great to work with. And we had also had a body double to get some different shots. Then we had a rag doll, so we could do violent scenes with the rag doll. And we were surrounded by friends because it was a really close team. The parents of the baby are the props guy and the costume designer.
So we built up a lot of trust and protection around the baby. We knew we would never put any pressure or danger on the baby, so we could explore what we needed to explore. And we could build the images we needed in order to make the audience to feel like there was violence and stress on the screen, while in reality he was just having fun and sometimes he was crying because it was nap time or he was hungry. But we filmed it to make the audience believe it was out of fear.
There was a magical moment when he was eating the berries in the forest. In that scene, it looked like he was a professional actor. We did two takes of 25 minutes each and I was talking to him to give him directions. And whatever I was saying, he was doing it. And he did that twice in two different takes and camera positions. So it was just like working with a professional actor. It really was magic.
SS: How did you approach casting Jan Hammenecker and creating the chemistry with Emile?
RA: Jan Hammenecker is quite a famous actor back in Belgium, where I live. So I met him in 2012 while I was casting for an exercise for school. So we worked together during my school years and then I thought about him a lot when I was writing, so I sent him the script and he read and said yes. He wanted to explore that challenge of working with such a young baby.
Then we had to build a method to create what we needed, because there is a lot of complex action and violence in the film. So yes, we had to create really strong chemistry and a bond so that they could get along. We met with Emile and his parents two months before shooting and he spent a lot of time playing. Just hanging out, drawing and having fun. And we discussed how to get a link of trust so that Emile would be able to go into Jan’s arms and do whatever he wants with no fear at all. Once we had that relationship, we could do whatever we needed, because then he could just jump in his arms and play helicopter in the forest. Emile was just having fun and then filmed and pretend it was violence.
Jan was very impressive, because he was acting on two different levels. He was acting his character, who is violent and dangerous. And at the same time, he was playing with the kid and reassuring him.
SS: What can audiences expect from you as you progress to feature filmmaking?
RA: Actually, I’m writing my debut feature. So I’m kind of exploring the same topic – the violence of adult’s world through the point of view of children. I’m writing a drama about a young girl who is facing the end of the world as we know it. So I’m exploring it through the eyes of a young girl who is shocked and transformed by that. I think it’s a beautiful way to explore the darkest parts of humanity, because seeing it through the point of view of children always brings light. They have that power to re-enchant the world. That’s why I think the way children perceive the world is very interesting and very beautiful.