This personal reflection is part of a series called Turning Points, in which writers explore what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead. You can read more by visiting the Turning Points series page.
Turning Point: In March, “CODA” became the first film featuring a predominantly deaf cast to win the Academy Award for best picture, a significant moment for representation onscreen.
To react, to respond. To commit, to choose a side. To be for, to work against. The injunction is almost permanent, as if it were always necessary to have a point of view, a political opinion.
But what if dreaming were another way of thinking about the world? What if telling stories meant remaking that world? And what if making films could stealthily change it?
I am often asked what “political approach” drives me — what message did I wish to convey by choosing to make this film or another. The question always bothers me, because I never ask myself that. I just make movies.
For these films, I turn to the lives and worlds that animate me, that I want to show, that make sense for the person I am: a Frenchman of Senegalese-Mauritanian origin; a Muslim who grew up in a working-class neighborhood; a man who now spends half of his time in the United States and whose children have homes on three continents.
I trace that cinematic journey back to my role as the unlikely caregiver Driss in the 2011 film “The Intouchables,” a character whose popularity carried me to other roles. I’ve portrayed the thief Assane Diop in the series “Lupin,” the eponymous clown in the film “Chocolat,” the Senegalese immigrant Samba Cissé in the comedy-drama “Samba,” and the father and infantryman Bakary in the historical drama “Father and Soldier.”
I inhabited these characters because they share a quality that resonates deeply within me: They represent invisible people whom we discover have a name, a filiation and a story. People who exist and whose lives matter and deserve to be told.
Through Bakary, I recounted destinies thrown into oblivion: African infantrymen who, during World War I, fought for France with bravery and died in a war that was not theirs to fight.
Through Assane, I told the story of a Senegalese immigrant who was raised in France, yet remained in society’s fringes.
Whether they’re the product of history or make-believe, these characters manifest a crucial reality: Individuals like Assane and Bakary are all around us, but oftentimes we do not see them.
Moviemaking is just that: inventing people and opening up possibilities. It connects the imaginary to the real, building a bridge between the two and saying, “Come on, let’s walk on it.”
To share with an audience these stories, whether plucked from fiction or plumbed from humanity’s horrors, is to pave the way between a limitless dream and a well-framed reality.
When I was a child, I used to sit in the hallway of the apartment where I lived with my parents and siblings in the Parisian suburb of Trappes. There, playing with abandon as I jumped on and off objects, I told myself stories. I felt like I had turned a key to unlock a door to dreams.
For these stories, I drew from my environment. Inside our home, there were the stirrings of a large family and a cacophony of languages from Fula to French. Outside, there was the incessant bustle of a city teeming with joys and anxieties, echoing between the walls of our daily lives.
All these ingredients formed a cozy bubble of solitude to which I escaped. Here, I met characters. Settings were drawn. Plots were written. Worlds were built.
I had experienced the power and magic of the imagination. And although in my young mind I thought I was reimagining reality, I was actually escaping its shackles. I had entered the world of cinema without knowing it.
Those stories I conjured as a child molded me into the adult I am today. I may have left the hallway of that apartment, but not my creative bubble.
The stories that I help tell are painted on a broader canvas now, and they exist well beyond me. Is it because people find themselves there? Or recognize a part of their forgotten world? Or come to terms with their shortcomings? The answers are not mine to say.
The people in these stories may be creations, but we fashion them into the image of who we are: reflections and refractions of all that we’ve been dealt and all that we aspire to; the summation of both our heritage and the legacy we wish to pass on.
When shared, these tales — these dreams — take the form of a new reality. They can circulate and draw emotion. They can create hope, a mood or a collective movement that can shift lines. They can shed light on those who sleep in the shadows and quietly, profoundly change lives.