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Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind docuseries “The Staircase,” has once again struck a chord with “Samber,” a limited series about a French serial rapist that explores the damages of sexual violence against women and children.

“Samber,” a six-part thriller series directed by de Lestrade, charts the true case of Dino Scala, a seemingly ordinary family man who sexually assaulted and raped more than 50 women and minors over three decades in Northeastern France. In spite of several victims filing complaints, Scala was able to slip through the cracks of France’s judicial system and benefited from a complacent stance toward sexual abuses. He was eventually arrested in February 2018 and found guilty of 17 rapes, 12 attempted rapes and 27 sexual assaults or attempts. In June 2022, Scala was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Represented in international markets by Federation Studios, the six-part series has captured the zeitgeist in France, which is undergoing a new #MeToo reckoning with allegations against revered French film figures including Benoit Jacquot, Jacques Doillon and Gerard Depardieu.

“Samber” broke primetime ratings records when it aired in November and December on the French public broadcaster France 2, with an average market share of 19% and more than 4 million viewers per episode. The series also lured 3 million views online in just eight days and has now cumulated 5.2 million views to date on France Televisions’ VOD platform.

Each episode of “Samber” is seen through the perspective of one character involved in the case, a victim (played by Alix Poisson), the judge (Pauline Parigot), the mayor (Noémie Lvovsky), the scientist (Clémence Poésy), the police officer (Olivier Gourmet) and Scala (Jonathan Turnbull). Alice Geraud, a journalist who penned the investigative book “Sambre, radioscopie d’un fait divers,” created and penned the series with Marc Herpoux. “Samber” was produced by What’s Up Films and Federations Studios in co-production with Versus Productions.

De Lestrade spoke to Variety ahead of London Screenings, where “Samber” will play, to discuss why the series resonates so strongly today.

Why did you want to tackle the story of “Samber” as a fiction series, rather than a documentary?

Making a documentary is a very long process, and one that’s emotionally draining — it absorbs you, because we take something from people who share their stories and we give something of ourselves in return. While I made “The Staircase,” I got very close to Michael Peterson and the mystery that surrounded the death of his wife Kathleen. It deeply haunted me for years. After that, I decided I wouldn’t make another documentary. Ever since, I’ve been making fiction but it’s always inspired by some observations about our society, the world in which we live and who we are. Even with “3X Manon” [a mini-series about a teenager accused of stabbing her mother], it was fiction but we did a lot of research for it so that it would be very realistic. With “Samber,” it all started with Alice Geraud, who came into the office. She was a journalist for many years and was investigating this case for her book, and at some point she felt that there was room for fiction in this story and she couldn’t fit it all in her book.

Fiction also gives you the opportunity to depict things in a way that documentary doesn’t.

Yes, the great thing about fiction is that when we’re talking about a true story, we’re not only going to tell all the facts because that’s what a documentary does. Instead, we’ll try to find the meaning of it. What does this case says about ourselves? We’ll tell what the story really means. With “Samber,” we try to explain what this story says of French society, this era, and the way we’ve handled cases of sexual violence and rape over the last 30 years.

What does “Samber” says beyond this specific case?

Not every human interest story says something about our society, but this one does. “Samber” is one these stories that highlights the flaws of a society and its institutions. It’s great to be able to convey all this through characters that resonate and trigger emotions.

Why do you think this case didn’t make that much noise in France, even when Dino Scala was finally arrested?

It’s very revealing that people cared so little. He remains France’s biggest sexual predator and he was arrested. A trial unfolded four years later. And yet, the French didn’t get passionate about it, it didn’t get wall-to-wall coverage.

Could it because he was a “guy next door” and not some colorful psychopath?

Yes, and that’s precisely why I think we had to make this series. This predator, this rapist, is in fact very representative of what sexual criminality is. Why did it take 30 years to catch him? Because rape was never considered a very serious crime. Secondly, people assume wrongly that a rapist had to be a marginal, a total loner, jobless and without any social ties. In fact, in 80% of cases, sexual violence comes from people who are perfectly integrated in society, like Dino Scala. A rapist could be an educator, a music teacher, a doctor, etc.

What did you learn about Dino Scala’s psychological state during your research?

Dino had a very dysfunctional family where there was some sexual abuse, as is often the case with people convicted of sexual violence. His sister had been a victim of incest from their father from the age of 7 or 8 to 12 years old. When she was 10, she asked Dino, who was 13, and their older brother, who was 16, to protect her, but the older sibling left home within six months. Dino, meanwhile, found himself in the middle and lived with that secret. It was impossible for him to act on it and he couldn’t make the abuse stop. So as it sometimes happens, he began to identify with the aggressor. It’s like a coping mechanism which comes from guilt and evolves into a feeling of being accomplice and lastly an identification with the aggressor.

Can you talk about the interrogation scenes with the victims that are filmed in long single-takes?

When you’re telling stories about real people and victims, you have to be extremely careful because they’re in so much pain. My obsession with “Samber” was to not add any pain and suffering, to not dramatize overly or sensationalize it. I knew that the dramatic scale would come from the story itself and the intensity of characters. And from the dramatic irony of showing the banality of this rapist and the type of violence he was capable of. These victims were not listened to when they went to the police, so we absolutely wanted to put audiences in a position where they had no other choice but listen to them. There are long scenes that are focused on the victim, we’re not cutting to the police agents who were not paying attention anyway. It emphasizes the realism of these scenes where we can sense the vulnerability of the actors themselves. We did a lot of takes to find the truth in each performance.

I thought of “Unbelievable,” the Netflix miniseries, while watching “Samber.”

Yes, it was one of our references. But in “Unbelievable,” the plot revolves mostly around the fact that we don’t believe the victims, and it seems that the series doesn’t aim to portrait society as a whole. In “Samber,” we tried to be between “Unbelievable” and “The Wire” … It was our absolute reference because of the way it explores the ins and outs of a society. In “Samber,” we had the ambition to deliver a societal portrait of sexual violence against women for the last 30 years.

Would you say the French and U.S. have similar attitudes toward sexual crimes?

The #MeToo movement came from the U.S., not from France … But what we see is that in every occidental society, sexual violence has long been underestimated, not taken into account, not considered a serial crime. Now things have changed, in the U.S. and here in France. But things don’t radically change in seven or eight years. The attitude of police and justice has changed, and rape is considered a serious crime. Yet, this serious crime only seldom culminates in a condemnation. For 100 rape complaints, there’s only about 7% condemnation. For that reason, many victims hesitate to go to the police because they’re not sure it’s worth it. The main difference is between French and American laws. In France, the sentences can’t be cumulated even if there are dozens of victims. So Dino Scala only got 20 years. In the U.S., he would have gotten more than 500 years in jail because sentences are cumulative.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on a series revolving around a group of 11 survivors from the Bataclan attacks in Paris. They were the hostages who remained locked up with two terrorists who were wearing bomb vests, and were miraculously able to evacuate the premise after the anti-terrorist squad came in. I think there was more probability to win the lottery than to come out alive from that corridor inside the Bataclan. The series will begin two days after the attack, when one of the hostages tries to find the others, and forms a therapy group which over time becomes a family. We follow them for years, until the trial of the terrorists begins in September 2021.

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