Festival de Cannes 2013: for the first time in its history, the festival hosted a Caribbean extravaganza on the beach. Caribbean Zouk music filled the air. The band played on even as rain drops fell. Euzhan Palcy emerged from the crowd, marched to the microphone and announced that the party would continue despite the rain. But then rain drops became a near monsoon. Euzhan emerged again, this time to thank the crowd and to promise to try again the following year.
Such is Euzhan Palcy. A pioneer filmmaker with tenacity and determination, resilience and an unmatched ability to be flexible while remaining steadfast. In this comprehensive and candid interview, she opens up about her feminist father and growing up in Martinique, navigating the Hollywood system as the first Black woman director to direct a studio-backed project, White heroes, her challenges with Danny Glover and Marlon Brando, her fondness for Ava DuVernay and of course, her love for her spiritual God Father Aime Cesaire.
MJ– I follow you on twitter and I noticed recently that you were going from Cuba to Haiti. Were you travelling there for movie projects?
Euzhan- I was a part of the presidential delegation, on a Caribbean tour with French president Francois Hollande. He was going to Martinique, Guadaloupe, because we were inaugurating something similar to the Louvre for the slave trade in Guadaloupe. We were launching that and I was invited. Also, once Obama opened the doors, Francois Hollande wanted to be the first one from Europe to go to Cuba and then to Haiti. It was important to talk to the Haitian president about history, about the past, the future and to make some changes in the relationship between France and Haiti. He was also the first European president to go there officially. I’d been to both countries before, I knew them very well. I’ve been to Cuba many times. So when I was invited to be a part of that trip, I said yes. I have projects set in Haiti, two projects actually that take place in Haiti and about Haiti as well.
MJ- What are those projects?
Euzhan-At the moment, I can’t tell you too much. What I can say is that there is one that is a science fiction piece set in Haiti and the other one is my project on Toussaint Louverture.
MJ- You know, there have been several Toussaint Louverture projects in the works over the years. Danny Glover had one and there was the one that Nigerian filmmaker Jeta Amata was developing. But you’re working on one as well?
Euzhan-I’ve had that project for more than 20 years. It was very difficult to get people to finance it because it’s in Haiti and it’s about Toussaint Louverture, so people did not want to be a part of it. Same thing when I wanted to make my movie about South Africa, no one wanted to touch it and finally I was able to get it made with MGM. Danny Glover and I had the same project. In fact, we were partners. Things didn’t work out well between us, so I left with my project. He still wanted to make the movie, so he went his way and I went my way. I never gave up on it because I truly believe Toussaint Louverture is a very important character in world history. People don’t know about him and they have to know about that man because he was a humanist, a great leader.
MJ- Are you working with any Haitian Filmmakers to see this project through? Any Haitian writers, producers?
Euzhan- Of course. I have a team. You cannot make a movie about Toussaint and do it from America. That’s stupid. You cannot do that. It’s nonsense. You need to do the right thing.
Euzhan- When I did “A Dry White Season”, I knew I couldn’t use White folks from South Africa. There was a big boycott on South Africa in order to put pressure on the government to end apartheid. So I called people like Brando. I called British people, those who were South African but had been living in England, like Janet Suzman. I also wanted to have Black folks from South Africa to portray themselves in the movie, which was a first. With the Steven Biko film, it was Denzel. It was not a South African actor. That’s why it was important to me that I have Black South Africans. Same thing with Haiti. You need to work with the Haitians.
MJ- Danny Glover has said that he encountered some resistance because his project doesn’t have a White hero in it. Is that something you have encountered with your projects as well. “A Dry White Season” for instance, was there resistance to you initial script?
Euzhan- That’s nothing new. I don’t know if Danny is discovering this just now. He should have known about it for a long time. That’s a problem all of us here working in Hollywood have been facing.
There are many projects I couldn’t get off the ground because they didn’t have White heroes. It’s a problem that everyone who’s been working in Hollywood has been facing. I don’t know if Danny is just now discovering it.
MJ- So what do you do? Do you compromise to a certain extent or try to find funding elsewhere, since we all know the issue is money?
Euzhan- There are different ways of approaching it. You need to get the money wherever you can and sometimes you have to compromise to a certain extent. I will never compromise in a way that distorts history or hurts my project. Some projects like Bessie Coleman, I had that Bessie Coleman project for over 10 to 15 years. I went to the studios, they loved the story. They would ask me to reconsider and create a White lead in order for them to be able to finance the project and to all of them I said I can’t do that. It would be a distortion of history and this is the story of Bessie Coleman.
I had a nice conversation with an executive at Tri-star at the time and he said “give me something to sell to the white audience. My guys in marketing will kill me. We need to have something to sell to the White audience.” And believe or not, he was considered the most sensitive and the most open minded executive head of a studio in Hollywood at the time. He was a very good friend of Jonathan Demme. He was talking to me openly and he said that to me and I said “Tell me something. If the story is good, if it’s is very good, if it’s well cast, I don’t see why people would not go see it. Approach it like any other movie. Just make it.”
I went even further and said “when you make a “White story”, since you’re saying this is a Black story, when you put a White story out there, do you have the same question about needing something to sell to the Black audience, the Latino audience, or the Asian audience? Do you discuss that with your marketing guys? No, you don’t.” When you put your story out there, if your story is good people will go see it. People from other communities will just go see a good movie. Why can’t we think like that when it comes to movies coming from minority communities? He said it’s not that easy. I was very sad and hurt after that meeting. Years are passing and in Hollywood faces are changing, but slowly now things are moving a little better. We still need to keep pushing to make these films. But so many films like “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave” were so successful. We need to continue to make good movies like those.
MJ- For some people, those movies you just mentioned had the same issue of the White Hero.
Euzhan- I knew you’d say that. When you work like that you have to make that compromise. It’s up to you to know if you don’t want to make the compromise and you can’t find the money to make the film. It’s up to you.
MJ- With “A Dry White Season” it seems you had to make some concessions without compromising the integrity of the project.
Euzhan- Exactly. That’s what I mean. That’s a choice you have to make.
MJ- And to me when people talk about the hero in this film, the cab driver, I think his name was Stanley, to me he is more of the hero in the film and the film is more about how the Sutherland’s character comes to understand his own culpability, prejudices and views of apartheid.
Euzhan- That’s what I wanted to do and it was not easy with the studios. I developed it first with Warner Brothers and for them the book is about a White man, so what they wanted to do is make a movie about a white man. I told them I brought the book to you not as a story of a White man but a story of two families, one black and one white, the story of the White man inside of his family system to show what happens to a White person when he sees the light of the truth and cannot turn a blind eye to it and pretend he doesn’t know. They are confronted with the truth, look what is happening, apartheid is destroying families. That’s what my story is about. It’s certainly not about a White man dying to save Black folks. It’s about a man who will choose to die to save his own human dignity as a man period. Andre Brink, who wrote the book and died in February, really appreciated that I made that choice in the screenplay. He told me he decided to portray a white man in the book because he is a White man, an Afrikaners. He told me there are a lot of stories about Steve Biko. He didn’t want to tell one more, he wanted to do something that nobody did and that meant put a White man in that situation and show the world that his own brothers will destroy him because he decided to seek and tell the truth.
MJ- With so many filmmakers back then so many Black filmmakers, female filmmakers, knocking on the doors of Hollywood looking for funding for their projects, why do you think Hollywood paid attention to you at the time? Did it have to do with the critical success of “Rue Cases-Negres” (Sugar Cane Alley)? Why do you think they listened to you?
Euzhan- Sugar Cane Alley had a lot of international success, big success everywhere. Warner Brothers first called me because they saw the film. That’s what they do, as soon as a filmmaker comes out with a big movie that makes a lot of money, has big success, they want to work with you. They called me. They sent me a letter. I didn’t want to go and work in Hollywood. I felt like I wouldn’t fit in. I wasn’t attracted by it. I knew that their way of working was totally different from the way Europeans work. I’d gotten 5 letters from Lucy Fisher at Warner Brothers saying she wanted me to come. I kept saying “no” and she couldn’t understand why wouldn’t jump on the opportunity when anybody else in Hollywood would. I said well I just got ‘The Color Purple” from Alice Walker, who loved my work. I read that book and thought “You want me to work with them, perfect.” So then, I sent a letter to Lucy Fisher and I said I will come work with Warner Brothers but it will be on “The Color Purple.” She sent me a response saying unfortunately, somebody is already working on it. Of course, I found out later that she was referring to Spielberg. She said please come, we will find something for you. I didn’t say anything and instead, I went to Sundance. Robert Redford, who was like a God Father to me, actually brought me to Sundance and I was one of the first French people to go and to be invited to Sundance. I was chosen and went to Sundance with my script for “A Dry White Season.” We talked about it. I showed him the letters. He said “Are you kidding me? You should go and check it out. Why would you say no without trying? He had his office call Lucy Fisher and he organized a trip for me. He put me on a plane and sent me to Los Angeles. When I got there Lucy Fisher proposed a lot of projects and I turned them all down. She was disappointed. I said don’t be disappointed. I didn’t come empty handed. I asked her if she knew about a book called “A Dry White Season” and she no. I had the book in my back pocket and handed it to her.
She kept me in town for almost a week to give her time to read the book. She kept me busy visiting Los Angeles. I had a driver taking me around, showing me stuff while she was reading the book. Then she put together a big lunch with 8 female producers and she brought me in and she asked me to tell them about my vision. If they were to produce that film, what kind of movie did I want to make, based on that book. When I told them what I wanted to do they were all crying around the table. Lucy said great let’s make the movie.
To answer your question more directly, I think the relationships I’ve had with Warner Brothers, then MGM, Paramount, Disney, Fox, and even Columbia, I have a special relationship with them where I would tell them yes, I want this or no I don’t want that. And I say it with respect. Maybe because I am not American, I am Black European.
MJ- I think that has something to do with it. Of course, you are talented and your work constitute the most of the reasons they reacted in such a way. But as a Black Caribbean filmmaker myself, I have found that the way I am treated is different than my African-American peers. I don’t know if you find this to be true.
Euzhan- Yes, I think so. There are things I tell them that they will accept from me but would not accept from an African-American. I think also, African-Americans won’t say certain things because they don’t have these types of proximities and relationships because of the past. Do you understand what I am saying?
MJ- Would you say that the rapport that you have with the powers that be in the United States is akin to the rapport Blacks from the French Caribbean, like Martinique for instance, have with the French?
Euzhan- Exactly. When African-Americans come to France, the French show them more consideration than they would show an African or a Black Caribbean. When African-Americans come to France, the French people are like “Oh, wow. Oh my God.” But if it’s an African, they’re like ‘Whatever.” It’s all because of the past, because of our history.
MJ- History of oppression and colonialism and slavery, etc.
Euzhan- Yes, but you know what, I am very proud to say his because it’s the truth, I am very proud to have work with the different studios I worked with, even if I didn’t get to direct everything we developed. I am very happy I cause some changes in their behaviors and the way of seeing the things, even if after left they went back to the way they were before. Every movie I did with them, I made the movie that I wanted to make. They let me do my thing. I negotiated with them. I argued with them and I made them understand why I think this is wrong and why I think that is good.
When I was shooting “A Dry White Season”, at some point, I had a fight with Marlon Brando about a scene we cut from of the movie. He was very upset and he went and bad mouthed me everywhere to everybody.
MJ- What was the scene?
Euzhan- It was a scene in the courtroom where he was insulting a magistrate and the magistrate ordered the guards to throw him out. It was a way to show that White South Africans really believed they were above the law. The scene didn’t go the way we wanted. I couldn’t keep it in the movie because it would have been distracting. It would have made people laugh, the way the two guards dragged him out and the way he was behaving. That scene would’ve taken viewers out of the movie and it would’ve destroyed my film. When we were shooting, I did two takes and my producer said leave it alone. Marlon hadn’t worked in 10 years and he was just coming back. So she was very scared that he could have a heart attack. She didn’t want me to pursue shooting the scene and she said well we have to live with what you have and I cannot, as a producer, allow you to keep starting with him because if anything happens we will lose everything. When I cut the film, Marlon didn’t like it. He was very upset that we cut that scene from the film. But I stood my ground. I said nope, nope, nope. Even if I love you, even if I made you come back to the screen, even if you did it for me or for the project, I am not going to betray my work and the South African people and the whole team just to make you happy. He was so mad, he called he studio and they backed me up. He yelled at them, insulted them, but the studio said this is her movie. I’ve never seen that in Hollywood. 1st time ever , to my knowledge, that a studio would take a stand for a director, a young female Black director, against a huge Hollywood star. I don’t think there are two stories like that in Hollywood history. And MGM did it. They said, this is her film and if she doesn’t want the scene to be in it, it won’t be in it. They told me that, and Marlon went crazy.
MJ- But then look what happened. Was he not nominated or did he even win …
Euzhan- …of course. He was nominated and he realized that I was right. I have a letter that he wrote me, 3 pages with his handwriting. He said the most beautiful and extraordinary things in that letter and he signed it “With love and respect. Marlon Brando.” That’s why you need to take a stand. After he had bad mouthed me, went crazy putting on pressure hoping I’d get scared and put the scene back in the movie, did I change the story? No. I am not going to do that.
I have the most fantastic relationship with the studio, as I said. That’s just the truth. The only negative thing that I can say about the Hollywood studios that I’ve work with, the system, the people I approach and develop things with, is the fact that those kind of problems of Black leads vs. White leads. It’s the same problem all the time. But we need to be very strong and very adult and make the right decisions for the project that we want to make. The right decision sometimes also means not doing the project. If you really believe that the piece will be ruined, that you will be ashamed of the project for the rest of your life, or not be able to look at yourself in the mirror or to have to justify yourself in the eyes of the world, then drop the project. Wait and hope that you will make a movie that is successful enough that will get you enough money and then you will have the freedom to do it your way. Otherwise, you have to accept some compromise, as long as you’re not destroying your film. It’s a very important decision
MJ- You were a young filmmaker when this battle went down with Brando and and when you made “Sugar Cane Alley” you were also a very young filmmaker. I was born and raised in Haiti
Euzhan- Oh my second country …
MJ- … with Haitians, growing up the rule was that you finish high school and then you go to school and become a lawyer, doctor, or engineer. The family isn’t interested in anything else. Certainly no one wants you to become an artist. Is there that same pressure in Martinique and how did you choose the filmmaking path?
Euzhan- I decided to be a filmmaker when I was 10 years old. I was very lucky to grow up in a family where my father was the first feminist that I ever met. We were two girls and four boys. My father always taught us that girls should do what boys do and boys should do what girls. Clean the house, wash dishes etc. there was no domestic work that was exclusive to females in the house. If you have 10 fingers, you have to be able to do what is necessary. My father always said that he would be so upset if his two daughters would got married without having jobs and being independent. He said having a job would give us freedom and we wouldn’t have to get into a marriage just to be dependent on a man. He was not rich but he was hard worker. He told us our job was to decide what we wanted to be and his job was give us whatever we needed to fulfill that dream. He said he wouldn’t leave houses or land. But that would be the only heritage that he would give us. He understood that I loved movies and I used to write poems at a young age. I used to compose songs and he was my first audience.
So he knew who I was and he respected that. He always accompanied and encouraged me. He knew that the country needed. I would hear him talking to his friends and they would say “you are not afraid to send your daughter to study cinema in France? Nobody is that here. Girls go to study to be a doctor, lawyer” as you just said, “but not to be an actress or a filmmaker.” He used to tell them “I know my girl. She knows what she wants and she knows what she’s doing. So then she will be the first. The country needs that.” I was young but I would hear him saying that to his friends.
Every movie I made, he came to the set. He was very discreet and always smiled at me. He was always there for me. Always. He died three years ago and that killed me. So you understand why I am so resilient and can make tough decisions. I refuse to make many films that are sent to me. People think “oh where is she? She did those movies and she disappeared.” Somebody even said that I can’t get my movies made. That’s not true. The problem is that they keep sending screenplays that turn down because I don’t like the stories. I don’t like them. That’s it. It’s not that I can’t get a movie made. But I do realize that by turning down projects, it makes it more difficult to get things made. I had that discussion with Spike Lee when he did Santa Ana. He was in Paris promoting the film. He said maybe you should do something just to keep doing stuff and maybe then that will lead you to make what you really want to make. He said maybe you are too tough on yourself. I said well you have a family to feed, I understand why you can make these kinds of decisions. But it is very difficult for me sometimes because if I don’t like the project or I just do it for the wrong reasons I don’t have to do that … I don’t have to do that because I have a lot great projects that can be very commercial. I just need to find the right person, the right place to set those projects. Just one and if one is successful I know that I win. I win and I will be able to make the rest and can take my time. I didn’t waste my time because I did a lot of other stuff. I was busy taking care of kids, helping an actress in Africa make her first film, producing films etc. so I had a great time and I wrote my screenplays. I have about 6 stories that are ready.
MJ- Are you then looking for specific types of stories? When one looks at your body of work, there are some recurring themes like rejection of assimilation in movies like “Sugar Cane Alley” and “Dry White Season”. There is a search and an assertion of one’s identity, whether it’s a Black Caribbean identity or a South African identity. Are those the types of films you are looking for? Is that why you are rejecting the ones that come across your desk?
Euzhan- No. Not at all I love great stories. And great stories can be through comedy, action thriller, suspense thriller etc. Alfred Hitchcock, Costa Gavras and Billy Wilder were all mentors to me. They are very different and that’s what I love. What is important to me is to talk about humankind, human things. l’Homme (Mankind). I am not interested in politics but I am interested in how politics affect people. What happens to that person? How will that person cope? Apartheid, for instance. How did that affect people and why it needs to stop. That’s what I’m interested in. Another recurring theme for me is school, Education. You will find that in all of my movies because I know so well that an uneducated person will be a slave to somebody else or a slave to the system. You are not free if you don’t know how to read and write. You can even go to jail for something you didn’t do because you signed a paper and you didn’t know how to read or write. With my new projects, I have comedies, action comedies, love stories, a science fiction piece. All of them involve Black folks and White folks, but I have Black folks in the leads.
MJ- I thought that in looking at your work “Sugar Cane Alley”, for instance, if you look at what was happening between Martinique and France in the 30s how Blacks in Martinique were asserting their own identity. Same goes with “Simeon”, with the members of Kassav and the music saying that we want music in Kreyol, we want zouk music, we reject French music and French class. I see that throughout your film. Even when it’s not the subject of the films there’s an element of …
Euzhan- Self Identity.
Euzhan- Yes. Absolutely. I am not moving away from that. I can still have that quest for identity through different genres but I always want to be universal so that people can relate. I remember a few months ago, I was being interviewed and a French journalist was trying to tell me that the new thing, that new fashion thing is “diversity”. I laughed. I said “please! Don’t talk to me about diversity now that you are discovering it.” Because of who I am and where I was born, where I came from, I embody diversity. I am the embodiment of diversity by just being myself. My country is plural and I am a citizen of the world. Because I was born in the Caribbean, I have all these things. So I am, just me, I am diversity. So don’t try to sell me diversity.
MJ- I guess what they are trying to say is that they are finally trying inclusion or finally reflecting what society looks like but they call it diversity. Has “Simeon” been restored already or is it in the process of being restored?
Euzhan- It’s done. It’s ready to be on the screen, dvd, blu-ray etc.
MJ- And it screened in France in 2013 as part of the Cannes Classics, right?
Euzhan- Yes. Exactly
MJ- I was there and I remember there was a Caribbean extravaganza/concert by the beach. You were there too.
Euzhan- Yes, yes, yes and it was pouring rain.
MJ- It was and the concert had to be stopped. I remember you going to the microphone and saying we will try to this again next year. Is that going to be an annual thing, to have a Caribbean presence that strong but that necessary really at Cannes?
Euzhan- Maybe. We said that but it’s up to Cannes. We will see. I may be busy doing other things but I wanted to have “Simeon” so people can have access to it. You know, an actor from the U.S. told me yesterday that he has a recording of Miles Davis where Miles was painting and he was being interviewed about music. And Miles mentioned the band Kassav. He said ‘do you know that young group kassav, that new music?” Miles loved their music. When he talked about new music he meant the way that Kassav put the music together, the sound.
MJ- That’s one of the things I loved in ‘Simeon’. The music. I grew up listening to Kassav because in Haiti it’s all about Kompa and Zouk. We had Tabou Combo.
Euzhan- Me too.
MJ- And “Simeon” is such a pleasure to watch. It feels like the Caribbean, our music, our colors, dance, food, love.
Euzhan- Wait ‘till you see the restored version because the image is 4k and the sound is 5.1 now.
MJ- Did you find it difficult to work with musicians as opposed to trained actors in “Simeon”?
Euzhan- Not at all. And allow me to say this without being pretentious, but I have a gift to turn people into good actors. If I can direct children, I can direct whoever. I have my way of directing people, my way of working with them and my method. It was not difficult at all.
MJ- There was an Aime Cesaire quote in the film. I don’t remember the exact quote but it just feels like his influence is seen throughout all of your body of work.
Euzhan- You are right. Absolutely. Aime Cesaire was the foundation. He was the “Pere Fondateur” (founding father) for so many of us all over the planet. I was very privileged to be his spiritual daughter, just like I was very priveleged to be Mayou Angelou’s goddaughter, she was my marraine (godmother). Aime Cesaire gave me the key to myself, a sense of who I am, where I came from and what my mission in this world should be. My father started it his way and Aime Cesaire, when I met with him, I was very young and he took me on the road. And I did a three part documentary about him.
MJ- “Aime Cesaire En Sept Minutes”?
Euzhan- No. Sarkozy wanted to bring Cesaire to the Pantheon where the greats are. He needed to have 7 minutes of something to tell the people who Cesaire was. His people called me and based on the 3 hour documentary that I had on Cesaire, they wanted 7 minutes. It was a big challenge. That’s how I made “Aime Cesaire En Sept Minutes.” But there is a box set of 3 DVDs called “Aime Cesaire, A Voice for History. Aime Cesaire for the 21st Century.” It’s about his life, Haiti, the cold war, Africa, everything. At the time I was shooting that project and producing it, Steven Spielgberg’s office offered me a movie. I had to say no because I couldn’t drop what I was doing on Aime Cesaire and run and make his movie. This drove my agent at William Morris crazy. He didn’t understand why I would do that. He didn’t know anything about Aime Cesaire and I said to him when you find out who Aime Cesaire is, you’ll understand. And even Steven Spielberg, if I tell Mr. Spielberg that my choice is between his offer and Aime Cesaire. He would understand that I made the right decision. Today the only complete work about Aime Cesaire is what the one I did.
MJ- He’s such an important figure. He’s from Martinique but the Negritude movement was huge. It was huge for Black people and for oppressed people everywhere.
Euzhan- What was good with Cesaire is that he spoke for every poor or oppressed people in the world Black, White, Yellow. He was a true humanist. Cesaire used to say there are two ways to lose yourself one is by locking yourself into … like for instance if you are blue you lock yourself into blue. Another way is to dilute yourself in the universal. This means that you’ve forgotten who you are, what you are and you’re just swimming in the universal, denying who you are, denying your roots, your identity. You can lose yourself like that too. You need to find a middle ground. You need to remain yourself yet enrich yourself with whatever is good from the outside. That’s how you grow.
MJ- When people look back at your body of work, what do you want them to get out of it?
Euzhan- I want people to be proud of themselves, of what they are, of who they are and of what they do. When “Sugar Cane Alley” came out at the Venice Film Festival it received a lot of accolade. Believe it or not, the first people who bought the movie were the Japanese. What do the Japanese see in “Sugar Cane Alley”? It’s universal. The characters are a Black. The Japanese aren’t, but they have a heart, they have grandmothers, and some of them have suffered like the little boy in the movie. It’s about the universal struggle against injustice. I want my films to talk to the entire planet, to all the genders, all religions. I want people to grow as humanist. And I want to discuss those things in any genre. Plus, I love music and all of my movies will be full of music, because I’m Caribbean.
MJ- Speaking of music, I read a while back that were going to make a Mahalia Jackson film starring Fantasia Barrino. I haven’t heard much about that project.
Euzhan- Some terrible things happened. Fantasia couldn’t make the movie anymore. Some stuff happened between her and the producers and then the project was gone. I spent 3 years of my life working hard on that project and it didn’t happen. But you know, I am glad because I had other projects that I’d put aside to work on it. I’d made it a priority. There are projects like Toussaint Louverture and Mahalia Jackson, because of who these people were, you need to be very careful. Not just anybody can do a Mahalia Jackson project or a Toussaint Louverture project. Your heart must be in the right place and you must be doing it for the right reason. I’ll even go as far as saying that if you do those movies for the wrong reasons, if you are not fully sincere, these people’s spirit will fight you. They are very special people. That’s why there are those who struggle but can’t get there. It’s because they are not doing those movies for good reasons. You must be ready to sacrifice so many things when you make those kind of movies.
MJ- What advice would you give to aspiring or emerging filmmakers? I mean, there are a lot of exciting things happening right now with the success of filmmakers like Dee Rees and Ava DuVernay …
Euzhan- Oh yes! Ava is my girl. She loves me a lot. She considers me as a kind of mentor for the young filmmakers because I am a pioneer. She is truly my girl. When I saw her first film, I was so proud of her and I knew that we had a great filmmaker there. I had been preaching some things in Hollywood for years. I was being very vocal about things and was not afraid to tell people the truth. I wasn’t the only one. There were others like our sister Julie Dash who did “Daughters of the Dusk.” Somebody called me once and said that everything I had been preaching for years in America, everything I’ve been struggling for, the person told me that I paved the way for the girls are out there now and they are doing it. It makes me happy. The good thing is that they are very grateful. They have not forgotten that others paved the way for them. Ava is one of them. That’s what I love about her. She doesn’t think just about herself.
How many Black male actors would say they want to put together distribution channels for our films, to help young Black folks have their movies in theaters? How many would fight for that? All the big stars out there, do they do that? No. They don’t. They don’t care. They are just into their own careers, being stars and getting their money. I talked to many of them for years when I was in Los Angeles, doing my work, negotiating with the studios. I had this conversation with many of them but they were not interested. This lead me to believe that this is truly a female thing. To just take care of others, to say it’s not just about me. I truly love the saying “when you educate a man you educate an individual. When you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” This is my motto. Nelson Mandela saw “Dry White Season” and invited me to spend a week with him where I got the opportunity to interview him. I’ve never shown the footage to anybody because it was for me.
MJ -I saw a 10 second clip on Youtube of you and Mandela. You were just setting up the interview, I think.
Euzhan- Yes, that’s on Youtube. I chatted with him about women. I have a two and a half minute clip of him talking about women and it’s amazing. When I repeated that quote to him he said that’s right and he explained why so this so true. Aime Cesaire thought the same way too. That’s why I love what Ava DuVernay. We speak the same language. She is doing things I’ve been fighting for for so long, but I was alone. I was very alone. There was nobody out there giving me a hand or helping me. I felt like I was preaching in the dessert. And there it is! All these young filmmakers out there going through that path and I’m so proud, so very proud of them. And I’m happy.
MJ- There is this kind of a international sisterhood of filmmakers developing and we’re all helping each other. Still, what advice would you give to a young filmmaker like myself young, Black, female from the Caribbean who is trying to make her way and trying to walk through the doors that you’ve opened?
Euzhan- Remain yourself. Make the right decisions. If there is a subject matter that you want to put out there, make it universal. You’re not making movies just for your family and your village. Make it universal and accessible to everyone. Fight for what you believe is right. Learn a second language. It’s a ‘must’ today. I believe that all American children should be able to speak Spanish not just English. You must be able to speak English and maybe just little bit of French. If you can’t make it here, fly somewhere else. Go wherever you can to get the knowledge. It’s absolutely possible to do that these days. Go somewhere else, stay there for a year and learn the language. Work your way through. You will always find a good soul who will give you a hand. With the internet, there is a kind of solidarity around the world. You put your story out there and the entire world can look at it. And you’ll find people who will want to help you. People who don’t even know you. People may want to help just because you moved them with a project.
My dad was a man and was the first feminist that I knew. I have four brothers so I have no problems with men. And this is not male bashing when I say that we, the Black girls, need to teach the brothers a better way of working. I tried but I was alone and nobody understood what I was trying to say. But today, with all the solidarity with filmmakers, that’s beautiful. I’ve been preaching that for years, asking people to please wake up. So many people were saying that Blacks can’t work together, let’s prove them wrong.
MJ- You’ll be honored at the American Cinematheque this week on May 28th and both “Dry White Season” and “Simeon” will screen that day followed by a Q&A moderated by Ava DuVernay. Will you be coming to Los Angeles with new projects?
Euzhan- I am coming to L.A. two projects. One is a true story and it’s a beautiful piece that is set in French Germany and Boston. It’s a great story. The other one is a comedy-drama about illiteracy. I’ll be looking for financing, casting etc. Unfortunately, I can’t give out the titles just yet.
Martine Jean is a filmmaker living in Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter at @MelangeMedia.