With White Material, Claire Denis revisits Africa, the setting of her debut feature Chocolat (1988) as well as of her childhood years. Subtly political while also deeply personal, the film focuses on a French woman, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), who runs a coffee plantation in an unidentified African country amid racial tension and revolutionary combat. Obsessed with her plantation, she is blind to the realities that surround her and refuses to leave when the fighting between government forces and rebels gets worse and her position becomes increasingly precarious. Racial and political conflict is intermeshed with personal conflict and Huppert’s dysfunctional family disintegrates as outside events unravel. Denis paints a compelling portrait of a driven woman who can be harsh and ruthless to protect her passionate attachment to the African land she owns. Below, Claire Denis talks to Sarah Cronin about the inspiration for the film and its complex depiction of a troubled continent.
Sarah Cronin: In your director’s statement, you dedicate the film to Sony Labou Tansi. Can you tell me a bit more about him?
Claire Denis: Sony was a writer from Congo, who, along with his wife, died at the beginning of the 90s, without treatment, from AIDS. He’s a great writer, one of my favourites. He has this terrible quality, lucidity, and humour.
Did he write a lot about corruption?
He wrote about his own country. He was very active, he was actually in the rebellion, so he didn’t get treatment for his disease because of that.
How did the film originate? Were you interested in Maria’s story, or civil war in Africa?
It started with Isabelle Huppert. She wanted to work with me, and asked me if I knew the novel by Doris Lessing, The Grass is Singing. I said, of course, not only do I know this novel, but it was a big inspiration for me when I made my first film, Chocolat. Although in my family, as opposed to Lessing’s, no one was farming, we were not settling in Africa, we moved all the time, so I had absolutely no experience of farming. I told Isabelle that the problem for me was that period South Africa was not really something that I wanted to do. I wanted to make a contemporary story. Actually, I found it watching the news on TV. There were elements I saw that I put together.
It’s a much more tragic film than Chocolat.
It has nothing to do with Chocolat. That was a film I made out of my own memories, with a sort of – not nostalgia – but I think it was a flashback of someone going back to the country where she grew up.
It seemed to me to reflect a disappointment in the last 20 years in Africa – things like the seizures of white farms in Zimbabwe and Rwanda.
I think that touched people in England more than in France, we were not aware of that, except that the President of Zimbabwe is completely crazy. I was more aware of South Africa, because I have been there many times. Rwanda is a different story, it’s a genocide – you cannot be inspired by Rwanda slightly – you have to be very explicit with Rwanda. No, I was inspired by the west coast. Sierra Leone, Kenya…
The child soldiers especially reminded me of Sierra Leone…
Also Liberia, Nigeria…
I really like the scene where the children are ‘playing’ in the house and find the white dog, and the music on the soundtrack tinkles, a bit like a music box. It’s a very poignant scene.
For me, the child soldiers were victims. They were number one children, and only after soldiers with guns. I wanted them to be children first.
At the very end, why is the last shot of the young rebel, rather than of Maria?
It was important to me to give a chance to a young kid to grow up with some hope. For Maria, her story ends there.
Was she taking out her anger on her father for putting her in that situation?
Her father-in-law. There is no more for her there. This violence expresses something about that.
And what about Manuel, Maria’s son, has he been corrupted?
Manuel is not corrupt. He’s a young boy, he’s crazy. Corrupted is a big word for someone young.
At the end, he plays with the kids – for him it’s almost like a game.
Yeah, it’s something liberating for him.
And what about the radio DJ who gives information to the rebels, how crucial is he to the film?
He’s not crucial, but there is no place in Africa without the radio being like a clock. You don’t live without a radio anywhere, so the guy is telling people to pack and run away. The white people are going to leave, so if you are on the side of the rebellion, be aware, you are going to be killed.
The film seems very ambivalent, you don’t seem to favour the government or the rebels…
The mayor and his militia are not really great, and while the child soldiers are dangerous, it’s not right to kill children in that way. I’m not ambivalent as a person. I don’t want to be a prisoner of cliché, but I’m not ambivalent. I’m very clear, I think.
Maria is infuriating at times, especially when she puts her workers’ lives at risk, but it’s also easy to have sympathy for her because she has lived there her whole life.
Yes, I feel that way too. I dislike what she represents, but she has something – she wants to believe in herself, that she has the power to transform, or force disaster into something successful, because nothing in this family is a success. And I think that’s why I like her so much… and because of Isabelle, Isabelle gave her something, some of her light.
I like the scene when she’s on the motorbike, and her hand is floating up in the air.
She enjoyed that moment. She felt free, like the queen of the world. She doesn’t want to be another person.
It’s the subtle things too – in that scene where she shows the workers where they’re sleeping, and the camera just briefly shows the old blankets lying on the floor. She loves Africa and loves the people but she doesn’t realise…
She lives probably like her father-in-law did. She is no different – she thinks she’s different, but she’s not.
Interview by Sarah Cronin