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Interview: Elvis Mitchell on 'Grigris' and Cameras d'Afrique

Interviews
by Carlos Aguilar
October 25, 2013 5:01 PM
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Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Steve Ujlaki, and Elvis Mitchell

Organized by Film Independent and the LMU School of Film and Television in collaboration with LACMA, the film series Camera's d'Afrique has brought some of the best films from West Africa to audiences in Los Angeles.The series curator, Elvis Mitchell, a respected film critic and radio host of KCRW's The Treatment, selected films from the region that best exemplify the continent's ancient storytelling traditions and that showcase the filmmakers' unique vision.

The series, running until the end of October, opened with the U.S. Premier of Cannes winner Grigris, a Chadian film from veteran director Mahamat Saleh Haroun, and which is now the countries Official Selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Mitchell expressed his excitement to bring these unique perspectives in World Cinema to Los Angeles and hopes that, if successful, the program can explore other regions of the African continent and even the world in future editions.

Read more about Cameras d'Afrique HERE

Carlos
Aguilar: Could you talk about the approach, and the selection process of the films, I had the chance to watch Grigris, during the opening night, which was great. How did you choose these films?


Elvis Mitchell: Grigris was pretty terrific wasn’t it? It all started with Steve Ujlaki, he is the dean at the LMU Film School, and he wanted to do a project where we would bring some films over from the FESPACO Film Festival in Burkina Faso but we weren’t able to attend. We wanted to bring films from that festival, so that helped us to focus on West Africa and that part of the world. The problem is that Africa is an enormous continent, and there are so many different films being made in all those countries, so it made it easier for us, in terms of the selection process, to concentrate on films that came from that part of the continent.

Aguilar: Specifically speaking about Grigris, now that it is Chad’s Official Submission for the Academy Awards, how do you think an international audience will receive it?

Mitchell: First of all I think Haroun is a world-class filmmaker; he is basically the Chadian film industry. I think it is such a great piece of filmmaking. It starts off, and you think you are going to get one film, it starts off with all that energy, you get to see Soulémane Démé take to the screen like a movie star, and then it becomes a whole other different story. All his films have been about these lives in transition and this ambition to do something better with your life. I think this kind of encapsulates what he does so beautifully. I think in visual terms it is such a great film to watch. It won the Vulcan Award at the Cannes Film Festival, and I’m just thrilled that finally Chad is getting around to submitting a film. I can’t think of anybody who deserves the nomination as much as Haroun does.

The film demands that kind of attention, what I can tell you about the audience’s reactions to the film afterwards, us that people couldn’t stop talking about it. It was one of those great experiences at LACMA where people were just buzzing about it in the lobby afterwards. People want to stand around talking to other people about it, and that’s when I knew we had something remarkable, which of course is kind of obvious once you see the film. It deserves that kid of attention that it would get just by virtue of being nominated.

Aguilar: More than anything, Grigris is a film about hope. Sometimes it feels like people associate African stories with mere survival and films like the ones you have chosen don’t always get the attention they deserve. Of all the films that you considered, what attracted you to these selection?

Mitchell: Another thing about Grigris is that Haroun has made a career out of picking faces for his movies that have never acted before, but you never know that. Everybody in Grigris takes to the camera as if they were veteran actors and born to the medium. I think that is part of the excitement in seeing that movie. Specially seeing it in a theater in the United States for the first time. I think the excitement is transmitted to the audience, and the audience is infected by it. That was the thing I had in mind when we were selecting the films for the series, I just wanted people to get that kind of sense of sheer pleasure and acceleration that the filmmakers get from making these films. Filmmakers who think to the camera like Wong Kar-wai or Del Toro, these filmmakers, not just Americans, can transmute what they think to the camera, and Haroun is one of them. L’Absence by Mama Keita is another one of those films, I think all the films that are in the series are movies that do that, movies that you just basically get caught up in watching them.

Aguilar: Are there any plans to expand this project and do series on films from other regions of the world, or other parts of Africa?

Mitchell: Certainly we want to. We are looking at this first year of Cameras d’Afrique as just a way to introduce audiences to the idea, anything like this takes a while to catch on. Especially when it’s a part of the world that people don’t really know about, and unfortunately people don’t tend to think of Africa as a place for filmmakers. Like I said in my introduction, there is a storytelling tradition in Africa that’s older than in any other place in the world. I think there is a thrill in seeing that storytelling tradition combined with a relatively new technology as cinema for them. Hopefully we get some traction this year, hopefully we get enough attention, and audiences so we can do this again next year with another region of the continent and start looking to other places as well.

It’s funny that coming out of some screenings people said to me “Are they going to be more films from Mauritania? What about other parts of West Africa?” and I said “We are doing this a step at a time” The more success we have with this, the better place we will be for having more of these movies, and from other regions next time. It’d be great to have films from Cape Verde or Sierra Leone, but we do have films from Mali, Mauritania, and the Ivory Coast. I’m so excited about the idea of being able to continue this and moving on to another part of the continent for next year.

Aguilar: How would you summarize the Cameras d’Afrique series? What makes the films of this region unique or special in comparison to other currents in World Cinema? 

Cameras d'Afrique Curator Elvis Mitchell

Mitchell: There are storytelling traditions that come from Africa that are unique from anywhere else. We had a filmmaker from Burkina Faso, Idriss Diabate, and he was saying his last name, Diabate, is an old Burkina Faso name and it means storyteller. His very name lends itself to that tradition of storytelling. Each country has its own way of communicating a narrative and through that expressing family experiences in emotional stories. With these films we have a chance to see how there are differences, some are subtle, some not so subtle between each of the areas. Just the idea of seeing a type of narrative we’ve not seen before is a chance to be surprised. I think that’s what audiences want, to be stimulated by films and I think that’s what each of these films do in ways that maybe are new and unique to American audiences.

The takeaway is to remember how up everybody was after Grigris, that’s when I felt we had done something right. People didn’t want to leave, they wanted to share this with the people they’ve just seen it with “What did you think of that scene? What did you think of her? Wasn’t she a different person when she took that wig off? “ Everybody had something to say about it, and I think thus far that has been the reaction to all the films we’ve shown. We are hoping that is the reaction to everything we play so audiences can feel like they trust these films coming from a part of the world that they don’t know enough about and just come and take a chance on something new.


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