Sayyid El Alami: A Young Actor’s Political Awakening

Sayyid El Alami wants to change the world through his acting. With Oussekine, he is off to a promising start.

Sayyid El Alami shines in the dark miniseries Oussekine, which centers on the 1986 murder of the student Malik Oussekine at the hands of French police. Originally from Toulouse, El Alami has forged his career path with supporting roles in shows such as Messiah and Une si longue nuit (Such a Long Night). Selected for the lead in Oussekine by director Antoine Chevrollier for his modernity and political awareness, El Alami’s performance will undoubtedly ensure the 24-year-old a luminous future.

VALÉRIE COSTANTINO Tell us about the story behind Oussekine.

SAYYID EL ALAMI It’s about Malik Oussekine, a young student who was leaving a jazz club near the Sorbonne and found himself in the middle of a student demonstration against the Devaquet law [a controversial proposal to reform France’s universities], and who was beaten to death for no reason during the night of December 5-6, 1986, by police officers on Rue Monsieur-le-Prince in Paris. Other demonstrations followed because the students were not going to stop at anything to get the law repealed. Then the case exploded because, on one hand, it was necessary to get justice for Malik and find those responsible, and on the other hand, for the first time, we could put a face and a name to a victim of police brutality on a national scale. That’s why the case resonated so widely – because everybody saw themselves in Malik Oussekine.

VC Had you heard this story before?

SEA Yes, my parents were very affected by this case at the time. They remembered it perfectly. Whenever a similar story came up, we were always brought back to the story of Malik Oussekine. So, yes, through my family and through rap music, I heard about it very early on.

VC You are about the same age as Malik was when he was killed. How did it feel to play this role? Does it confer a particular responsibility?

SEA It was rather natural for me because I was given responsibility by my family at a very early age. I was given a political conscience and a need to fight against injustice. I can’t understand how some people have more opportunities than others. I can’t understand how some people don’t have empathy for others. Also, there was a responsibility to Malik’s family – much more than concern about the media’s opinion of the series. I really wanted to respect the memory of their little brother. All my colleagues on this project felt the same way.

VC What is touching about the series is that we follow the story from Malik’s family’s point of view. Did you work with them? How did you prepare?

SEA I did a lot of research beforehand on the drama in order to stick as closely as possible to the story, and I had a lot of exchanges with Antoine Chevrollier, the director. He gave us archive images and a lot of things to read and watch. As for my character, I worked on the diction, in particular. I didn’t want to seem too urban, too current. It’s what I hate most – when I see films that are supposed to take place in the past, but actors speak like it’s today. I was most afraid of that. For the performance, I had a very good director, and I always tried to prepare myself as much as possible to listen to his instructions and seize them. I also met the family, which wasn’t easy because I was afraid to revive their pain. They entrusted me with Malik’s suitcase, which had his last personal belongings: his watch, which was broken after the beating; his last school notes, taken a few days before the tragedy. I never really asked Malik’s brothers to talk to me about him, but through them, I saw him. To give you an anecdote, Ben Amar, his older brother, told me that he would have liked more scenes between Malik and himself because, as he told me, he spent entire nights talking about everything and nothing with his little brother. I had many discussions with him, too, for hours. He’s an amazing person.

Sayyid wears clothing by Loewe.

VC Have you always wanted to be an actor? As a child, what did you want to do?

SEA I had many desires: astronaut, then soccer player – I always had a soccer ball with me when I was little. Overall, as a child, I wanted to play soccer and then go into movies a little later. I wanted to change things and the world. Recently, I came across lyrics from PNL [a French rap group] that made an impression on me: “Sometimes I would like to save the Earth. Sometimes I would like to see it burn.” I’d still like to try to change the world, but I don’t know if it’s possible in the end. I often tell my best friend Samir that I overthink a lot – sometimes for nothing. I tell myself that nothing can change until we understand that others are just another version of ourselves, on all levels. We’ve become too selfish and have stored up too much fear. Afterward, we make choices: sometimes we are wonderful, sometimes we are terrible. But on a global scale, for example, the ultra-rich will always want to keep their wealth, the poor will always remain stuck in their place, and there will always be this kind of terrible, extreme inequality. But here I am – I dreamed of being an artist to say and do things that could make our world evolve, I hope, through cinema, acting and more.

VC Our actions are largely influenced by the heritage passed on to us by our families. What did your parents pass on to you?

SEA My father studied a lot. My mother wasn’t so lucky, but she always tried to learn, to stay open to others because it helped her grow. At home, she kept the radio on every morning, so France Culture would get into our brains. My parents fought to have cultural capital, and that influenced everything. Pierre Bourdieu explains it better than I can. Rap was also a determining factor – artists like Keny Arkana and Médine. Keny Arkana is my first memory of rap. I was on the computer, and it was the first time I listened to music by myself. There was also “Stan” by Eminem and Dido [laughs]. Her view of the world touched me, and over time, until high school, she gave me a real conscience.

VC Oussekine is your first leading role, but you’ve worked on shows Messiah and Narvalo. What do you like about TV series? Which ones have marked your adolescence?

SEA I place cinema and TV series on the same level. I make a distinction between filmmakers who are passionate and who have a subject to defend, and those who are not passionate enough or who are there because of who they know. I like so many shows. Breaking Bad – it’s almost impossible to get the whole world to agree, but Vince Gilligan has succeeded in this challenge. Euphoria, especially the two episodes that followed season one, which were shot during lockdown and have nothing to do with the rest of the show. They’re both just a discussion between two people. The writing is crazy. I watched them three times each. When I was 15 or 16, I used to watch House of Cards, Orphan Black, Sense8… I used to write down sentences. Thanks to these series, I started to work on my English. Succession, too. I would love to play someone like Kendall Roy [played by Jeremy Strong]. He is incredible. It’s crazy what the show says: we’re all the same, whether we’re poor or ultra-rich – we’re all looking for love, peace of mind and the means to achieve our goals.

Sayyid wears clothing by Loewe.

VC Envisioning oneself in the future is very difficult for young people at the moment. How do you see the future?

SEA I never had a hard time imagining myself in the future, but it’s true that it’s getting harder. When I think about the world, I tell myself that it’s sad to know that many people will suffer because of the unconsciousness of others. We have to take charge and think a little bit about each other; otherwise, we won’t be able to do it on a small scale, let alone on a global scale. I know I can get by, but the goal is for everyone to get by or to give everyone the same opportunities. And whether it’s about equality, ecology or politics, at some point we’re going to have to stop swearing by profit and power and take matters into our own hands to try to build a better world. The future will be what we make of it today.

Hair by Andrea Idini. Makeup by Yvane Rocher. Special thanks to Emi Cho.

This feature has been translated from the French. It was originally published in Mastermind 12 – purchase it here.

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