Claudine LeMoal’s “Children of Breiz”

Being a dual American-French citizen, I have been sharing my time for the past two years between Paris and Berkeley, California. As a consequence of this transcontinental life, I have come into contact with both the American community in Paris and the French community in the San Francisco Bay Area.  In both places, I have met some very interesting people with whom I seem to have a lot in common. One of these is Claudine LeMoal.

Claudine between daughters

In many ways, Claudine and I are “mirror images” of each other. Born in Strasbourg in eastern France, Claudine moved permanently to the U.S. with her mother and G.I. stepfather in 1962, the same year that my parents and I left San Francisco and moved to France. Although I only stayed for three years that time round (my father’s position at the U.S. Embassy in Paris coming to an end),  I later returned on my own and eventually married a Frenchman, raised a family, studied at the Sorbonne, and taught English and American civilization for many years in the French educational system. As for Claudine, she attended the University of California at Davis, married an American, raised two daughters and taught French and Spanish in California schools.

But what we discovered that REALLY links us is a common fascination with World War II and a desire to write about it. Claudine has written “Children of Brez,  a screenplay based on true events that occurred in a village in Brittany during the German occupation, whereas I have written books about GI.’s in France and French war brides. Having this mutual interest in the war induced us to interview each other. You will find Claudine’s recent interview with me posted on my website at: http://sites.google.com/site/hilarykaiserphd/claudine-le-moal-interviews-hilary-kaiser    

As for the interview I did with Claudine, the following article is based on it.

” Children of Brez” was inspired by a story about the brothers and sisters of Claudine’s Breton father, who died when she was three. Claudine’s mother told her the story when she was a young girl, and she never forgot it. Five years ago, after studying script-writing and doing interviews and filming in France, Claudine decided to write an original screenplay.

Claudine told me her grandmother had died at a very early age, leaving behind nine children; then her grandfather died in an accident, and the children were left to fend for themselves. This was about the time the war broke out. The children, including Claudine’s father, were living in very impoverished conditions and trying to make ends meet on the farm that was left to them. Their resources were also considerably limited by the German occupation. Since it appeared that the Germans wouldn’t be leaving, as many Bretons originally thought, some of the older children decided to help out the country and joined the underground; by doing various acts, they were actually quite influential in helping the Allies move from Normandy to Brittany. To the point that local “collaborationists” exposed them, thinking they could acquire their land or whatever their motivation was. The collaborationists actually suggested to the Germans that they go to the farm at nighttime and destroy it and probably the children, too, thus wiping out any possible “terrorists”, as they were called. Fortunately, Claudine’s father and his brothers and sisters were tipped off and were able to flee into the hills before the Germans arrived. They watched the farm burn from a distance.

This story always intrigued Claudine, and five years ago she started researching it. She first thought she was going to do a documentary and went to Brittany to conduct interviews with her aunts and uncles, but they were elderly and somewhat reluctant to talk about their experiences. So it would have been difficult to create a documentary centered on their testimonies. In the meantime, she came across a document that her aunt’s husband had gotten from a friend, a local villager. It’s a first-hand account of another story that occurred about the same time. It’s about a group of young people who had gotten together on a farm to celebrate a birthday and how, again, a collaborationist, tipped off the Germans, wrongly so, saying the young people were plotting a revolutionary attack against the Germans. So the Germans proceeded to ambush them during the birthday party in retaliation. They humiliated them and, over a period of several days, brutalized them in the local villages in the area.

This account left a great impression on Claudine. She began thinking that since both stories were generated in the same local area, perhaps they could be combined as a homogenized over-story. She took several classes in screen-writing and then began writing “Children of Breiz”, which merges both stories. Breiz is the Breton word for Brittany.

Claudine said one motivation for writing the script was to draw attention to the Breton sub-culture. According to her, Brittany is very different from other regions in France. It is Celtic in origin. It’s very traditional and, given that there’s not much industry in the area, little has changed over the years. People are still ethnocentric and clannish in certain parts of Brittany.

Claudine also thinks what happened in Brittany gives a different twist to the French experience during World War II. She said the Germans were attracted to Brittany because of its coastline and proximity to Britain. And when the Germans came to Brittany, many Bretons were actually, at first, in favor of the Germans because they thought the Germans would help them separate from France! But then they realized that the Germans had come under false pretenses and that they were being occupied and abused by the Germans. She used as an example the fact that the Germans made each Breton family give up one of their sons, whom they sent to Germany to work in German arms factories. The Germans thought the Bretons would be more loyal than Jewish workers, for example, because the Germans and Bretons were, at least at first, on good terms. But then the Bretons caught on, and many young Bretons went into hiding.

Claudine admitted that she is very proud of having both Breton (by her father) and Alsatian (by her mother) ancestries. She said that for years, the French would look down upon the Bretons and not recognize the Breton culture as an important sub-culture in French society. To illustrate her point, she said that the Breton language used to be banned from schools, and such epithets as “tête de Breton, tête de cochon” (Bretons are stubborn as pigs) were prevalent. Ever since Brittany was annexed to France back in the 17th century, Bretons have had a “separatist” streak and a desire to be autonomous They have also proudly kept up many of their traditions, such as folk dances, music, and festivals. In many ways, it is the same for the Alsatians, who have their own language and customs. Claudine mentioned that in addition to affecting her Breton relatives, World War II also had an effect on her Alsatian family. Her maternal grandfather was sent to a German concentration camp, and her grandmother lived through the bombings in the countryside and providentially escaped being killed when one fell on a nearby air-raid shelter.

Claudine thinks it is a good thing that French sub-cultures like the Breton and Alsatian cultures are beginning to be recognized in France. She would like Americans to recognize them, too. She also said that the anti-French movement in the U.S. in the 1990’s was very painful to live through. At that time, many people talked about French capitulation and collaboration during World War II. “They called the French cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” she said. Luckily, the Americans and the French seem to be “friends” again, but, as Claudine mentioned, a lot of French people still haven’t come to terms with certain things that happened in France during World War II– with the collaboration, for example. “I have a hard time forgiving what happened in Bleiz,” she confessed. “It was emotionally very difficult to find out and write about it.”

Claudine hopes that her screenplay will be made into a movie, either in the U.S. or France (she’s in the process of translating it into French) or in both, and she has started seeking a producer.  Her hope is that in addition to reaching an adult audience, her film will also be seen by teenagers. “They don’t know much about this period and can learn from the past,” she said. “I’d also like to show them that young people can make a difference if they act, are pro-active, and don’t remain passive. And I think film is such a great medium for teaching teenagers. They can learn about history by watching real people in real situations. It comes alive for them.”

A Memorable Theater Experience in Berkeley

I am a theater buff and was delighted to be able to attend shows in London and New York this summer. The San Francisco Bay Area also has a lot to offer in the way of theater, and in order to go often and inexpensively while I’m here, I have taken advantage of “rush tickets” and “pay as much as you want” evenings at certain theaters.

When I go to a play, I appreciate a good story, good acting, and good “tempo.” There were a few plays I haven’t appreciated while here, but on the whole I’ve come away satisfied. Some of the plays I’ve particularly enjoyed this fall are Bill Irwin’s original adaptation of Molière’s comedy “Les Fourberies de Scapin” at San Francisco’s ACT, Word-for-Word’s rendering of stories from “Olive Kitteridge” ( the best-selling book by Elizabeth Strout), African-American Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind” at the Aurora, and Ann Randolph’s one-woman show at The Marsh in Berkeley. All of these plays had their own value, but I think the show that really had an impact on me and rises above the others was “The Great Game: Afghanistan”, which I saw two weeks ago at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Produced by London’s Tricycle Theatre and supported by the British Council, “The Great Game” was only in Berkeley for two weeks, en route to Minneapolis, New York and Washington, D.C.  A collection of short scripts by 12 playwrights that are divided into three parts, it is a seven and a half hour trilogy telling the story of western intervention in Afghanistan over the past 150 years. Audiences had the option of seeing all three plays in a day-long marathon or on different days or just seeing one or two of the plays individually.   I opted to see each of the three plays in chronological order over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  I don’t regret my choice, although friends who chose the marathon said it meant for a truly worthwhile experience because they became fully absorbed in the story and characters.

Commenting on the play, artistic director Nicolas Kent said: “We very much hope that this trilogy and the theatre can play its part in continuing to stimulate the public’s discussion and debate on what is currently the most important focus of UK and American foreign policy.” In a way, “The Game” resembles a mini history course on how competing countries try to control Afghanistan and the latter’s fierce resistance to foreign domination. Part One is entitled “Invasions and Independence” and covers the period 1842-1929; Part Two, “Communism, the Mujahideen and the Taliban” (1980-1996); and Part Three, “Enduring Freedom” (1996-2009).

But in addition to being very informative, the plays are also very entertaining. Kudos to the 14 British actors who took on so many different roles and performed so well!  And what a treat iwas to hear real British accents here in Berkeley!

As is often the case in Bay Area theaters, Berkeley Rep provided theater-goers with the opportunity to hear a post-performance talk by someone associated with the play. In this case, director Indhu Rubasingham engaged in conversation with Dr. Mohammad Qayoumi, the first Afghan-American to become president of a U.S. university. I wasn’t able to attend their talk, but I had the good fortune of standing next  to Ms Rubasingham during the intermission on the first day’s performance and being able to ask her a few questions about the production. She told me how the plays were commissioned and put together; she also described how after spending the whole day together watching the trilogy, audiences in London would begin discussing and sharing their views during intermissions and before and after the show.

I feel lucky about whom I sat with during two of the three performances. On the first day, which was for the press, I was the guest of my friend Diane Le Bow, a photo journalist who has visited Afghanistan several times and has written about her experiences there. She even helped organize and participated in a conference held in Tajikistan in 2000 during which Afghan women debated what statements they wanted written into the new Afghan Constitution.  After seeing the show together, we had a very interesting conversation, and I learned a lot from her. I went on my own the second day, but at curtain’s close, feeling the emotion of the moment, the two people stting next to me and I began talking.

The woman to my left told us her brother is a judge advocate in the elite U.S. Army Rangers and has been in Afghanistan for the past year, following deployments to Iraq and Bosnia. His wife, who is also a lawyer and who joined the army in order to pay for college, has now been sent to Afghanistan as well. They have a ten-month-old baby they’ve had to leave behind with grandparents. She said her brother had really changed over the past few years and was suffering from PTSD.  She’d come to see the play to learn more about the country and the situation there.

The young man on my right said after two tours in Afghanistan, his cousin also suffered from PTSD: he had returned “racist” and “crazy”. This made the young man wonder whether his decision to soon join the army in order to get med school paid for was a good idea. He said he wanted to specialize in “field medicine” and that UC Davis had a good program in this that the army would pay for. He also said his dream was to join MSF (Medecins sans Frontieres) following graduation. The woman, who told us she was of Hungarian descent, advised him NOT to join the army; she saw what had happened to her brother.  She spoke to the young man about Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, saying that he should apply to him for a scholarship to attend medical school.  As for me, I told the young man I was pretty sure he could be a doctor for MSF even without majoring in field medicine, so he wouldn’t necessarily have to go to Davis and join the army. When we parted in front of the theater, the young man thanked the woman and me profusely for listening and giving him some suggestions.

I realized the three of us had each come to see the play for different reasons.  Indhu Rubasingham was right: As in London, “The Great Game” had incited us to discuss and share. In addition to the provocative subject matter and the quality of the acting, the play had elicited our, as well as others’, reactions and comments about many different subjects related to Afghanistan and western intervention there.

Although I am a theater buff and go often to the theater, not all the plays I’ve seen have provided such a memorable experience as “The Great Game: Afghanistan”.

Published in: on November 17, 2010 at 10:29 pm  Comments (1)  

From One Campanile to Another

A few days ago, I was walking through the Berkeley campus at noon on a sunny November day. Towering above me was the recently-renovated centerpiece of the UC campus, Sather Tower, the Italian Renaissance-style campanile designed by John Galen Howard that was completed in 1914.

As I walked, bells began chiming from up above in the campanile. Just as Proust’s eating a Madeleine brought back past memories, so did the chime of those bells. Their music evoked a moment five or six years ago when my American friend Susie and I were walking through the main square of Ghent, Belgium.

It was a rainy Sunday morning about noon, and the bells of Ghent’s landmark belfry, the Belfort, were ringing above. Susie turned to me and said: “Look. The door to the tower is open. Come on! Let’s go up.” I followed Susie inside. Up, up, up we climbed the narrow winding staircase. The higher we got, the louder were the bells—54, according to the guidebook–of the belfry, which was built in the 14th century as a fortified guard tower. From the small, stone window-slits, we could see the medieval square below, with its grey cobblestone streets, gabled houses and slate roofs.

Upon arriving at the top, we saw, behind the glass of a box-like room, two carillon players, a man and a woman, playing a duet on an organ-like instrument. “My God,” gasped Susie. It’s Geert and Lizbeth!” The bells were so loud that I could barely hear what Susie was saying, but the expression on her face and the gestures she made indicated to me that she recognized the two musicians. And they, in turn, nodded their heads to Susie in recognition as they played.

That day, we were the only spectators up in the tower. Holding our hands over our ears, we listened –for about 20 minutes –to the bell concert, all the while watching the fist and feet movements of the two musicians. Once the concert was over, the man and woman opened the glass door and came out to greet us.

“Susie!”
“Geert. Lizbeth!”
“What a surprise to see you! What are you doing here?”
“I’m really surprised to see you, too, said Susie. “I didn’t realize you both were back in Belgium. I’ve been here for six months doing research at the university. This is my friend Hilary.”

After we shook hands, Susie said, “This is really amazing. I met Geert and Lizbeth in Berkeley a couple of years ago when Geert was the head carilloneur of Sather Tower. We used to be in a Dutch-speaking conversation group off campus. Jeez, what a coincidence!”

And what a coincidence it is, too, that although Susie lives most of the year in Belgium, the place I’m renting in Berkeley on Arch Street is just a block away from where she still owns a home!

Such coincidences prove to me yet again how small the world is becoming, how people work and spend their time on different continents, and how interconnected we all are. They also underscore the power of memory and the Proustian experience—of how hearing chiming bells and seeing a campanile in one place can bring back the memory of music of another bell tower thousands of miles away.

Published in: on November 26, 2009 at 12:24 pm  Comments (1)