French actor, producer, and comedian Jamel Debbouze was born on June 18, 1975. His large family moved to Morocco and then back to France, always living in the poorest neighborhoods. As a result, Debbouze clearly identifies with the issues faced by immigrants from North Africa. When he was 15, he was struck by a train, losing the use of his right arm. He was luckier than the friend who was with him who died as the result of his injuries. Today, Debbouze disguises the injury by keeping his right hand tucked in a pocket or out of view, as in the photo above. This life-changing event became the subject of his 2010 film 40 kilometers per hour, the Speed of Death.
Debbouze started working with educator Alain Degois on improvisation and joined his touring troupe. Live shows led to ever more impressive venues, including the mother of all concert halls, L’Olympia. Success on the stage led to success on TV. Success on TV led to success in the movies. American audiences may remember him as the harassed and abused grocer’s assistant in Amélie (in French it’s Le Fabuleux destin Amélie Poulain), which earned him a César nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 2002.
He gave an amazing performance in Indigènes (Days of Glory in English) in which he played one of the North African soldiers from the former French colonies who fought for France in World War II. He was joined by Samy Naceri, Sami Bouajila, and Roschdy Zem and all four shared an award for best male performance at Cannes in 2006. The film was so powerful that it actually sparked public outrage that the North African soldiers were denied equal pensions after the war. The policy was revised, but 60 years of back payments were conveniently glossed over.
Today’s expression, il y a quelque chose qui cloche (eel E ah kelkuh shows key closh) means “there’s something wrong.” A cloche is also a bell, but this is the verb clocher, which means “to be defective.” This was the reaction of so many who saw the movie Indigènes, including Bernadette Chirac, wife of the then president, Jacques Chirac. Apparently, she was overheard saying “something must be done” to her husband on their way out of the theater, and something was done. Well done, Jamel and friends. For a man who is 5’4”, from a poor immigrant background, and permanently maimed by a horrible, random accident, Jamel Debbouze walks pretty tall in my books.