French-Arab boxer hits big screen in Holocaust drama
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Making his big-screen début, French-Arab boxer Brahim Asloum stars as a Jewish boxing champion deported to Auschwitz during World War II in "Victor Young Perez". FRANCE 24 spoke with Asloum about Perez and his resonance today.
Until now, Brahim Asloum has been known as a French light flyweight boxer of Algerian descent, who rose to the top of his sport by taking home Olympic gold in 2000 and winning the world championship in 2007.
But in a new French film (hitting theatres here on Wednesday, November 20), Asloum takes on a daunting new role: that of big-screen lead.
It’s not just any old part. In Jacques Ouaniche’s “Victor Young Perez”, Asloum plays the Tunisian Jewish boxer of the title, who became world flyweight champion in 1931 and 1932 before being arrested in Paris and deported to Auschwitz in 1943. At the camp, he was forced to box in matches intended as entertainment for Nazis. Perez died during the “death march” from Auschwitz in 1945.
FRANCE 24 spoke with Asloum about the role, how he related to the man he played and what the film’s relevance may be in today’s Europe.
F24: How much did you know about Victor Perez before playing him?
BA: His story is not well known, unfortunately. I think France was ashamed of what happened [collaboration and the deportation of French Jews during World War II]. That history was officially recognised only in 1996, with [then-President] Jacques Chirac’s speech about Vichy. The boxing world knows him because of all his prizes, because he was world champion. In the 1930s, boxers were super stars like football champions today – like Ronaldo or Messi. But when he was sent to the camps, he was forgotten.
I personally learned about Victor’s story when I was starting training as a boxer [around 1996]. There was a plaque commemorating him at the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education. I walked by it every day, and I was intrigued by this champion from the same weight class [flyweight] as me. Twelve years later, I got a call to play the role.
F24: How did you relate to him and his very tumultuous life story?
BA: What Victor and I have in common is our journeys as boxers. We both rose to the top very quickly. He became world champion very young, and I was an Olympic champion by 21 years old. We were both popular figures in Paris, known throughout the world and the focus of media attention. So there are similarities. But he was a victim of history. And I haven’t been.
F24: What struck you most about the man as you learned about him?
BA: I learned a lot about Victor from a concentration camp survivor named Noah Klinger, who knew him in the camps. He explained how heroic he was, the risks he took. He was lucky – if we can even use that word – in that the head of the camp recognised him as a famous boxer, so let him work in the kitchen. Victor regularly stole soup to give to other camp inmates. When he was caught, he was beaten up, but that didn’t stop him from doing it again. When you’re in a situation where your survival instinct kicks in, it’s hard to know how you’re going to react. But he tried to bring humanity to a place that was devoid of it.
F24: A lot of films have been made about the Holocaust. Do you think this one has any particular resonance today?
BA: We, the new generation, we must not repeat the errors of our elders. I feel that this film comes at the right time, when I see the rise of [far-right] extremists in Europe today. One mustn’t forget that evil still exists and need only be awakened. We have to remain aware of that. Today, it’s Muslims [in Europe] who are persecuted. That’s the reality. We have to remain vigilant. It’s our duty of remembrance. Back then it was Victor Perez; today it could be Brahim Asloum.
F24: This is your first time acting, and it’s a lead role. How much of a challenge was it for you?
BA: There were certain things that I didn’t have to really work on, that were innate. How a champion acts and carries himself, that kind of thing was pretty easy. The hardest parts for me were the boxing scenes, because in the early scenes I had to play a novice and take all these punches. I actually had to allow myself to be punched. Beyond that, I had to do the work of an actor: to be open and willing to listen, to work with [director] Jacques [Ouaniche] and the crew, to rise to the occasion.
F24: What’s next for you?
BA: We’ll see. For now, I’m trying to get “Victor” off the ground in the best possible way. I want as many people as possible to know this story. I’ll have time to concentrate on other things after. I’ll probably take a bit of a holiday.