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White Material - Claire Denis interview

Claire Denis

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ACCLAIMED French director Claire Denis talks about returning to Africa for her latest film, White Material, and working with Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Lambert.

She also discusses the use of radio for communication in Africa and why she likes to be diverse with her film choices and doesn’t feel as though her films fit into any particular genre…

Q. What made you decide that the time was right to go back to Africa and make a film?
Claire Denis: It was Isabelle [Huppert]’s idea. She wanted me to direct her in the character of someone farming in Africa. She had an idea… she gave me a novel. I changed it but it was her… she was the start.

Q. What was she like to work with? She gives an amazing central performance…
Claire Denis: She is great, really great to work with. It was not a discovery, because I’ve known Isabelle for many years. We’re friends. But to be a friend and to work with her proved to be quite a different thing.

Q. Did you have to tell yourself to direct her sometimes? Or was it an easygoing collaboration?
Claire Denis: With Isabelle, you don’t have to tell anything. Isabelle is like a Ferrari. She’s roaring and on her game from morning to evening. She’s so eager, she’s full speed and so intelligent in her variation.

Q. It’s also good to see Christopher Lambert back on the screen. What appealed to you about him?
Claire Denis: I knew him… we had the same agent for a long time and we secretly wished to work together without finding the right role. But I found it at a great moment for him.

Q. You don’t name the African country that you’re depicting, although you filmed in Cameroon…
Claire Denis: Like Greystoke… Christopher Lambert’s first part was shot in Cameroon as well and it’s unnamed too [smiles]. But it’s Africa.

Q. White Material paints quite a raw, violent picture of Africa though. Was that something you especially wanted to show?
Claire Denis: No, things like that do happen in some places.

Q. But did you research child soldiers?
Claire Denis: No. From reading the newspaper and watching the news, I knew already. I thought I knew enough. Anyway, I was working with people… everyone in the film is either a local actor or actress. The children were children from the schools, so I explained what the part is to them. We taught them how to hold a gun and to shoot, and I explained what would ultimately happen to their characters [in the film]. But I think children enjoy being filmed when they know the story.

Q. The use of the radio station to filter news through to the people reminded me of a similar device used in Hotel Rwanda. Was that deliberate?
Claire Denis: It’s actually the opposite [smiles]. In Rwanda, the radio was spreading the fire. Our DJ is a sort of Rasta guy and his message is “run away, otherwise you’ll be killed”. In Rwanda, the message was to kill. I made it exactly the opposite because if you’d visited Africa you’d notice that in most African countries the radio is the fastest means of communication. So, if you travel in Africa, you’ll see that people always have the radio on when they’re travelling. Sometimes you might learn that your grandmother died, that your brother is getting married… things like that.

So, this guy is trying to tell people that the situation is becoming dangerous, that white people are going to leave, so be aware that if the official militia find you they will kill you, so you’d better pack and go. Rwanda was a genocide and I think that’s the only time the radio was used in that way. In my film, I’m describing more of a civil war. So, for me it’s not the same.

Q. In that respect, Isabelle’s character seems to shut herself off to those dangers… she’s naive in that respect?
Claire Denis: I don’t think she’s naive; I think she’s trying to gain time. I think she knows and yet she pretends she has time to finish. Perhaps I’m wrong.

Q. How has the film been received in France? What’s been the most pleasing or surprising reaction you’ve had to it?
Claire Denis: Well. It’s been received well and that pleases me greatly, because it’s better than to be spat at [laughs]. But I have no expectation really. Things happen and you cannot expect the critics and the audience to feel this and that. It happens, or it doesn’t for me.

Q. When approaching a new project, what kind of things do you look for? What inspires you? You’ve worked in a number of genres…
Claire Denis: I don’t know. I don’t think this is a genre film. I don’t think I make genre movies. There is a certain type of violence in my films but I think I have my own genre because I made it happen like that.

White Material is released in UK cinemas on Friday, Julu 2, 2010.