From our special correspondent in Cannes – The Cannes Film Festival delivered its first honours on Thursday with a historic prize for Malaysia’s “Tiger Stripes” while African movies continued to enjoy the Cannes spotlight with the screening of “Mambar Pierrette”, an intimate portrait of a free-spirited seamstress and single mother in Cameroon. Its director, Rosine Mbakam, sat for an interview with FRANCE 24.
With the race for the Palme d’Or now in the final stretch ahead of Saturday’s closing ceremony, the 76th Cannes Film Festival made history on Thursday by rewarding Amanda Nell Eu’s playfully subversive debut feature, “Tiger Stripes” – the first movie by a female Malaysian director to screen at Cannes.
A coming-of-age drama about female puberty inspired by the body-horror genre, “Tiger Stripes” scooped the top award in the Critics’ Week sidebar, dedicated to first and second films. The jury was led by French director Audrey Diwan, whose abortion drama “Happening” won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival two years ago.
The Malaysian filmmaker won plaudits in Cannes for her bold take on menstruation and the trauma endured by young girls ostracised by their communities. While the film is set in a rural and conservative environment, Eu told FRANCE 24 it carried a universal message.
“There are so many parts of the world where women or young girls fear their own bodies or don’t have ownership of their bodies,” she said following the film’s premiere. “Telling the story of what happens to young girls is incredibly universal.”
>> Read more: Malaysian tweens earn their ‘Tiger Stripes’ in Cannes body horror
Films about the challenges of adolescence also picked up the remaining prizes in the Critics’ Week segment. Belgian director Paloma Sermon-Daï won the runner-up Jury Award for “It’s Raining in the House”, which follows two siblings as they experience first love and learn to fend for themselves, while Serbia’s teenage sensation Jovan Ginic won the Revelation Award for his part in “Lost Country”, about a 15-year-old’s showdown with his mother – a senior official in the administration of former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Mother courage in Douala
In the festival’s other segments, Africa’s “Cannes Moment” continued with the screening of films from two countries that are seldom represented at the world’s leading movie gatherings.
“Omen” (“Augure”), a promising debut feature by the Belgian-Congolese rapper Baloji, mined the themes of displacement and ostracism through a set of characters who have been rejected by their communities following accusations of witchcraft. Its screening in the Un Certain Regard sidebar marked the first time a film from the Democratic Republic of Congo premiered at Cannes.
In the Directors’ Fortnight, which runs parallel to the main festival, Rosine Mbakam’s “Mambar Pierrette” painted an intimate portrait of a Cameroonian seamstress and single mother struggling to make ends meet against a backdrop of social hardship and the threat of floods.
Pierrette Aboheu Njeuthat stars as the titular character, a mother of three who works tirelessly at her sewing machine to provide for her children while customers and neighbours linger in her small shop, sharing their joys and disappointments in a deftly woven tapestry of communal life in the city of Douala.
A remarkable debut feature based on the life of Mbakam’s seamstress cousin, “Mambar Pierrette” draws on the director’s experience of documentary filmmaking, which has previously explored the themes of kinship and migration to Europe. FRANCE 24 spoke to the filmmaker about her focus on character studies and her commitment to promoting African stories in the moviemaking industry.
“Mambar Pierrette” is your first feature-length fiction film, although it is based on your cousin’s life. Where do you draw the line between documentary and fiction?
I drew inspiration from Pierrette’s life to write the script, placing it at the very heart of the film. Once we started shooting, the other characters also added their input, bringing the screenplay closer to their own lives.
Fiction never takes over. Its role is to add substance to the narrative and provide more context. In particular, the fictional element helps underscore the fact that Pierrette’s social predicament is not only a result of her small income, her husband’s irresponsibility or Cameroon’s politics. It is also derived from an enduring neo-colonialism that leaves swaths of the population in poverty.
The fabric shop is at the heart of your film. What does it symbolise?
My film tells the story of Pierrette, who is a seamstress in real life. Sewing embellishes, it brings people together, and her workshop is a place where people open up and share their secrets. I wanted to highlight the value of this work of dressmaking and transformation, which has all but vanished in the West. We shop, but we have lost this relationship with what we wear.
The sewing room also represents gender relationships in Cameroon. The men remain in the entrance, at the door, while the women establish themselves in the workshop, inhabiting the space. These opposing stances signal the contrast between a new generation of women who are increasingly assertive and men who don’t accept this reality – and are therefore in a vulnerable situation. Pierrette doesn’t sew for women only, she works for everyone, her workspace excludes nobody. By keeping at a distance, the men seek to protect themselves and avoid questioning their position in society.
This year’s festival has witnessed a breakthrough for African films, carried by a new generation of female filmmakers, in particular. Does this give a particular significance to your presence in Cannes?
It is indeed very important to me. We know how much Western cinema has influenced Africa and continues to do so. It is high time that our works travel in the opposite direction and influence world cinema – introducing new narratives, different ways of speaking French, and characters we are not accustomed to seeing. The West must get used to all of this.
There is a lot happening in African cinema, but these productions are scarcely visible in Europe. Africa is awash with European and American films, but how many films make it out of Africa? That’s why our selection at the Cannes Film Festival is so important. This is the best way for our films to be seen in France, Italy or elsewhere. Without these festivals we cannot export our works. I’m immensely proud to see so many African movies here in Cannes this year.
Mali’s Souleymane Cissé has spoken of a Western “contempt” for African films. What are your thoughts on the way the film industry looks at the continent?
The film industry tends to follow preconceived ideas. The few African films that make it abroad are often filmed by Westerners who, in reality, are merely filming themselves. Such films often show Africa without African people. I was interested in filming Pierrette, but people often ask me why I didn’t show more of the neighbourhood in my film. I don’t blame them, because that’s what they are used to. They have this image of a continent blighted by poverty and they want to feed that image. But I’m not going to change my way of filming. Pierrette is the focus of my film; she dictates the rhythm, the narrative and the camera’s movements.
People who attended the festival will go home with seven African films on their minds – not one or two, as is usually the case. This is huge. These stories will feed the West but also the imagination of young Africans, who will see their stories valued beyond their continent.