What drew you to a South African film?
When I read the book [ Zulu by Caryl Férey] I thought it was a great story, but when I was approached about working on the film version, I wasn’t keen to do it because it was a South African story. I knew the country like many other foreigners do, the great stories about Nelson Mandela and the rugby world cup. But the studio who offered me the book sent me to SA for a few weeks to travel around, meet people and make up my mind.  It’s an amazing country and I saw it would be an amazing place to shoot because it’s beautiful, but more importantly the people I met made it very thrilling for me.

I knew there was a strong story to tell. I realised that being a foreigner was not a handicap, in fact it could make things easier because I was kind of neutral because I’m not a part of the country’s past and of the ghosts that are still around. That helped me to feel comfortable talking and working with people of all races and backgrounds.  I really wanted to try to understand the country and to make the movie as South African as possible, so I worked with South African actors [aside from the two leads] and with a mainly South African crew. I think this was important for the movie, while it’s not  just about South Africa, it’s a South African story and I wanted to honour that.

What challenges did you face as a French director working on a South African movie with international stars?
I had many challenges. Firstly I’m French, this was my first English-speaking movie so it’s a challenge when you don’t work in your native tongue. Secondly, my challenge was to keep it as South African as possible, but that was actually fun. I really tried to make a South African movie and on the set we had about five or six foreigners and about 70 South Africans.

I wanted to make a South African movie with two international stars.

Why was it important to have big names like Forest Whitaker and Orlando Bloom in the leading roles?
Having stars is important for any movie in order to get the funding you need. But more importantly they’re just good. I know South Africans think that if you’re talking about SA you should hire South African leads, but Forest and Orlando are just great actors. You also have great actors in SA of course and I think it’s a fantastic experience for South African actors to work with these people. Aside from these two leads, I really wanted to keep it South African. In fact, there are some non-professional actors in the movie – like Randall Majiet who plays a gangster, Cat, in the movie, I found him in the street casting, he was in a rehab centre and is a former gang member. I’ve tried to mix things up, you have a mixed culture here. The movie’s like SA, it’s a mixed movie.

As the title suggests, it’s a very violent movie, which at times can be quite difficult to watch. Why did you film it in this way as opposed to just using the suggestion of violence?
I wanted to make it as real as possible, I didn’t want to make it look like a blockbuster movie. I knew from the beginning that it would be violent. The story’s violent so I couldn’t avoid that. I’m not totally comfortable with the way violence is stylised in most Hollywood movies because I don’t agree with showing violence as “good looking”. I think romanticising violence is a trap. So if I show violence I show it the way it is, which is gritty and most people don’t want to look at that.

The movie is actually a bit more violent than I expected, but because I worked with South African people – the stunt coordinator was South African, the actors who played the gang members were South African –  they are used to this world. So the ideas they had on set makes it look real. It looks real because we had real people around us, which is what I was looking for. I think it’s more honest to show violence in a real way.

What do you want viewers to take away from the movie?
It’s about forgiveness so I want them to keep in mind that forgiving is necessary, but it’s very difficult. You can’t be sure that you’ve succeeded, that’s what happens to one of the lead characters Ali (played by Forest Whitaker), he’s convinced that he’s been able to forgive, but this is challenged.

I think deep in your heart there’s always a small fire burning and if something happens in your life, it explodes like a bomb. You have to keep that in mind to be able to move on which also plays on the underlying theme of Apartheid. The country still has a long way to go, which is normal, but what you’ve accomplished already is great. This theme is universal though, how necessary and important it is to forgive, but how difficult it is.

City of Violence hits SA screens on 10 October. For more with Jérôme Salle, see the October issue of DESTINY.