|(Photo © Pascal Gentil)|
Isabelle, could you detail your own development in cinema, your films, how they have been received?
I have been working in cinema since ten years. When my first short film, The Genius of Abou was released in festivals, as it was very personal and relatively successful, people thought that I had finished my studies and were now awaiting my feature film. In fact, I had just arrived at Fémis (École Nationale Supérieure des Métiers de l'Image et du Son) as an apprentice screenwriter, and I never imagined being a cineaste. It took me some time to actually wear this second hat. I have made some short documentaries but I am first and foremost a “fiction” person. I need to recreate a story through my perception of reality in order to make it visible. In 2004, I made a second short film in Marseille, Pour la nuit (For the Night), for which I had a lot of means, a technical team of fifty people, and as many extras. It really was the cinema! This film convinced the producers that I had to make a feature film. I currently have two projects in the works. One is a psychological thriller that takes place in the United States and will be shot in English. The other is a comedy that will, hopefully, give a different view of black people in France, particularly those of African origin. But the hat that I wear for the moment is that of screenwriter. It's my job, I've acquired a real expertise and I am happy that it is now recognized in the profession.
Could you talk about the film Pour la nuit and its reception?
It is a story that I wrote spontaneously in one night. I submitted the synopsis to my producer who said, “let’s do it!” At the time, I do not know why, I wanted to shoot in Sweden. I wanted my character to be in a city where she would feel completely foreign. And I like the North Sea, its vast desert beaches. The producer thought that Sweden was a bit expensive... So I suggested Côte d'Ivoire, a very urban film where Abidjan would be a character in itself. I crisscrossed Abidjan a lot at night when I was a teenager. I had very unique experiences, often poetic, that I've never seen transcribed in a film. The producer gave the OK. Yet, it was not that much cheaper! While waiting for replies for funding the political situation began to worsen in Côte d'Ivoire. There was so much distrust, so much violence, including the lugubrious "death squads", that it no longer seemed possible to make a film there that would be shot almost entirely in the exterior and at night. I settled for Marseille, which like Abidjan, is a city built on the edge of the water, with long roads, and a cosmopolitan environment. Of course, I did not make the same film. But I think that I was able to keep most of what I wanted to say: How each copes with life’s grief, even in a less conventional way. I was very touched by the reactions of audiences at various festivals in which I presented. Many times women came to me spontaneously, saying they had responded similarly during a loss. While this is a film about death, many have said it was a wonderful call to life. I very much appreciated receiving the Signis Ecumenical Jury Prize or that of the "prix du public" at the Amiens prison. The prisoners told me that they felt good to hear about love and to see a "little rascal" who also had her share of humanity. These are the kinds of reactions that give meaning to the films that one makes.
I really like the film. I see it in the context of identity, especially identity in movement, in Africa and Europe. Muriel seems very at ease as a Frenchwoman but I sense ambivalence in her bi-racial identity, especially vis-à-vis her mother, though I also feel a tension with her father. In reflecting on the debate raging about identity in France right now, could you reflect on your identity as a Franco-Ivorian and your film Pour la nuit in this context?
The debate over national identity in France is a false debate about a false problem. The French nation has always been diverse. This diversity is visible more now than ever and people no longer want to deny a part of themselves in order to melt into a model of assimilation. It irritates some disgruntled people. But the French have rejected this debate by an overwhelming majority. However, there is still some way to go for a “metissage”, whether cultural or ethnic, to become fully accepted. When you are mixed, you are always asked to choose. As if you could amputate a part of yourself! I feel completely French in France and fully Ivorian in Côte d'Ivoire. I'm not accountable to anyone, and certainly am under no obligation to prove my nationality, which, in fact, from the very start I had no choice in the matter! As I enjoy saying sometimes, the only person in my family who actually migrated was my grandmother. She was white, French, and she came to settle in Côte d'Ivoire.
Undoubtedly, it is hard to situate my character Muriel in Pour la nuit. She made her choice, to identify with her father who is white. Perhaps her mother did not give her sufficient reason to be proud of her African-ness or, she simply did not transmit her culture to her daughter. So, Muriel finds it very difficult to connect to the black part of herself. At the same time she feels that if she does not, something is missing, hence her aggression towards her father. Her encounter with a young man of Arab origin will enable her to connect with that part of herself which comes from elsewhere. Then and only then, will she finally be able to mourn her deceased mother.
You are also a write...
Yes, I wrote a novel, La Grande Dévoreuse, when I was very young, at age seventeen, which was published. Then a few stories have appeared in literary magazines or have remained unpublished. It's La Grande Dévoreuse which led me to cinema because I wanted this story to continue to live in other ways. I love telling stories, inventing worlds, creating characters. To write responses to my deep curiosity of others and to help me better understand the world in which I live. In doing so, I hope to help those who read my work or watch my films, by giving them the emotional and spiritual keys to understand their own reality.
All of these creative elements, do you live each one separately? Together?
Together. Everything is connected and shares the same source. A story can live in me as a literary form. The images and sensations that the text arouses in me can give me the desire to make a film, or several. A number of my scenarios were born from new material, which I hope to publish someday.
Could you talk a bit about cinema in Côte d'Ivoire and your experiences with your colleagues there?
I do not know this milieu very well as I live and work in France, but also because there is simply no longer a cinema in Côte d'Ivoire! The "elders" of the first generation have died or no longer make films. There has not actually been a change of hands that has taken place. There was a policy put in place in the late 1990s to provide an institutional base to structure a film industry. It was a good policy, and at that time some Ivoirian colleagues and I established the association CORI, to implement on-site projects. But then the coups and war started, breaking the momentum. Today, the only really interesting initiative that I know of is an international festival of short films, CIFA, which takes place every two years in Abidjan.
I notice that you are immersed in the new technology of the Internet and the digital…
Yes, I love my computer and the Internet! I often say that if there were an object that I had to take on a desert island, it would be my laptop equipped with a Wifi connection. Even alone I would continue to feel like a citizen of the world.
Interview with Isabelle Boni-Claverie by Beti Ellerson, February 2010. Translation from French by Beti Ellerson.
Links of Interest about Isabelle Boni-Claverie