Film

The Lost Boys director explains why his prison romance is a 'metaphor' for life as a queer person

We speak to director Zeno Graton, whose new film The Lost Boys tells the story of a romance between two young inmates in a juvenile detention centre

The Lost Boys

'I prefer to focus on creating a new narrative where, actually, being queer is [shown as] something beautiful', says Graton. Image: Kris De Witte

Director Zeno Graton says his brilliant new film The Lost Boys is a product of his “queer imagination” with a “strong social perspective”.

Set in a juvenile detention centre where the staff’s best intentions are undermined by the system, the French-language film follows a romance between two teenage boys. Joe (Khalil Ben Gharbia) is preparing to leave this (supposedly) correctional facility and rejoin society as an apprentice welder when his head is turned by William (Julien De Saint Jean), a tattooed newcomer with an anti-authoritarian streak.

“I wanted to tell a queer love story where the obstacle between them was something outside of themselves,” Graton says. The Belgian director is speaking on Zoom from Edinburgh, where he is attending The Lost Boys‘ latest preview screening, and admits he is “tired” after a month-and-a-half on the road. But, in between bites of a hasty late breakfast, he becomes increasingly animated as he discusses his debut feature’s socially progressive themes. 

Graton says the obstacle separating Joe and William – not just the brick wall between their cells, but the emotional restrictions of the prison system – is a “metaphor” for life as a young queer person. “This new generation is so much more free and comfortable [in their gender and sexuality],” he says, “but society has not caught up”. 

Zeno Graton, The Lost Boys
Zeno Graton. Image: Caroline Monnet

For this reason, we never see Joe and William torturing themselves as they fall for one another – they just get on with it, as best they can behind bars.

It feels like a refreshing alternative to the “queer trauma” narrative that drives many coming-of-age films with LGBTQ+ characters. “I do not think that storyline has been exhausted because it is still very relevant,” Graton says carefully. “But I prefer to focus on creating a new narrative where, actually, being queer is [shown as] something beautiful. Because if you never see that on screen, you will never feel that.”

For the same reason, there is no homophobic backlash from fellow inmates when Joe and William’s passion spills out in front of them. “That is a political statement,” Graton says. “I witnessed the warmth and solidarity [between inmates] when I spent time inside a detention centre. It was the least of their problems if one of them turned out to be gay, which always surprises people who watch the film.”

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Instead, Graton says that The Lost Boys‘ young inmates “leave their [individual] identities at the door” when they enter the centre and assume a new, collective identity as “an oppressed group”. Their best chance to survive in a system weighted against them is to stick together. 

The Lost Boys owes a visual and thematic debt to Un chant d’amour, a 1950 short by French playwright Jean Genet that portrays a sensual relationship between two male prisoners – audacious subject matter at the time. But The Lost Boys‘ was also inspired by Graton’s personal experience of the Belgian juvenile detention system.

Khalil Ben Gharbia as Joe. Image: Supplied

“When I was a teenager, a member of my family was placed [in one],” the director recalls. “That hit something in me and made me realise that maybe these places are not only for putting [people] back in society, but also part of a larger system where people are just put aside.” With The Lost Boys, Graton says he “really wanted to open a window on these places” and the people inside who have been “invisible-alised”.

Though he never visited his imprisoned family member, this idea stayed with Graton, who is now 33. When he was developing The Lost Boys, he spent around six weeks in a juvenile detention centre speaking to the people who live and work there and came away with a damning view of incarceration.

“When people ask if I think the system is broken, I say: ‘No, I think the system works perfectly the way it should,'” the director says passionately. “The purpose is not to put people back in society. Prisons are part of a system that aims to put aside people who are not seen as useful in a capitalist society.”

Graton cites the work of French leftist philosopher Michel Foucault and revolutionary American academic Angela Davis as key influences on the film’s broader political message about structural oppression. “These people are discriminated against on the basis of race and class and, in a way, gender,” he says. “In the movie I wanted to show that these [set aside people] are the reflection of our individualistic society.”

Though Graton says race is not at his film’s “core” – for him, it is above all “a love story” – it was important for the director to make Joe “a queer Arab leading character” with real agency. Graton, who has Tunisian heritage, says that past screen depictions of people who look like Joe “have mostly been supporting characters or people who are fetishised or victimised in some way”. 

In an especially searing scene, we see Joe read a spoken word piece about the systemic racism he has experienced in France as a young man of Arab descent, and how this in turn contributed to his eventual incarceration. “Of course the justice system is very racist and the police target people from oppressed groups – black and brown people, especially boys,” Graton says. “And that scene was a way for me to talk about it.”

Graton believes part of the problem is the fact France and Belgium have never really confronted the pernicious legacy of their respective empires. “And I think the UK as well has never really looked back at this colonial past and how it’s still very imprinted in our society today,” he says.

Still, for all its political gut punches, Graton hopes that The Lost Boys is a fundamentally enriching experience. “I want people to take away the possibility of being multiple,” he says. “You don’t have to be the one thing that society wants you to be. You can be queer, Arab anda revolutionary. You can be tender but also radical – you can be all of these things and still be yourself.”

The Lost Boys is in cinemas and available on digital now.

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