• Film
  • INTERVIEW: director Claire Denis


INTERVIEW: director Claire Denis

One of France's most exciting living directors, whose films are currently being screened in a retrospective at Arsenal, gives us an in-depth look at her new film about Africa, White Material.

Image for INTERVIEW: director Claire Denis
© Marian Stefanowski / Arsenal – Institut für Film und Videokunst

An exhaustive retrospective of the work of filmmaker Claire Denis at Arsenal Kino (through October 31) offers EXBERLINER the opportunity to talk to one of France’s most exciting living directors.

It’s a beautiful Sunday on Potsdamer Platz. Not that Claire Denis can catch any of that glorious sun from where she sits in the subterranean world of the Arsenal film theater. She’s in a bad mood, as dark as the screening room where she’s been holed up for a full day of interviews. Two guys from the German magazine Cargo are coming out of the theater with long faces.

There she is: she looks just as if she got back from shooting in the African bush and set up her camp here in the cinema. Girlish figure and tom-boyish looks. No make-up, casual attire and her heavily-booted feet on the small coffee table set up for her. “Such stupid questions. I don’t understand. All they want is to put you in a box. They just don’t care. They give nothing. I’m not interested in doing interviews like that!” She’s not angry, just genuinely appalled. She takes a gulp of Coke: “That feels good!”

Where to start after such an introduction? With her last film, one of the best from someone who has been making films breathe as never before since her acclaimed debut Chocolat (October 17, 19:00) 24 years ago.

White Material is a return to the Africa of her childhood 50 years after she left it and barely a decade since she shot Beau Travail, also set in West Africa. Co-written with one of France’s most exciting female novelists (Marie NDiaye) and starring the country’s best living actress (Isabelle Huppert), White Material plunges the viewer into the chaos of an African civil war, as landowner Maria struggles to maintain her coffee plantation against the odds of escalating violence and anti-white sentiment.

Why did you feel you had to make another film about Africa?

It was Isabelle [Huppert] who wanted it. I never thought I was going to. She asked me to adapt a novel [Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing], but it didn’t feel right. But she wanted so much that story. So I said: “Even if I change the story I must keep something in mind…”

What’s left of Doris Lessing’s book in White Material?

In fact I didn’t keep the story of the novel at all. I kept Doris Lessing herself in mind the whole time: what she wrote about Africa after she left. A tough character, you know? In the film there’s a little picture of Doris Lessing. When the little kid takes the jewels, there’s a postcard – a black and white photo of Doris Lessing. So I think Doris Lessing is really there, but in a different way.

Did you at any point identify or empathize with Doris Lessing, because you have kind of similar stories?

Yes, there’s something I understood very well in her book. And I was touched a lot by it. I think she’s a great writer and a woman that says things that no one else has said. If you read, for instance, something like Karen Blixen’s The African Farm, the vision is almost picturesque. Doris Lessing goes to the core of what hurts.

She goes to the core of where people are misfits. They believe they can do it because it’s Africa and they’re white and therefore they’re more intelligent and things like that. But in the end, I think she puts everything in its place, she clearly sees through the white characters in her novel or in her essay. How desperate they are because maybe they think they’re not shaped to do something in their own country, and by going to Africa they would expect to be sort of stronger, wealthier. She describes people that are not monsters, they are not white fascists like you had and still have in South Africa.

But she describes people that are in between, completely lost. They think they are good people but they don’t realize that they cannot be accepted. Their relations with the people are maybe nice, but it’s only on the surface; the connection is too weak. It doesn’t mean there’s always hatred. There are relations that are sometimes lucid, but it’s probably too weak.

There seems to be a connection between that stubbornness and the very fact they don’t belong. That’s what Lessing described with her parents and…

…her brother! She doesn’t understand why he stays there. And [that] he still cultivates this land that rejects him in a way.

He’s obstinate, like Maria. And you, like Lessing, show her with dispassionate eyes: strong and courageous but not necessarily likeable.

She’s wrong. Maybe she knows she’s wrong but she’s trying. And therefore I think she’s likeable. Because she has made a mistake.

What do you think her mistake was?

I think the mistake was that she thought, like many human beings, that to be weak is dangerous. And to pretend you’re strong at a certain time makes you pass the dangerous period and you go through. And then, maybe, you succeed.

She doesn’t realize that sometimes giving up is not necessarily weakness. It’s a sort of reasonable weakness; it’s a sort of bell ringing: “No, no, no, you think you can do it, but no – not this time. You can’t go through this time, you have to go.” But she thinks it would be weak to leave. And then she will think that she will be defeated forever; she will have lost this plantation and her life.

She’s not very young any more, her life would be a defeat; she would probably go back to France with no home, beaten and defeated. I think that’s what she doesn’t want. She thinks, “Maybe if I try hard and last another week I will go through the danger and then the situation will change and I will have my crop…”

This goes beyond Africa. It’s this fine line in one’s life when you don’t know what is weakness and what is strength anymore. Sometimes stubbornness works out. Maybe she could have been right.

I think she could have been right, yes. But maybe she’s two days late or something like that. I think, someone told me once, she looks like a filmmaker trying to make a film against all odds. I was completely surprised.

And sometimes you succeed.

But I think there is something about that. Sometimes making a film is… You have to believe in something…

…that no one else will believe in?


Coming out soon in German cinemas is another French film – also produced by Why Not – Xavier Beauvois’ Des Hommes et des Dieux. There are obvious similarities: it is also about French whites (Catholic monks) who elected Africa as their home and are caught in a civil war. There’s danger all around, they know they are at the wrong place at the wrong time. But they want to believe that they belong there. Their foreignness somehow makes them more obstinate in their refusal to leave…

I think it’s true. Of course, in the Xavier Beauvois film there’s a sort of harmony with nature and time. In a way they surrender because they accept to give their life, it makes them in sort of a new harmony with this place.

Their faith gives it more meaning.

Is it faith or is it the fact that they must show that their faith means something? Anyway, I think in the case of Isabelle, it’s more on the side of Doris Lessing. The case of Maria is a case of disharmony. Number one, she’s terribly alone and she thinks if she abandons something to destiny, she will lose the coffee. And she doesn’t want to lose the coffee.

There’s money involved also. If it was just a matter of staying, she would stay in the house with her son maybe taking care of the soldier and accepting maybe to be killed. I think she could. But what drives her is also the fact that this coffee is the only thing she possesses; she wants the money. When you’re a monk, being poor is, let’s say, a peaceful state. For her it’s very problematic… There is one thing very strange: we shot White Material in a Benedictine monastery like in Des Hommes et des Dieux

How did you find that coffee plantation? It was shot in Cameroon right?

Yes… What happened is that I was looking for one coffee plantation and I found two.

The first one was owned by Cameroonians, but those people were really desperate. Arabica-coffee is a very delicate product, expensive to produce and if you don’t have millions of acres like in Brazil or in Guatemala, your coffee harvest is too small to be bought by big coffee-companies. So the only market that’s left is Cameroon and that’s a small market. So those people were rather tired. They were still cultivating their coffee but together with corn. I used some parts, the buildings, the house, but then I was sad because I wanted great green rows of coffee plants for my film… like someone who believes in coffee.

And then, one day in my small motel I saw a label on the coffee-machine: “Coffee from the monk.” I asked and then I found a monastery ten kilometers away.

And it was run by Benedictine monks just like in Des Hommes et des Dieux?

Yes. They were 14 or 17, I don’t remember, from different origins. They had settled in an abandoned coffee farm that was built in the early 1900s by German farmers. There were two English, one German, but there was one from Cameroon. And he remembered his father when he was a child going picking coffee in a plantation, so he knew a little bit about coffee. So he convinced the other monks to give him a chance to revive it. “Give me four years and if it works it will be good for the monastery.”

So completely on his own, he did it. A young monk; it was a hard job. So with the first crop he could buy a small tractor – it’s the tractor we use in the film – and now they grow a big quantity and the coffee does not only feed them but [it] supports the whole village, provides villagers with a good living standard. With the money from the coffee they’re building a chapel and a new monastery because the buildings were very old.

So you used mostly their place?

Except for the house. They helped us a lot. This monk taught Maria how to drive the tractor. The coffee beans and everything was from them. So… there was something different. Let’s say this monk knew this country, he knew coffee, but the other monks would have survived very well surrounded by an abandoned coffee plantation. The monks cultivated a little garden. Poverty gives meaning to their life. In the case of Maria it’s not that – she wants more.

The thing with Maria is that she might be a strong woman but she puts herself in a situation where everything goes wrong: a highly disharmonious situation where you feel it’s somehow a battle for her to get anywhere…

I also think some people are designed mentally to look for harmony and others somehow get their fuel, their energy from disharmony. It makes the impression that they’re fighting all the time. I remember my own mother; she somehow was always looking for a sort of disharmony to believe she was a severe mother or a really good mother. And now she’s an old lady, of course I can tell her: “You can rest now, you don’t need to fight anymore, you’re OK – we’re with you.”

One of the refreshing and beautiful aspects of your film is its very lack of agenda, political, emotional… You’re not trying to show anything. Your compassion comes from that dispassionate gaze not from unnecessary emotions – a form of respect if you ask me. Do you feel that you’re dealing with Africa differently? How satisfied are you with the way western films show Africa in general?

I’m always a little bit wary because very often there’s a sense of this compassionate vision. This morning in the hotel I was watching MTV and I saw this band, this English-American band singing and dancing with little African children and smiling and singing with them, and I felt terrified. I think this, for me, is a sort of completely revolting attitude. Who are we to think that they’re good to those children? There was this sort of: “Look how good we are.” I mean, it’s embarrassing for me.

The only way to behave normally is to stop believing we have reached a state of understanding that makes us more compassionate or whatever. We don’t know. And I think for me, the only films about Africa I like are when there is not this positioning of the good white and the bad white.

Yesterday on TV, for five minutes I was watching an old James Bond that takes place in New Orleans with all those tough black guys that are evil and into voodoo and are terrible. They are the bad guys. It was so good to see that, they were not afraid to be accused of prejudice. This was good, very good. But nowadays if you go to Africa, suddenly you have to become a sort of French doctor.

But you know Africa well. It’s not terra incognita for you. So it’s easier. Don’t you think the problem might be a lack of knowledge?

No, I think no one would ever go to Norway or to South Korea with a compassionate attitude. This special feeling is reserved for Africa as if it was a huge space of wilderness and beauty and maybe violence and charm and smiles and innocence. All this bullshit. Like we have to protect the rainforest. I don’t like that.

I’m still convinced that if you feel so comfortable, and Africa doesn’t look like that in your films, it’s probably because you know it well.

No, I don’t think so. It didn’t come to me because I grew up there, because I could have grown up there like a piece of bullshit. First of all I was raised by an intelligent father, but also I took nothing for granted. I always asked myself about my relation to Africa. I didn’t take my relation to Africa for granted. I took it like a question.

You came back to France at 13. Was it hard? Did you feel like a white African in France?

No, no, ‘white African’ for me was a wrong track.

But sometimes people can impose that on you.

I don’t care. I don’t think African people would say that.

How did it work out with [co-writer and Berlin resident] Marie NDiaye (winner of the prestigious 2009 Prix Goncourt), a black Frenchwoman who didn’t know Africa so well? You went to Africa together, and paradoxically you, the white, were the one who knew place.

Yes, she was like a tourist. But she was a sister. I was not a sister. But it was nice to be like that. We had fun. We liked it. I think she perceived things I didn’t and vice-versa. When I read her book I realized that.

It was also a discovery for Isabelle Huppert. How was her encounter with Africa?

Isabelle was working on the character and she had her son in school with us, so with her son she was traveling around being part of everything. She was so excited to be there, but she’s also an actress. It was maybe part of her character to feel so well there, it was somehow part of her job.

EXBERLINER is giving away three pairs of tickets for the screening of Chocolat on October 17 at 19:00 at Kino Arsenal. For your chance to win write to [email protected] with “Chocolat” in subject by noon, Friday, October 15. Remember to add your full name.