As part of the Cannes Classics 2011, Sugar Cane Alley (1983) will be screened as a special tribute to filmmaker Euzhan Palcy. Adapted from the novel by Joseph Zobel, the film won the César Award for the Best First Film in 1984. During a period when France is paying ceremonial homage to the late renowned poet and statesman Aimé Césaire, the minister of culture and the Cannes Festival are honoring the island of Martinique, of which they both are a native daughter and son. Honors to Palcy continue in New York City, at the Museum of Modern Art with a retrospective of her career from 18 to 30 May.
As summer vacation begins in Martinique, 6000 km away on the French mainland, preparations are being made for the 1931 Colonial Exhibition. In the midst of a plantation lies Sugar Cane Alley: Two rows of wooden huts left empty of the adults who work in the fields under the watchful eyes of the overseers. Among the children who spend their summer playing is eleven-year-old José, an orphan, raised with the tender though firm care of M'an Tine, his grandmother. But soon, life will separate the children according to their success or failure in school...
Euzhan Palcy talks about Aimé Cesaire, her masterpiece, Sugar Cane Alley, and her journey as a filmmaker, on TV5Monde with Patrick Simonin, 13 May 2011. Translated from French to English by Beti Ellerson
Patrick Simonin: The Cannes Festival pays tribute this year to the great film, Sugar Cane Alley. The filmmaker Euzhan Palcy is with us. This tribute is almost 30 years later. And in fact it was Aimé Cesaire who was at its origins.
Euzhan Palcy: Thanks to Aimé Cesaire who was my spiritual father, I decided to go into filmmaking and to make a certain kind of film. So if he had not been part of my life I would not have gone into filmmaking nor made this kind of film.
Patrick Simonin: Sugar Cane Alley was made in 1983, it was a difficult film to make!
Euzhan Palcy: Because it was my first film, and also because I was young, woman and black, all of these...Yes it was a fight to do so. It took, two, three years to make and thanks to Cesaire I was able to complete it. And also François Truffaut who assembled my technical crew, gave me advice on the script, on things that worked and that did not. I was very much influenced by him as by Hitchcock, Costa-Gavras, Sembene.
Patrick Simonin: And it has become a classic today, let's watch an excerpt.
Excerpt of Sugar Cane Alley
Patrick Simonin: Euzhan Palcy, as we watch this film almost 30 years later, what makes this film still among the classics today?
Euzhan Palcy: I think it is because it is a film that talks about universal values and also there is a genuineness among the actors, who were not in fact professionals--except the grandmother, Darling Legitimus and the old Meduse, Douta Seck
Patrick Simonin: Yes one speaks of struggle, colonialism, identity...
Euzhan Palcy: Yes and when there are these universal aspects it does not become obsolete.
Patrick Simonin: The film talks about Martinique, about colonialism, about the desire to liberate the people!
Euzhan Palcy: It is about a grandmother and her grandson. She leaves the sugar cane field to accompany her grandson who has obtained a scholarship. The character is like the courageous mother of Brecht, she says "I will go to Fort de France and you will go their school!" It is a grand story of love and an old woman's fight for education and culture.
Patrick Simonin: Some time ago there was the thought by some of a positive aspect of colonialism! Yet there is still a way to go...and Négritude!
Euzhan Palcy: When one speaks of colonialism there is nothing positive about it and it cannot be thought of in those terms. Yes Cesaire talks about Négritude, he talks about all of the oppressed of the world. It is a term that is vast and very strong!
Patrick Simonin: With the success of Sugar Cane Alley you catch the attention Robert Redford and Marlon Brando and others across the ocean!
Euzhan Palcy: Having met Robert Redford at Sundance, he knew that Warner was interested in working with me. And I worked with Warner for three years to develop the film, A Dry White Season a film adapted from the novel by André Brink, which focuses on Apartheid. Richard Attenborough film's Cry Freedom is released and Warner decides that one film about apartheid is enough and puts it on the shelf. I manage to persuade Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer MGM to produce it and that is when Marlon Brando agrees to play a role in the film, and does so without pay.
Patrick Simonin: And then you make a documentary about Aimé Cesaire, for whom we paid national homage. Could you say a few words about him, this powerful figure in history, someone who had a universal perspective?
Euzhan Palcy: It is unfortunate that this grand tribute to him is only paid after his death. I made the short film called Homage which introduced the ceremony [at the Pantheon in Paris] in the presence of the President, and talked to the young people and they were introduced to Cesaire and regretted that they did not know him during his lifetime, as he was a universal man and at the same time accessible, a magnificent person.
Patrick Simonin: Thank you for being with us on TV5Monde as we celebrate your masterpiece at Cannes.