‘For three days after the Bataclan, I thought I was dead,” says Ismaël el Iraki, whose debut feature, Zanka Contact, about two lost souls recovering from PTSD, is playing at the Venice film festival. It’s a Wild at Heart-type love story starring Ahmed Hammoud and Moroccan music star Khansa Batma with debts to Quentin Tarantino and Sergio Leone. A car crash throws together a has-been rocker who has just returned to Casablanca and a streetwise con-artist, who get lulled into the shenanigans of the city’s music underworld.
Zanka Contact riffs on the director’s experiences trying to recover from all he witnessed at the Eagles of Death Metal concert at Paris’s Bataclan venue in November 2015, when gunmen massacred 90 people in a night of coordinated attacks by terrorists that left 143 dead and hundreds injured. El Iraki stared at the gunman as he pulled the trigger. The bullet scraped past him. He was preparing to die when the fearless actions of a security guard called Didi saved him. Oblivious to his personal wellbeing, Didi kept returning to the concert hall, leading the injured and distressed to safety. “I saw a hero with my own eyes,” recalls El Iraki, who escaped through the front door of the building.
“I still live surrounded by ghosts,” says the Moroccan-born film-maker who moved to Paris to attend La Fémis, the prestigious French film school where his classmates included Raw director Julia Ducournau. It was there, in 2009, that he made the popular, award-winning short film H’rash. But those happy experiences now seem a world away after what happened at the Bataclan. “One of the things I discovered through this is PTSD is an infectious disease given to you by those who exact violence on you.”
The Bataclan concert was supposed to be the first of eight live performances El Iraki was going to attend that week. Motörhead at the Zenith and the other gigs were cancelled, except for one. “I went to Kadavar because I had a ticket, and it said ‘placement libre’ [unreserved seating] on it. I was very afraid, but it was a life-changing experience for me. They brought me back from the dead.”
The 36-year-old is wearing a Kadavar “horned goddess” T-shirt inspired by the German power trio’s track Goddess of Dawn as we speak via video. He has big hair that yawns out in all directions and a full beard that makes him look like hip-hop musician Questlove. He gives a hearty laugh. “I’m more of a rock guy, but if I don’t wash my hair it goes into dreadlocks. And that’s not me. I love funk, hip-hop, rock and roll – but reggae, even when I’m stoned is tough.”
El Iraki is sitting in a room in his apartment in Paris that houses his extensive vinyl collection, and he feigns embarrassment when he moves the webcam to show how many are soundtrack albums. As a youngster in Rabat, film music records would often arrive months or years before the film made it to cinemas. So, by the time Jurassic Park came out, he recalls being very familiar with its soundtrack.
That he still has the air of someone who is the life of the party is testament to the work he undertook at behavioural treatment centres after the attacks. “They make you relive what happened to you, again and again. They provoke it. What you realise is that is not a bad memory, it breathes in the present, and the goal is to make that thing become a memory.”
An open letter on El Iraki’s Facebook page went viral when he criticised Eagles of Death frontman Jesse Hughes. The pro-gun Trump-supporting Hughes had condemned Islam in an interview using the type of abhorrent language found in Jewish-conspiracy rhetoric. An atheist himself, El Iraki adds: “The problem is that we are all part of many groups, and he doesn’t see the bigger group. You’re a skater, a Mexican food lover, a Dostoyevsky reader and you’re also a Muslim. You’re not just brown or whatever.”
When he started making Zanka Contact, El Iraki says it was about a man who was present during a terrorist attack. But he realised: “That was too close to news material.” He wanted to steer clear of a story focused on violence; he criticises the media reporting of terrorist incidents as overly preoccupied with the violent spectacular with too little focus on the resilience of the victims. El Iraki wrote a symbolic fairytale about recovering from trauma. “It’s still there. You are fucked for life but can learn to live with it. At the heart of the movie is this couple with intersecting traumas and how they can help each other.”
What happened at the Bataclan became more peripheral and symbolic to his film. Kadavar is the band playing a rock concert. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of things from the Bataclan days, a lot of visions and nightmares exorcised in a movie.”
The creation of the titular song is a cathartic moment for the characters, and a reflection of the director’s own journey. “The main thing for me,” says El Iraki, “was to never lose my love of music because of this violence.”
• Zanka Contact plays at the Venice film festival until 7 September.