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FILM 2023

Zeno GRATON ©Caroline Monnet.jpg

Interviewed during BFI London FIlm Festival 2023

The Lost Boys - In cinemas and digital 15th December

Dec 6, 2023

©Caroline Monnet

A feature film debut from Belgian filmmaker Zeno Graton offers a unique, touching, and genuine insight into queer love and connection in the most unlikely of places. The award-winning Le Paradis / The Lost Boys follows Joe, Khalil Gharbia and William, Julien de Saint Jean, who meet at a youth detention centre and their connection creates a sense of hope and freedom neither thought was possible.


I was taken aback by this film is the unique beauty in how you unfolded the gay narrative. The way that you explore the relationship between Joe and William is never in a negative way; this isn't a "typical gay drama" that we see too much of in queer cinema. Every time the audience sees Joe and William together, what we see is love—a connection that defies explanation; you feel it. When you set out to make Le paradis / The Lost Boys, was it always your intention to create this genuine and unique gay story that fully avoids cliches?


What we often see in queer cinema and drama, especially with youth characters, is that the main conflict is about the overcoming of shame and inhibition. I think this narrative was very important at some point, but I wanted to step out of that box and try to make a love story where this would not be the main conflict. What happens next when people are allowed to love each other? After that, there is still a lot of conflict because it's just two people trying to love each other. It's a source of conflict in itself. And the queer aspects are not the main ones. I know that, as a queer person, this is not our life. This is not true. At least at some point, it's very easy for a broader audience to keep seeing and telling themselves, Okay, they're victims, or it's a victimisation of the story. And so I just wanted to try to make something different, and that's what we did, in a way. Trying to unfold passion, longing, abandonment, treason, and all these beautiful conflicts that you can have.

You captured an intimacy that, particularly within queer cinema, is sometimes missing. It's a lot easier to either film a gratuitous sex scene or to have a lot of nudity, which sort of caters to a particular type of audience. But the first time Joe sees William, you can feel that this is something special. That's where Joe goes into the kitchen, and then William comes in, and there is an interesting thing. You feel like it isn't sex; it's not dirty; it's just pure love. And then you see that this genuine connection between William and Joe is forging.

It's really associated with this thing of shame, like in queer cinema, where there's a lot of shame. Of course, the sex scenes are brutal because they don't like what they are doing and they're ashamed of what they're doing. It's the only way to deal with themselves: to hate, have love, and have sex in a hateful way. And I think it was very much more subversive to show tenderness between guys than sex. So we have this sex scene, and that is kind of not very to your face, but it's still a film where I wanted to show that. But primarily the first, you know, intention was to show tenderness and to show alternative masculinity, or also throughout their whole group, because it was how this love between them could shine a little bit on the group and how everybody's going to gain from this love inside of these walls. Um, and also again to talk to, to go back a little bit about this queer narrative, it was important for me to, at least still put obstacles about their queerness, but I wanted to embody them more in this facility with this facility. So it's the walls; it's the very rules of this facility that impeach them to be exactly free and as free as they want. So the obstacles are not dramaturgically. They're not facing their obstacles. They're more external, like the walls that queer people have to experience every day out there, society is still homophobic.

Julien De Saint Jean

The Lost Boys_Khalil Ben Gharbia.jpg

Khalil Ben Gharbia

"We had them come on the sets almost every day in groups of three or four with their educators to show them behind the scenes."

How did you go about casting for William and Joe?


When Khalil arrived in the casting, it was very obvious that it was going to take him for different reasons, but mostly because he's a great actor, very intuitive, and very able to show tenderness in this alternative masculinity that I mentioned before. But also, you know, we were talking about his heroes, and, you know, he would talk to me about David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, and Jim Morrison, all stars that have a very gender-non-conforming way of being and dressing. And he was 19 when we shot the film, and I was very impressed by his maturity. And Julien is very at ease with his body. He's very technical. He did a lot of drama school; he's also very young at the time, but they have a very different method of acting. And we were very interesting during the casting process when I was pairing people to try stuff. When we paired them to see it, this chemistry was also because of their acting methods.


And then we did rehearsals, and I brought them to the facility that I was doing my research at. I spent one month, every day, doing my research for the film. Bringing them both there prior to shooting allowed them to see for themselves what this facility was like as well as allow them to take what they could from the boys that were there. Trying to have conversations, but also a sense of humility and responsibility for the stories they were about to tell. And it really gave them, I think, some strengths to go through the shooting with the memory that, okay, we're doing this also for them, and we're telling their story. It was nice to be able to do that. And also, when we were shooting, you know, we were shooting in a real facility that was different, but it was a running facility. So there were people in it. There were guys who were incarcerated, and sometimes we would have to wait for them to pass, to do stuff, or they might have been playing, so the sound was not good. We tried to have a very good interaction with them. We had them come on the sets almost every day in groups of three or four with their educators to show them behind the scenes. This really allowed the actors to feel connected to what we were doing, and they were embodying the very people that they're seeing every day on the set. There was this whole feeling of responsibility.

Aside from that, the fact that there was only one location created a sort of imprisonment for us; we couldn't go out to smoke. It was forbidden to smoke. So it was very difficult—all the gates, all the keys. So it could have been hell, but it actually created a lot of intimacy, an intimate set, a sense of family, and a sense of friendship between them that you actually see in the films. A lot of things are kind of improvised. Also, they had margins of improvisation that they could activate, and because we were always together, they had some jokes, like private jokes between them, and then they just let them out. 

When you were writing the screenplay, going back to what you said, how much responsibility did you put on yourself to be able to tell such an authentic story from the experience of those boys in those types of institutions? 


I knew when I entered there I came with a sense of revolution, like I'm going to talk about those places that are impossible and we can't have them in our mother society. But when I entered, I'm so against them, and you've seen the film, and it's not good, and it's mostly a critique, but I wanted to create a balance, and I felt a responsibility, for example, to show that educators are trying their best. I wanted to acknowledge that the people who are working there are actually working 100% for them, but they are trapped in a system, but they have faith in what they do. They want to they want to make them better, treat them good in a way. And so the problem was more systemic. And it's really this Foucault way of thinking about the structures of power that are within the institutions. And there, it's not about the nurse or the guardian; it's not about that. It's about the very structure of the architecture; it's about the fact that they're very remote, the fact that they are imprisoned; there are keys; there are corridors. This whole system of punishments, modern punishments, and we know that the numbers of reoffending are very bad. And we're all slowly opening up the restorative justice option. And I don't think it's going to be institutionalised. It's not possible. I think the prison system is also very lucrative.

There is this thing that I felt very responsible to put something that was authentic. But it's not a social movie. I really wanted to make a love story, and I'm not a sociologist, so it was important for me to also talk about queerness because this is the film where the political angle is more focused.

Rather than really talking about this facility. But it was like, as soon as I'm talking about that, I need to be as accurate as possible. So it was a balance between the two. It wasn't too hard; when I was there, we were shooting in a real facility, and it was I was always writing my books; you know, I knew that I was not putting them too much in deep shit, but I knew that I was not completely betraying them. It's not me; I would have felt bad if I had done the advertising for those kinds of centres and what they do for young kids. You know, it's impossible for me to do that. But it's also impossible to say that they're completely wrong.


What do you want your audience to take away from your film?

I want them to have the will to be in love and be loved, but I also want them to feel empathy towards this particular youth or those placed in these types of places. Because the media often portrays them as true criminals, whereas they're much more than that. And they can be defined by so many more things than what they did. Yeah. And also that their violence is often linked to social inequalities, and this needs to be understood.

Finally, I think the ending goes back to what you said: that you made a love story because the second Joe sees hope, we perceive that he sees William, and everything in him changes. I thought that was a really beautiful way of almost letting the audience know that they were going to be okay. How close to your screenplay did you keep that end scene?


The ending was really there for a long time from the beginning because I wanted to show that, exactly as you said, no matter where you are, as soon as you love, you're free. It's like love frees your desire and frees you wherever you are. The beginning changed a lot. So the editing process was really challenging because of a lot of things. But then what was a luxury is that they are all wearing a uniform, and it's a single location. So we could swap scenes and change stuff very easily. So, for example, in the opening, we changed a lot. 

Originally, the film began at sea. It's a secret, what I'm telling you; you can use it if you want. The opening of the film in the script was at the seaside, and there was this whole surprise with who he might be, why he was at the sea, ah, ok, he's on the run. This is an institution. How does it work, etcetera? 

But it didn't really work because it was very difficult to both show what the situation was and to have the story go forward. So we created this little opening with the fish story. The fish story was already in the end, but we doubled it and had it in the beginning in order to characterise him a little bit and also to characterise the place. Remember those shots of the prison outside and him being in the prison trying to write rap, doing the woodwork, and taking medicines? All these little clips are actually from other scenes, and we put them all together in the beginning and had Khalil do the voiceover. And it would have two purposes. First, like I said, characterise him and present the prison, and then when we see him on the run and going back, we can be in the story fully and not trying to understand, Okay, what is this place? What's happening there? Is it a prison or not? Which were all the questions that a trial audience had when we were editing.

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