Back to Africa: An Interview with Claire Denis (The Auteurs)

Claire Denis's White Material premiered at the Venice Film Festival this year, beginning its tour on the film festival circuit, where it next landed in Toronto—where we reviewed it—and will be screening at the New York Film Festival on October 9 and 10. We had a chance to talk to the filmmaker before her film debuted in Toronto.

Daniel Kasman: Beau travail was 10 years ago, and Chocolat was 20 years ago…

Claire Denis: More than that! I shot Chocolat...let’s see, in ’86.

Kasman: That’s nearly a ten-year gap between your features set and filmed in Africa. Why return there again?

Denis: There is no shame, no design to look for. It’s a pure coincidence, because a few years ago, after I made Friday Night, Isabelle [Huppert] asked me if I would like to work with her, to which I said “yes!” She wondered if I wanted to adapt a Doris Lessing novel called The Grass Is Singing, which is the story of her parents in the ‘30s in South Africa. It’s about a couple of originated English people trying to farm—although they are not farmers, know nothing about farming—and the fight to farm land they don’t know. It ends with…cows. It’s more or less what Doris Lessing described of her own family. Later, she wrote a novel about her brother who stayed in South Africa, actually in old Rhodesia—Zimbabwe now—who’s a farmer and it’s a disaster.

So I was thinking, and I told Isabelle that although I like the book very much—actually it’s a very important book for me because it was one of the sources of inspiration for Chocolat—I told her that to go back to that period in Africa, especially in South Africa—I’m not a South African, and for me, I don’t know how to say it, for me to imagine us to go somewhere in South Africa together and do a period movie in a country that has changed so much, after Mandela has been elected and apartheid is finished, I thought I’m going to make a wrong move. So I said if you want, I have a story, I’ll think about a story of today. I was reading many books about the Liberia and Sierra Leone. I told Isabelle I was trying to do my own…to say “vision” is a bit too much, but to describe something I feel, it could be a very good story for her, and I would be interested.

Kasman: You were working with a new screenwriter on White Material.

Denis: Yes, I worked with Marie N'Diaye, for the first time. Usually I work with the same scriptwriter, except this time I knew Marie and I thought Marie had a certain, I don’t know, I had something in mind like, Isabelle, Marie and me—we'd be a trio. It was funny, Marie, in the end, her father was from Senegal, and she has a real distance from Africa. She’s been there very rarely, so it was sort of a new approach for her, she was looking at things for the first time. So I took her to Africa, we went traveling to an agricultural coffee plantation in Ghana and in Kenya, in preparation for us to write the script. And for a long time I thought we were going to shoot in Ghana, but eventually I decided to shoot in Cameroon because the location was the best, and not because I shot Chocolat in Cameroon but because it was offering a better location, and also the better assistance. There’s something in Cameroon, this part, which is close to Nigeria and bi-lingual…my relation with Ghana was not very nourishing. People keep a distance—which I understand at the beginning—but I felt a lot of ritual politeness, perhaps because it’s an old English colony, but it created a kind of distance between people. Marie and me, they greeted us very well, but I was afraid we’d never be in the crew, what I had in Cameroon, where people had a sense of humor and people aren’t afraid to say, “this is wrong” or “this is stupid.” Something that makes shooting easier.

Kasman: Since you mention the crew, I recalled this was the first time in ages you shot without Agnès Godard.

Denis: Yes, I shot only one feature without her, because of pregnancy, and this time, her mother was very sick and actually she died during shoot, and at the last minute I had to choose someone else, who I had a great time with.

Kasman: The editing structure of the film was fascinating. There’s a long flashback structure of Isabelle’s character, Maria, on the bus. I know there’s a lot of elliptical editing in your films, but the structure for White Material seems to keep the characters away from each other. Everyone seems to be doing their own thing, in their own zone. Isabelle is always worried about her son but they are almost never in the same room, her ex-husband is constantly away, everyone seems to be drifting around one another rather than ever interacting and staying in the same place at the same time.

Denis: I understand what you mean, but for a strange reason, the script is like that. The first coffee plantation we visited with Marie, they used a motorbike to get from one place to another, which gave us the idea of Isabelle riding a bike, and if you work at this end of the plantation you don’t go home every 5 minutes, you leave in the morning and come back in the evening. Sometimes if it’s rainy, you don’t go home because even the motorbike isn’t good to use. I noticed when Marie and I were visiting this plantation in Ghana, we had a driver, and the driver was always with us, he always wanted to drive us, and we were never in a place with the other person.

Kasman: That’s what the film feels like to me, everyone in the wrong place at the same time.

Denis: I understood that this kind of plantation is spread out; the coffee trees are big so the plantation is spread out. The nature of coffee is that it has to be at a certain elevation on small mountains. And, in the nature of colonization, the house of the owner is far away, the house of the guy who works with the workers is on the others side—so nothing is in the center. I think it is also a system, it reflects the scene of colonization—you don’t have a sense of it. You don’t sleep near the other person. We had an idea that Maria’s ex-husband wants his own house, now he lives with his woman, so we spread it even more.

Kasman: And starting the film on the bus with Maria?

Denis: The construction with the bus, the thing that happened is that immediately I realized that I was with Maria, White Material was going to be Maria’s story. I told the DP that whatever happened, we walk beside her. We had a lot of contingencies and a lot of problems with equipment, but I said never mind, we stick to her. It gave a strange kind of geography to the film, and also, I found that while the film was with her, I never wanted a voiceover. I wanted her craziness ignoring what’s happening, and with a voiceover it would kill the fact she is blind, it would make her seem knowing when she is not. You can’t say this and this and this happened if you don’t know! So I thought, she’s always in the middle of things but in her own condition. So somehow we designed the plantation in shreds, in fragments. But this wasn’t meant to be a sophisticated form, it was, for me, let’s say, simple. It was more simple for me to do it from the bus, as the film starts, and to have the thread line of a flashback, because I wanted her to be a little bit too late. It’s only a two day story, and I think she’s one day too late. She understands things just after it happens.

Kasman: I think that’s the wonderful thing about how the structure of the bus works, as we’re never sure when the story from the past is going to catch up to the present—Maria on the bus. Events keep aggregating and you realize just how much comes between when you start with her and when you catch up to her. The movie seems so swift because of this structure, as you realize how out of it she is and then the end seems to come immediately.

Denis: There was something that happened during the shooting that I did not expect. The last day of shooting we shot the scene where she descends from the bus. We couldn’t shoot in chronological order, so the last scene we shot was the one with Isabelle crying on the woman’s shoulder. I had to slightly changed things, as I had shot other scenes with Maria finding the plantation in flames, but for me there was no more than this…when she says “I’m tired,” I didn’t want anything else. So I thought I wouldn’t keep the other scenes even though I liked them very much, because I thought, “this is the end,” or almost.

Kasman: There’s this swift agility to the end, where at a certain point the ending just rushes up to you, and it’s not because the very opening of the movie showed some shots from the ending. This reaction may well be because this moment with Maria so exhausted is the emotional climax of the movie and the rest tumbles after that.

Denis: Yes, at the end when she lies in the dust watching the fire and can’t help but watch she was crying, but it was not the right tiredness, her tiny body was not that tired…something was not like that moment on the woman’s shoulder.

Kasman: Can you talk some about the two actors in the film, who play the father and son?

Denis: Christopher Lambert and Nicolas Duvauchelle. For me, I saw the three of them—plus Michel Subor—were really like for me the archaic whites. They looked like a real destroyed white family in Africa, the pale skin, the pale eyes—they looked fragile.

Kasman: That first shot of Nicholas after he gets up and steps outside, the shot from behind of the nape of his neck, I felt like I understood everything about that character and why you cast that actor because of that shot.

Denis: Yes, it’s that milky skin. And Christopher too, I thought they were white material.

Kasman: That’s another angle on the title, which before I saw the film I wondered where it came from, since I hadn’t heard that term before. It is explained, or at least inferred in the movie.

Denis: It could mean two things, an object or person. In pidgin English, when ivory smugglers were very efficient they were called white material. Ivory and ebony instead of white and black. And in some slang they call white people “whitie” or “the white stuff,” you know? So I mixed it.

Kasman: I liked the sense—the first time you hear the term is when two boys of the rebel army find Christopher’s gold lighter laying around the plantation—that what the term meant was an object that had value for the white colonists that had no value for the people who actually live there, like “oh forget about that, it’s worthless, it’s white material.”

Denis: Yes, and the next shot after that scene is of the big white armchair in the plantation house.

Kasman: How did the radio program as a structuring device come in? It reminded me of Samuel L. Jackson's role in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

Denis: The radio idea came from the fact that in Rwanda, the radio of the southern hills was famous for being the “lighter” of the killing, sending all the venom and hatred across the land. Knowing that in Africa radio is such an important thing, if you want to know if your kid passed an exam, you listen to the radio, if someone is dead, you learn it from the radio, the funeral ceremony, it’s on the radio. If there’s some problem like work on a road and it’s better not to use that road for a day or two—it’s from the radio. The radio is so great in Africa, but suddenly because of the radio in Rwanda it becomes this horrible igniter. That’s number one, number two is that—although I like Do the Right Thing, I completely forgot the radio in that film!—I remember this film, great film, of the ‘70s of this guy who has to drive a car from one place to another very fast and is tailed by the police. There’s a local radio station that helps the guy avoid the police. It’s a famous American B-movie but I forget the title.

Kasman: The ending, where Maria is walking back to the plantation in the day to a jump cut to her at night after it has been burnt down, this day/night shift was incredibly startling to me. Almost more so than the violent act which ends the film.

Denis: I had shots of her at dusk, but during the day I shot the scene of Maria crying I thought, “no, I’m not ready for that any more.” I think, somehow, when I’m not shooting in chronological order, I find it’s very unfair for the type of actress like Isabelle, which hold their horses but on the last day they give something that’s a salute. And if that scene is not close to the end of the film, it can unbalance it, you know? I’ve noticed that already, once or twice in the past. Normally, I shoot the end the last day, otherwise…I think it’s unfair.

Kasman: To the film or to the actress?

Denis: Well, to both. Because to the film…sometimes it works. But to the actor or the actress, it’s an emotional scene the last day of shooting, and to not give that emotional scene to them to do with it what they want…like, in Friday Night the last shot is her running away with a smile. I think it’s only fair to give her that last shot. Same with 35 Shots of Rum, the last scene is the one where he puts the necklace on his daughter. I always try to do it like that. It’s not for tears, it’s for…it’s to share this ending moment.

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