Filmmaker Mariette Monpierre’s touching and beautiful feature film debut, "Elza," screens at the Pan African Film Festival tomorrow night, Saturday, February 11 at 7:00p, and again on Monday February 13 at 6:10p.
Read Vanessa Martinez's review of the film (published yesterday) here if you missed it.
The first feature film ever to be made in Guadeloupe, the film revolves around a young woman Elza (wonderfully played by Stana Roumillac) who, after graduating from college, is compelled by unresolved issues to go to Guadeloupe to find and meet the father she barely knows.
Ms. Monpierre herself has an interesting background. Born in Guadeloupe and raised in Paris, Ms. Monpierre went on to attend the Sorbonne in Paris, and Smith College in the U.S., and eventually established a very successful career as a TV commercial producer for BBDO New York, until embarking on her own as an independent filmmaker.
I spoke with Ms. Monpierre, who's a genuinely personable, passionate and openly expressive person, about her film; but as you’ll see, our talk expanded into other subjects, including how her own complicated personal background inspired "Elza."
SERGIO MIMS (SM): Having seen the film already some time ago I must ask you one important question. Are all the women in Guadeloupe that beautiful?
MARIETTE (MM): YES! (laughs). I’m so sorry to say they are. Everybody tells me everyone is so beautiful in the film. I have a colleague filmmaker and she said to me that it looks like everybody is making love with their clothes on! (Laughs) Meaning that you don't have to be undressed to have this feeling of sensuality and beauty.
SM: The film definitely has a certain vibe...
MM: I think the reason why this comes out in my film is because, to me, I had such a hard time when I was younger to feel beautiful because I never met my father. I was so much needing this connection with him, that maybe I transform the world into a beautiful world everywhere I go. Like in the film, there's a line where Elza and her sister confront their father and she tells him that she doesn't want anything, and that my sister and I really wanted to meet you and she says: "I don’t believe anybody who tells me I'm beautiful because I never heard those words from you". And I truly believe that if your father or your mother didn't tell you that you were beautiful, then you don't know that you're beautiful.
SM: Which leads to the obvious question - when you were making this film did you see it as a sort of form of catharsis?
MM: This movie for me is like therapy and a form of catharsis. It cost me a lot of money you know. It was very expensive therapy (Laughs). But it was all worth it. Because I had to confront the issues I had with my father, that he abandoned me, and when I came to see him years later, he rejected me. So I had to take a look at that and come to terms with it. But in the process of doing this, something bigger happened.
SM: And what was that?
MM: That I connected with my father’s family, because now my father is dead. When I was born, he was 60 and when I met him he was 80. So he’s gone and his wife is dead, but who’s left are his daughters and the granddaughters and the grandson who all don't feel the same way about me. They don’t have the animosity or the jealousy towards me; and what happened was, after they saw the film, they came to me and told me how sorry they were. They didn't know. They didn't about my story. They didn't know about me and they wanted to embrace me and told me how much they loved me and invited me to their home. So now every time I go back to Guadeloupe, we’re together, we're close and I feel that now I'm part of the family. But it took all that for this to happen. For me to come back and be rejected, then to come back and make the film. But it was a happy ending.
But the reason why I made the film is because I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to contribute to the world today, to all the fatherless children, that it is possible to reach out. It is possible to create a relationship with your father even though he abandoned you, even though you are estranged from him, even if he's in jail. You can always forgive him, forgive yourself and a whole new world will open up. Because maybe he wants a relationship with you, but he just doesn't know how. So you have to be a little bit vulnerable. You have to take a chance. You have to believe and see what happens. Just let it be and see what happens.
SM: I'm sure that when your film is shown people come up to you afterward and tell you how that was their story as well, and that your film released a lot of pain that was inside of them.
MM: All that! But the most beautiful part are the fathers who came up to me and say, “I didn't know that I was causing so much pain to my children by not taking care of them or not being responsible for them, but I'm going to make the first step" or "I'm going to look for her or him. I'm going to be present in their lives. I’m going to smile at them and talk to them". And it can be just some very simple moments like just sitting down and talking to your child because we all have an act, we all play games and think that "No he doesn't like me" or “He thinks I'm a pain" or “He doesn't enjoy my company". But all this are stories or lies that we tell each other because it’s not always easy to approach the other person. But at the end of the day we all want to be loved. We all want to have a connection with our parents.
SM: But isn’t that the ultimate goal of a filmmaker? It’s fine to make a film that makes people laugh, or be thrilled or get scared. But what filmmaker doesn’t want to make a film that touches people and changes them in a profound way?
MM: Oh my God! To me the beautiful gift that a film can give me is when I can identify with the characters, and I’m still with the film after the day, after the week, the month after I saw it because I saw myself in in a film; I learned from the characters in the film. And that’s why I want to make films because I want to change people’s lives. I want to contribute something. I want them to be touched, moved and inspired by the characters, by the story and by my experiences. But it’s a very simple message. We all want to be happy and we all want to live a fulfilled life. And you cannot be whole, perfect and complete if you do not know the other part of you. If you don’t know your father, your family and have a relationship with them. It’s really a simple message, but God, so powerful.
SM: Which leads to me ask you this question. You have this fascinating background. You were born in Guadeloupe, raised in Paris, attended both the Sorbonne and Smith College in Massachusetts. And then for many years you were a very successful TV commercial producer. You could have stayed producing TV commercials for a major advertising agency, but you decided to give it up to make films. Was there some part of you that was unfilled just making commercials. Something inside of you that you wanted to express?
MM: Completely! I was in corporate America and It was a great training ground. I really enjoyed myself and I learned the craft at BBDO adverting because I worked with the best who taught me well. But then I wanted to tell my stories because nobody was telling my stories. How many black women in America have the opportunities to tell their stories? For example a Caucasian woman will tell the story of looking for her father in a certain way, but I have my own angles and my own issues and my own specificities that me as black woman in America, a black Caribbean woman of African descent, can express. I cannot let somebody else tell that story for me. I have to do it my own way. And the beauty of it is that in telling my story anybody of any race can identify with it, but it is from my own perspective. And that’s what I would like to do with my next film. Telling my own stories. We have so many stories that aren’t being told.
SM: Any there any directors who inspire you?
MM: Yes there are many directors who inspire me. However, when I decided to start production on "Elza" and I started writing the script, I stopped watching films. I felt that I had already known everything from years and years and years of film watching, and leaning from the master directors because I did not want to be influenced by them anyone. I wanted to come up with my own style, my own version. I did not want them to “rub off’ on me. I wanted to use everything that they taught me to create my own style.
SM: So what are you going to do next? You can’t stop at one.
MM: No you cannot do one and just stop. My God, once you get a taste for filmmaking you want to continue and continue and continue (laughs). Oh yes, I have plans for my next projects. I have several scripts that I’m developing, but I don’t know what one will be the one to go next.
SM: Usually they say it’s the one that speaks loudest to you.
MM: Yeah that’s true and I think I know which one it’s going to be because, even though I want to pretend that they’re all on the same level, there’s one that I really feel much more connected to.
"Elza" screens at the Pan African Film Festival tomorrow night, Saturday, February 11 at 7:00p, and again on Monday February 13 at 6:10p. For tickets click here.
Watch a trailer for "Elza" below: