« Which country are we talking about? One world! »

Interview with Michelange Quay on Eat, For This Is My Body, by Olivier Barlet

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Michelange Quay, you made a short movie first, The Gospel of the Creole Pig, shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, which was a tremendous experience for a lot of people. Eat, For This Is My Body is actually quite different, much quieter. Why such a change?
This short film had an impact on people. I remember showing it in Cannes but I don’t know who was in the projection room! Many other short films were shown at that time. I’ve had interesting feedback for this film and I hope it will be the same for this film as well. For me, filmmaking is like a jazz musician when he composes at the piano, with a guitar or writes a score. You already have ideas, notions of what you or where you are in life. There are many films going on in your head and they all show up at the same moment. There is one moment when you take your pencil and some paper. Then something comes out and you have to reach the core, it’s mystical and you have to make some sort of calligraphy. The point is to make things work. Imagine you have an idea and you talk to your friends about it: it’s always the way you feel it that will make them sense the idea. It influences the way you’re going to film. So I’m very happy of the reactions of people to my films. I think, the best is to follow the living material where it takes you. Many circumstances made the movie, which is quiet and furious at the same time.
There are two different moments in the film. The first is in a big colonial house after the introduction from the air. The second part is almost a dive into a Haitian market among people. Isn’t the first part a kind of inner reaction to what happens in the whole story you want to tell: the story of the world, the story of History, the differences between north and south, the rich and the poor and so on? Whereas the second part is really connected to that reality?
I hope and I insist on it: through the diction, the grammar of the film, people can really have all kinds of readings. I would say that the reading you give is really valid for me, but can say something one day and something different the other day. I don’t want to sound too insistent on that but I really think that point is important, especially if we’re talking about the questions of identity. The very question of naming, opinion or label of a movie, what you think of it are related to that. The subject matter is freedom. Anyway, as far as a possible reading is concerned, it can be read as a possible meditation on the planet or whatever, the distribution of power on the earth etc. Indeed, afterwards, there’s like a middle part exploring the expectations of these persons about the world. It’s actually inside their heads, far from the physical reality. There is some sort of paroxysm of questions, and finally about some sort of cosmic or spiritual practice. It’s all about action; you have to go out into the world and meet people. I think that life experience is something like that going on. We’re constantly confronted with the real. In the movie, there’s a desire to talk about people, either white or black. Any people! There’s the constant confrontation with reality, it’s an hypothesis. We’ll be confronted with what we’re looking at, and then we’ll be looked at.
I find this especially important because the aesthetic of the film is radical. We are thrown into a reality through a spectacle, with a strong aesthetic distance. And then Sylvie Testud follow the river and goes to the market, and jump in this reality in another way…
You know, a film is a beautiful thing, and looking is a beautiful thing! We’re like children! I was walking in the street with my child the other day, and there was an advertisement for Grand Theft Auto IV, this video game which has a huge budget. There was a big poster of a girl fixing me, sucking a lollipop with her bra falling off… And this video game is intended for all ages. My little girl asked me: « Dad, what is that? » I don’t know if this girl sucking a lollipop is OK for her! (Laughter) What I mean is that these days, there’s such a desire to do bigger, larger, louder, and creepier in the content… But in terms of sound quality, image quality, it’s getting different. By filming humanity, we’re filming a hive. Animals are profoundly human beings. The active watching in a cinema is important, people are provided with a medium that allows them to have an active look. Before thinking about meeting another race, maybe we could ask ourselves « what is an individual? » Is it an abstraction? What is time? What is our experience? So, during most of the film, our attention is called to attention itself. It’s not about race or differences; it goes beyond the sociological aspect. It’s spectacular and traumatic.
Madame says in the film « mes enfants adorés et rétifs » (my beloved and resisting children). It reminds that these children are resisting, as always. Then, there is a scene with a carnival, which can be seen as a cultural means of resistance…
This is my resistance. Once again, I wanted to focus on the inner, rather than just on the outer. It is violence; it has its place in the human process. But I don’t have pretensions to going out and doing a physical act outside of doing a film in this world and knowing what the consequences will be. What I can do in my position is trying to work on the quality in which I present myself, in which I communicate. So the carnival and resistance we can talk about in the film are particular. Resistance challenges ideal representation. That’s what I think carnival has always been about, even in medieval times in Europe. It’s about questioning the power. Even the kind always had to allow the carnival to exist because it was like a safety vow. I think this safety vow is interesting to examine. So, through the film it was interesting to see what race is.
As soon as you speak of race, it’s actually a question of relationship between people…
Some of the critics talked about my movie in terms of black and white. They simplified it, it seems they only saw the first level; they did not try to go further. These extremely binary stereotypes about such questions call to attention the idea of depth. I hope that somewhere between the two sides of the black and white spectrum, some questions will arise.
You actually bring the race issue with the title itself: Through Eat, For This Is My Body. Isn’t it a way of bringing the complexity, with these three possible levels of understanding: cannibalism, religion and colony?
Sure. All these levels matter. It’s like when two people are waiting for something to snap them out of the hypnosis of their argument. You have to contextualize them exactly where they are in that discussion. Definitely, it raises questions about power, economics and politics. We have to take it to a metaphysical or grammatical level. How do we call things before we decide we’re gonna do something with them? What are the terms we’re using before we start to attack each other or else?
And you insist strongly on cannibalism.
Christian roots of cannibalism. There’s something of a message with Jesus’ history. I’m not particularly a Christian, but I thought it was interesting for everybody to read The Bible and the lexicon much of our culture is based on. This idea of transubstantiation, related to the flesh, is interesting. Maybe Jesus was proposing his apostles to step out of themselves symbolically: I’m eating you, you’re eating me, drinking my blood… We don’t know something larger than ourselves, actually. Such views are confronted in the movie because it has to do with The Bible and the conquest of a planet that was done. It’s interesting to use the essence of that message against itself…
In terms of black and white, your film actually mixes everything.
Yes, this is why I chose milk. Because milk brings someone’s body to another. The first food is milk. It’s about love, too. It has to do with the moment a child is first separated from his mother.
And you suggest the big mix of « creolity » itself in showing Creole women who mix sounds as well…
Haitians, African slaves put on that island, make a volt and were then banished for 200 years of isolation, forced to recreate a culture from scratch right there on the site. I think there is something in the Haitian experience that’s very true about humanity and its capacity to assimilate any experience and make some sense about it. The idea of showing these archaic, voodoo-dressed women doing the DJing is just to show that that’s very normal, that’s very possible, very true. Once again, I hope that the idea of « creolity » ties into the rest of the theme of the film. That sense of meeting happens even inside the individual. There is a part of us which is like a greffe, that takes up and assimilates things like a body does.
Isn’t it connected with your way of filming and your way of bringing the narrative? I mean the repetitions and the music which is repetitive as well, while the camera pans… Have you been influenced by African films?
Not really, I just know this, I haven’t seen many African films. I have seen most films that film students have seen, from European masters. The only African filmmaker whose films I’ve seen is Mambety, who I like very much : he has got that sort of thing that you see in Glauber Rocha, Pasolini or Godard where a mask is a mask, like the film, it’s a mask, it’s just an image, at least in Touki Bouki. But most African cinema I’m very ignorant of it, I want to discover more of it. I haven’t even been to Africa itself and I need to, in order to find out, out of curiosity. But for me what’s going on in the way the film unfolds is the idea of creating trance through ritual, trance for the spectator through ritual. And sometimes the ritual was very circular and very repetitive, whether in Africa or in Europe, when you see the bishop walking around with that incense circling round and around or even if you look at Eyes Wide Shut when they’re doing that satanic orgy, catholic black Sabbath thing, they’re playing that same music over and over. We see that in all the cultures, you see it in Buddhism too. You see the Buddhists, they have their own kind of row of beads, their rosary. The question of circularity seems important in order to hypnotize the subject, into getting out of his body, out of his sense of self, so that the persons are no longer able to situate themselves and are obliged to let themselves go to the « great unknown ».
The last picture of the film shows once again the man called Patrick by the woman who’s called Madame. He’s lying on his bed and he’s meditative. Is he bitter in your mind, or angry?
Honestly, he’s whatever you were. If you were bitter watching that sequence of images then he is because he’s just a picture, it’s just a photo. It’s what you are at that moment. The film is a series of statements but we give him the last statement. There’s certainly a statement within a statement like a Russian doll. I hope that people know that his last word isn’t the word of all the film but just a way of leading each one of the Russian dolls in the film, and in that way he stands for the spectator, and perhaps in narrative tradition, and even though this film isn’t a classic narrative, it refers to our narrative tradition. We’re constantly trying to make sense from what we saw and conclude something at the end of an experience. I’d like to hope this dream within a dream within a dream within a dream allows the public itself to call into question even the need to decide what the movie meant at its last moment. So we can say, « Is this the end, what is an end, what is an end supposed to be ». So I think the end can be any number of things, it depends when you saw it that night, what was going on with you because it’s just a photo.
Who are the most important filmmakers to you?
Glauber Rocha, Stanley Kubrick, Werner Herzog, David Lynch, Pasolini, Cheh Chang, who made Five deadly venoms… Stanley Kubrick is very important. The filmmakers who are the most important to me are the ones whose visionary aspect of a film viewing is in the forefront. I love Fellini but the Fellini that I love the most is Satyricon and Roma, where it’s us the characters dreaming the movie. I can even cite Alan Parker with Pink Floyd The Wall, this kind of movie I like, where the film is an acid trip.
How did you work with Sylvie Testud and Catherine Samie?
With Catherine Samie, we worked up from the monologue of the beginning; we sort of polished it together. I wrote it by myself but then, me and her sort of sculpted it, took out some words and others to make it even more directive She seemed to understand my intentions very well because she wanted an immediacy. She’s the only person in the film I worked on dialogues with and it was just that scene and it was just a couple of lines that we worked on. But it made a big difference. Other than that, with her, I didn’t work on her performance, she understood what I was trying to do. She turned to the camera and would always say, we’ll try something, we’ll see what happens, some kind of almost false modesty, she’s an older woman and she’s very self-effacing, very modest, that’s amazing. I hope that’s what comes at the end: a life. She’s making fun of herself, of her body, she doesn’t care, I cannot explain it, I’ve never seen that. Older actor, that’s wonderful to think of what an older creator is in terms of someone who realizes the hollowness and the falseness of the whole charade.
Sylvie Testud is very precise. I didn’t talk either with her about intention. Catherine Samie, she just performed, before the camera, this moment, close-up, do it, boom. With Sylvie Testud, it was a much more chorographical thing that had to happen. She was very helpful to me because we never talked about the script, we discovered the choreography that made the essence of the movie happen just within the first two or three shots. We discovered the rhythm. By the end of that day or day and a half, the tone of the film happened. You asked me earlier, why is it slower, why this tone in particular, well in this house, with this character, how to make this real, I don’t mean like reality but how to make this work, like a magic spell. It’s a thing that comes from theatre, almost: how to make this work, in this room, with this dress, with these objects, with this line that needs to be said, let’s find the secret of this text and these actors and this place and this camera and this lighting. She’s just good at it, both of them are great actors. What I enjoyed as well is that I had two other actors. One was Jean-Noël Pierre, he’s an albinos, and the one called Patrick, Hans Dacosta Saint-Val, he’s a musician and all sensitive people, they’re not actors, they didn’t give the lead, we started with Sylvie Testud but they very quickly got the rhythm.
Do you think their experience of theatre played a role?
I think the experience of acting was very important for this film, because, in contrast to the outdoor part, the inside was very choreographed and theatrical. So that should be someone who’s comfortable being looked at, creating a presence in a space and that space can be the frame of a film, the same way it can be a stage. So it’s not just theatre actors like somebody has to, because in the case of both Sylvie Testud and Catherine Samie, they’re very aware of where the camera is and how to use that, it’s like part of the game. To give the illusion that it’s not there, you have to take it into account. And on the other hand, the one who played Patrick and the one who played the albinos, they themselves fell in line with that vibe because both of them are very sensitive individuals, one is an artist, Hans Dacosta Saint-Val, he’s a musician, a very good one, so for him it was very quick. The other one, Jean-Noël Pierre, he’s an albinos, he’s a very sensitive guy, it’s almost like working with a blind person, he’s so sensitive. I would just say, slower, breathe more and he’ll understand what I’m talking about right away. There was also the twelve children, they’re sensitive too, they’re children, but for that you have to guide them, they can go anywhere you want but you have to go there and guide them, almost like a piano metronome. They’ll go there, children are very impressionable. You just set in place the vibe needed, they’ll make almost like a hologram, they’ll amplify that same vibe in a very fascinating way in front of you.
Wasn’t it quite a peculiar experience for the children? They are street children of Haiti brought in France to act in a kind of strange movie…!
What I tried to do is put those children in the experience that they had in the movie. Not like children pretending to be children, in fact street children pretending to be street children. There was a furious tension with the producers at a time. There was a moment where I was really worried about being able to bring the children here. At the last minute, we weren’t sure it would happen and there was a question of having to go to Saint-Denis and find some kids. No, if that’s not the right kids, I’m not fucking making the movie! One lie is the lie that brings down the house.
Did you have to shoot the movie in France?
I wanted to because I thought it was interesting to bring them to that world. At some point in the movie, we see the children walking, for them to cross the Haitian landscape into the French landscape. We show some French meadows and they’re walking across it in the very same street clothes from Haiti. Again, the same way we do with the characters and with the principle in black and white, call into question, what is this country, which country are we talking about, one world. And the idea of country is arbitrary, as of political experiences.

Transcription : Thibaud Faguer-Redig et Lorraine Balon///Article N° : 7734


Laisser un commentaire



Africultures a franchi le cap des 10.000 articles depuis sa création en 1997
Nous remercions tous nos contributeurs et nos lecteurs
Inscrivez-vous à la newsletter pour suivre nos publications