‘Oussekine’ cast: We hope to bring back this part of French history that is not being told enough

Malik Oussekine, the name resonates deeply among French minorities as a symbol of police brutality. Thirty-five years since the death of the 22-year-old French-Algerian on the sidelines of a student protest in Paris, director Antoine Chevrollier is bringing its story out of the dimly lit shadows that taint the otherwise romanticised image of the city of love.

With the backing of the Oussekine family, the new mini-series chronicles the weeks of unrest that followed Malik’s death, leading to the unprecedented conviction of the two police officers and marking the end of total police impunity.

Starring Sayyid El Alami, Tewfik Jallab, Naidra Ayadi, Mouna Soualem, Malek Lamraoui along with Hiam Abbass, the new series titled ‘Oussekine’ streaming on Disney+ Hotstar, is the first on-screen adaptation of the events of December 6, 1986. ETimes sat down for a candid chat with the stars of the series, as they spoke about the responsibility entrusted to them to tell the Oussekine family’s truth, bring a form of justice and shed light on the stories of French history, which are not told enough. Excerpts:

How did you prepare for your characters and what made this experience special for you on a personal level?

Mouna Soualem: We all heard of the story at some point in different ways. We’re also all not from the same generation. For my part, I heard about it, but obviously not as much as I know now. I know of this plack in the street where Malek died that reads ‘he died during demonstrations’. I knew this plack didn’t say the whole truth. But after reading the pilot (episode) and talking to Antoine, who was in contact with the family, their lawyers, and so many people who were active in this tragedy, I understood it more. I also had to do some personal research using the internet and see how the media portrayed this story. It helped me understand more how this family was used by the media for political reasons. That’s something I didn’t know before, that I know now.

Naidra Ayadi: I was very young when I heard the story of Malik’s death. I thought I was French, like my friend, but it was the first time that I felt that I was Arabic. I felt vulnerable. That was the first time that I thought I was French, but with a different origin.

Were you sceptical while taking up this project and the responsibility that came with it?

Tewfik Jallab: Our director, Antoine had exposed us to this story and he introduced us to the members of the family who are still alive. The main element for us as actors and actresses, to be a part of the miniseries was to have the permission of the family. That was the first step toward the progression of this series. If we didn’t have their permission, we wouldn’t do it.

Mouna: This series is the testimony of the Oussekine family. It was to give them the freedom to express their pain.

To answer your question about being reluctant about taking up this show, well, there was a lot of responsibility. When you take on something like this, there is a lot of responsibility, but it is shared by everyone from the actors, to our director and even the crew members. Something amazing that came out of this was the unity between us and we could feel it because we had the family with us and guided us through. We had a feeling about being validated and could now just go for it and defend this story. We could bring back to the memories of people, this part of French history that is not being told enough.

How was it working with your director Antoine, and how do you think he maintained the balance between sharing this family’s truth and also showing the world the darker side of French history?

Mouna: Losing a child or brother in these circumstances, it is universal. This pain is universal. A mother, when she loses a son, we can only try to under what she feels or could feel. So in that lies the success of this show.

Antoine was so good at uniting us. We really became a whole family. We can all share our personal experiences, but we could all feel the pain of losing a brother, losing a mother, losing a son, I feel like it united us a lot.

Such a project demands focus from everybody. Antoine works so much with details, he knows the roles, the context and the situation. To lift all that up with him was really amazing. It helped us uncover his sensibility as a director. It was such a pleasure working on this. There was also such an emotional charge, the scenes were very demanding and required a lot of focus and he saw it through with us.

You all seem like a fun bunch, but you all had some emotionally heavy scenes, what was the atmosphere like on set and who among you all lightened the mood on the sets?

Tewfik: Everyone!

Mouna: I think we all needed to laugh a lot.

Sayyid El Alami: When you play (a role in) a drama as intense as Oussekine, you need to laugh on the sets because it is the only moment we have to be and feel a little light. Because this story is so powerful and Antoine is so precise with what he wants. We had to hide from him at times in small rooms to make jokes amongst ourselves. It was like a game of cat and mouse. He kept a close watch on us, but it was really nice because it helped us when we had those really intense scenes that became very stressful at times.

With us playing brothers and sisters, it was important to crack some jokes between us, and laugh sometimes. So in the end, we laughed and we cried together.

The show touches upon so many important subjects, like immigrants, racism, terrorism and even conversion… what conversations do you hope this will start?

Sayyid: I hope that through this, we can bring a kind of justice. Remembering what happened, or knowing what happened back then and the things that are still happening today maybe that is the purpose of art. There is a lot you can see and learn from it.

‘Maintain our dignity’ is a line that stood out in the show. How did you all in the cast keep the dignity of the victim and his family through this series?

Sayyid: We all did a great job

Tewfik: You can’t get into a project like this without giving it its due respect. Antione told us we needed to give the family their respect because we stole their story back in the day and we couldn’t steal it again. It was impossible. We had to be aware and careful and respectful. I hope people will see that.

Mouna: Yeah! This was to bring back their story. There is also a line from the writer in her novel has one of the characters say, ‘When there is not much left, honour has its importance’. That’s something that helped drive us through.

Tewfik: I learned something – The justice of one, is the justice of all.

You are bringing a story from the 1980s, how do you think it is relevant today?

Sayyid: This show made me think of ‘When They See Us’ and ‘Detroit’. I hope it will resonate. I think I just want this show to resonate in the same way as these two films did because they tread along the same kind of subject.

Mouna: This is to put light onto stories that are not told enough, especially in the art space and even in France. As you said, this is not the kind of series you see coming out of France. We hope this way we can accept the darkness of our history and avoid it (again). Also to talk about it, because that is what art is about. To open the doors that are not generally opened by the media or politics.

Naidra: I know these sort of crimes exist and I hope that through art, we can give another answer and form of justice. We hope the story will resonate and there will be other stories of injustice, and where there is injustice, there will be violence.

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