Claire Denis discusses 'White Material'

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French director Claire Denis returns with another brilliant movie, a dream-like tale of war and discrimination in Africa

Claire Denis, 62, whose ‘White Material’ opens this week, is a French filmmaker who grew up in Africa and has often returned to the continent over two decades of crafting films such as ‘Chocolat’ and ‘Beau Travail’. Her last film, ‘35 Shots of Rum’, told of the love between a Parisian train driver of African origin and his daughter. Now, ‘White Material’ stars Isabelle Huppert as Maria, a plantation owner refusing to leave during an uprising in an unnamed African state.

You made ‘35 Shots of Rum’ and ‘White Material’ so close together you were editing them at the same time. Did you feel there was a dialogue between the two?
‘At first, I was unconscious of it, I was just working, working, working. But after a little while I realised there was a partnership between them. I think the love of “35 Shots of Rum” balances the war and fear in “White Material”.

Where did your idea for Maria, your main character, come from?
‘When I started working with the writer Marie NDiaye, I described the scene in the film where a helicopter comes to tell her to leave because I had seen that on the news on TV, with the French army rescuing French farmers from the Ivory Coast. Then, one evening on TV I saw a lonely old guy, who had been living in Africa forever, refusing to be evacuated. I had Isabelle in mind, so I thought of him as a tiny woman, a little white French silhouette in the red dust.’

You withhold many details of the war. Were you concerned about overloading the film with facts?
‘It was overloaded when we first wrote it. Then we had to drop things because shooting in Cameroon was not easy. We were five hours’ drive from a big city. It was not so easy to get military trucks or even a gun. Our electric equipment  was stuck at customs for four weeks and we started shooting with camera and film and no other equipment.’

You don’t name the country. Did you have a particular war in mind?
‘At first I was thinking of the Ivory Coast, but it’s still under the same president who suspects the people from the north of not being pure Ivorian, so it was impossible to shoot there. I decided to go to Ghana, but couldn’t find a farm. Then, suddenly, I remembered from my childhood a valley in West Cameroon with coffee trees everywhere. I called a friend who told me it still exists. In January the coffee trees flower and the whole valley looks like snow, all white. The smell is like jasmine, but stronger.’

Is Maria unaware of the danger to her?
‘She doesn’t realise that when she refuses the army’s help the danger is closer than she thinks. She thinks that because she’s white she has a little extra time, nobody will touch her. On the other hand, she doesn’t realise that being white is aggressive – it looks like she thinks she’s not in danger.’

And she’s not aware of that perception?
‘No. Let me tell you a story: when I was in Ghana with Marie, location scouting, I took her to a market and was speaking Pidgin, and the Ghanaian people would look at me and say, “What?” I would repeat it and they would say: “We do speak English, Madam.” Their reaction was: don’t try this little complicity with us, maybe you can speak Pidgin, but we speak English.’

You weren’t expecting that?
‘No, I’m in this naive position of the white person who grew up in Africa. You think you are the same. But you’re not perceived as the same. That’s why the mayor in the film says to Maria, “Your blonde hair and blue eyes are not easy for us.”’

Read our review of ‘White Material

Author: Interview: Dave Calhoun



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