Elizabeth “Chai” Vasarhelyi’s
films as a director include “Meru,” winner of the Audience Award for US Documentary at Sundance 2015; “Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love” (Oscilloscope, 2009), which premiered at the
Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals; “A Normal Life” (Tribeca Film Festival, Best Documentary,
2003); “Touba” (SXSW, Special Jury Prize Best
Cinematography, 2013) and the upcoming “Incorruptible” (2015). Vasarhelyi has participated in Good Pitch and received grants from the Sundance Institute, the Ford
Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Bertha Britdoc, the William and Mary
Greve Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts. (Press materials)
“Incorruptible” will premiere at the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival on June 14.
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
CV: In the Spring of 2011, Senegal was pitched into crisis when President
Abdoulaye Wade decided to change the constitution to allow for a third term. An
artist-led youth movement erupted to protect one of Africa’s oldest and most
With 70% of Senegal’s population under 30 and inspired by the recent
Arab Spring, the “Y’en a Marre” (Enough is Enough) movement
caught fire. After 12 years of corruption and nepotism, of high food and
gasoline prices, of constant power outages and schools shuttered because of
striking teachers, the constitutional crisis had become the last straw for the
people of Senegal.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
CV: “Incorruptible” is the third film I’ve
made in Senegal, a country that is very close to my heart, and where I have
lived and worked on and off for over 10 years. In 2011, I was shocked when
President Wade announced his decision to change the constitution to allow
for an illegal third presidential term. Amid the ensuing violent
demonstrations that broke out, I knew this was an important story to tell.
Senegal is one of Africa’s oldest democracies and has always been a very
stable, peaceful society. I was in a unique position to make this film, as I
had personal connections to all the major political players, allowing
me unprecedented access to document these important events as they
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
CV: Many of the scenes were filmed in
violent circumstances, during street protests, riots and clashes with police.
Of course, it was dangerous for me personally, but above all, I had to be
mindful of the safety of my crew. In the end, how much is compelling
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the
CV: Democracy is fragile. I think that’s
the message. We have to stand up for what we believe in with a sense of
immediacy, because in the blink of an eye, it can be taken away from us.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
CV: Dream big.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
CV: Probably the biggest misconception
about me and my work is that I only make films in Africa. I have another film
coming out in theaters in August called “Meru” about a big wall Himalayan climb.
Regardless of the setting, I’m most interested in compelling personal stories.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got
the film made.
CV: We were fortunate to fund the film
through private equity as well as through the generous support of the Sundance
documentary grant and the Bertha foundation.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
CV: “Titus” by Julie Taymor. Her use of mythological and historic imagery is
out of control.