Claire Denis’s new film “White Material” makes its New York public debut tonight at the New York Film Festival. The film explores a conflict in an unnamed region of Africa involving a white woman (Isabelle Huppert) tending both her ancestral coffee plantation and two political factions. After a press screening at the Walter Reade Theater yesterday, Denis and the actors who played the two factions’ leaders, the Mayor (William Nadylam) and the Boxer (Isaach De Bankole), took the stage.
Denis started with a story of how the film came about. When Isabelle Huppert approached Claire Denis to star in a film, Huppert wanted an adaptation of Doris Lessing’s classic “The Grass is Singing.” Denis didn’t feel comfortable with making a film about early 20th Century South Africa, not when so much has happened in the past twenty years. A few years later, Denis came to Huppert with the story for “White Material.” The rest is history.
Seeing the artists on stage was a bit jarring after spending nearly two hours watching the film’s African setting (the location is never named, but the film is shot in Cameroon). Denis headed to the stage in a purple turtleneck and a black leather jacket. De Bankole was wearing an oversized red baseball cap. Nadylam played the part of the philosopher. No longer the villain of the film, his answers to the audience’s questions were philosophical ruminations of playing a villain, bringing film crews to Africa, and being a cosmopolitan “African,” perceived differently all over the world.
For Nadylam, Denis was incredibly important because it is only her in film, and Peter Brook in theater, that helped him become an actor in France. Nadylam said that his role in “White Material” was the first time he was playing a specifically black character, and commented on the fact that his character was “bad.” In fact, the film and its shooting were so nuanced that he did not realize how bad his character was until he watched the film in Venice, when he saw what Denis had done with his character, a true villain, in his relationship to the Boxer and Huppert’s character.
On shooting the film in Africa and being responsible for representing the continent and its people, Denis said “the best terrain for meeting people is life. Film is not a magic place where people can meet.” But the stars and Denis were candid with their role in the local Cameroon community when they were shooting the film. Denis talked about the child actors in the film, saying that “they had a lot of fun shooting, but they knew there was war nearby. They had a happy and peaceful life, but they were serious because they knew war was so close.” De Bankole reinforced the importance of the film and its messages, saying, “This same thing is happening today, in Guinea. Movies cannot create reality. Reality is worse, we need to open up our eyes.”
“White Material” screens tonight and tomorrow night at Alice Tully Hall in New York City.