White Material: A tale of White superiority

Reading time 9 min.
Claire Denis
Claire Denis

A white woman refuses to forgo her last coffee harvest in an African country during a civil war. Her desire takes precedence over the fate of Africans around her. True to herself, Claire Denis’ White Material, released Wednesday in French cinemas, is a true depiction of the attitude of some French expatriates on the African soil. Interview.

Civil war will not keep Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), owner of a coffee plantation, from her last harvest. It does not matter whether her African labourers are able to flee the fighting or not, nor does she heed to her husband’s advice. Even in a hell hole, dreams can still be achieved for a woman who believes that being White is synonymous to invincibility. Claire Denis loves to capture her heroes in slow motion. She co-wrote the screenplay with writer Marie Ndiaye — the first black woman to win France’s leading literary prize, the Goncourt.

Her long shots see the camera wandering emptily while highlighting the fog in which the French attitude is seemingly immersed. Caught in a web of good intentions, Maria has grown insensitive to the suffering of a land she has come to call her own, one beyond her own coffee farm. Maria Vial’s disappointments illustrate the failure of many like her who have benefited from the bounties of the land and its people without giving anything back in appreciation of their hosts. A touch of humanity.

Review Summary and Trailer below.

Afrik-news.com: Can we suggest that White Material was influenced by Doris Lessing’s book, The Grass is Singing (Vaincue par la brousse translated into French by Doussia Ergaz), which is greatly loved by Isabelle Huppert with whom you have long shared the desire to make a film together?

Claire Denis: This is a book that I have known for a long time now. I had it in mind during the making of Chocolate (her first feature film in 1988). But when Isabelle Huppert raised the issue, I ruled out making a film about South Africa in the 1930s; a far cry from today’s issues. I however suggested she comes up with a more contemporary story. Sometime later in the news, I witnessed the French army evacuating expatriates from the Ivory Coast … there was this scene with a helicopter hovering over an area with White people who had refused to leave. This would become my premise after a producer sent a proposal to Marie N’Diaye to co-write the script with me.

Film directors and producers are working more with writers in order to avoid re-adapting scripts to the screen later. Is the approach any different?

For this particular story Marie N’Diaye fit the bill, but not for that reason. I thought we would get along on this project because we had already made some attempts (to work together) in the past.

Has the experience changed your writing habits?

Yes. On the one hand, I’ve always worked with the same person, while Maria, on the other hand, is used to writing alone. I moved to Gironde (in France) where she (Maria) lived at the time. To co-write, one must put oneself in an unusual state. We later visited Ghana together to see a coffee plantation, where I had wanted to film earlier on… This allowed us to build the scenario. But above all, I realized it would not be possible to make a film on a plantation that looked endangered.

What do you like about Isabelle Huppert?

It’s hard to describe what I like about Isabelle Huppert. I have known her for nearly 30 years. She is a very good actress. She is a natural in both theatre and film. She is a cheerful person, or rather one who is happy to be an actress, which I find fascinating. I dreamt of working with her on a good project.

Is Maria’s character in the film out of touch with the present time or is she simply in denial?

She’s just slightly out of touch with reality. Deep down, she knows it. She simply does not want to lose everything. Beyond her attachment to material wealth is her dedication to her crops; a trait of character found among people who cultivate the land. She believes that with determination, everything can be taken care of. She does not believe that this is the right time to flee. She believes she is part of the landscape, that the vestiges of colonialism have no hold on her. Maria does not realise her blinding stubbornness, but she will have an insight in the final analysis.

This position undoubtedly defines Maria as a product of colonialism…

Colonialism is an old word… We should find another word to replace it because the old word describes people who, themselves, think that the word belongs to a distant past. They say: “We’re not like that.” It is a way of saying that the past belongs to the past although we live in its shadow. Believing that nothing will happen to her, Maria puts herself in a dominant position. She continues to play the boss at a time when she should understand the fear of the farm hands who have begun leaving the plantation.

An imagery of many Europeans living in Africa. Paradoxically, those who have lived in Africa the longest are the most indifferent. How do you explain that?

I can not explain it… But, some know deep down that even if times have changed, and that their plantations no longer bring them much wealth, they still enjoy more advantages and their worlds would cave in should they return to Europe. We imagined Maria working as supermarket cashier somewhere in France, where she would dream of her past glory.

What is your relationship with Africa as a person who grew up in Cameroon during colonization?

I never give it a thought. These are whole chunks of my childhood, my young adulthood, it’s my first film, friends that I still have. Thanks to this childhood spent far away from France, in some African countries, I have a broader vision of the world. I knew for a fact that I was not African, that independence was imminent. Independence for me was to mark the opening of a new horizon. Today, it feels like the world is more closed. At the time, I could see the world change… I did not realize, for example, how economies would face certain constraints. At the end of the day, I do not know my connection with Africa.

Are your childhood intuitions being confirmed they?

It is changing, but not like I thought. Someone told me, not too long ago, that Africa is the continent of tomorrow. It’s a bit naive in those terms. However, the sky is getting brighter again. But there will still be a Jos (a Nigerian city where constant inter-communal clashes have occurred, editor’s note). It is near where we shot (in Cameroon, editor’s note) the movie… The economic crisis will set new rules and African countries will be less trapped than before. Maybe the IMF will also change their approach…

This is your first time working with Isabelle Huppert, but you’re more loyal to your actors. Isaach de Bankole plays the role of a rebel leader. He played in Chocolate. You are equally committed to Gregoire Colin, Alex Descas, why this loyalty?

With Isaach de Bankole, there was also S’en fout la mort (1990). During the filming of Chocolate, he was my strongest support. Just like Isabelle in White Material. He is someone with a lot of energy and this has been a huge gift for me. Gregoire Colin, I have known since his teenage days. I have seen him grow and I love him very much. Alex is a friend of Isaach’s. He is a friend and a very good actor. It bothers me to know that he does not get more roles. But that is France for you…

Although you did not intend to produce a political film, it is difficult not to see White Material in that context, especially as we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of African independence, and at a time when the French debate on national identity is making a lot of noise.

It was a coincidence. I did not think during the making of the film that it would evoke the debate on national identity. However, Marie and I wondered why this woman believed she was entitled to a piece of land, simply because she was hard working. Maria does not realise that her features are different, that she could fall victim to it. She believes she is at home everywhere. And oddly enough, at the same time, we realise that we live in a country, France, where not being White poses a problem.

Review Summary by Story Teller Trailers : The film is set in an African country, during a period of unrest and rebellion. In a farming province, home of one of the rebel chiefs, Maria, an unshakable and brave white woman, refuses to abandon her coffee harvest and face up to the danger she is putting her family in. In her eyes, giving up is a sign of weakness and cowardice.

On this plantation, which has already provided a living for three generations of white people, André, her former husband and father of their teenage son, fears Maria’s blindness, stubbornness and pride. Without her knowing, he decides to plan the family’s escape, their repatriation to France. André no longer believes in the value of coffee. He is remarried to a young African woman, who has born him a son, and is prepared to do anything for them.

This includes betraying Maria by putting her destiny in the hands of the neighbouring village’s mayor whom he considers a friend, without understanding, without even imagining that the mayor is involved in the conflict, that he opposes the rebels and has other things on his mind than saving this poor white family who’ve lost their way and are so incredibly out of touch with the country’s reality.

Neither Maria nor André suspect that their property, the plantation itself, is the hiding place of the rebel officer who has a price on his head. In the dense forest which stretches beyond the road and encloses the territory, a small gang of child soldiers lies in ambush and survives by pillaging.

YouTube video

Title: White Material / Running Time: 1 hour 42 Minutes / Country: France

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