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Emmanuel Gras • Director

"The enormous effort these people make to live "


- CANNES 2017: We chatted to French filmmaker Emmanuel Gras, who unveiled his documentary Makala, Grand Prize in the Cannes Critics’ Week

Emmanuel Gras • Director
(© Aurélie Lamachère/Critics' Week)

It’s a rare enough event to see a documentary selected in competition in the Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival. In addition, Makala [+see also:
film review
interview: Emmanuel Gras
film profile
by Emmanuel Gras adds the unusual feature of having been filmed in the Congo, though it is above all a captivating film that follows the journey of a heroic charcoal vendor. We caught up with the filmmaker on the Croisette.

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Cineuropa: Where did you get the idea to dedicate a film to this character, in this country?
Emmanuel Gras
: I had participated in several shoots in the DRC as a director of photography, and I just saw these people who were transporting these huge loads of charcoal by pushing their bicycles, and who made a living that way. This is the case with a lot of the people from the villages around the big towns and cities, which incidentally is creating a big problem with deforestation. Most of the villagers live on subsistence farming and with charcoal. When I saw these bundles of goods and these people pushing bikes, who seemed to have come from really far away, I thought it was crazy! Do they really cover kilometres and kilometres while pushing that? It intrigued me, interested me, and above all I said to myself: what an effort that must take! I wanted to see it, to know more about it and, after having confirmed that I was right and the distances were indeed very long, to share it. It was a kind of bewilderment in the face of the enormous effort these people make to live.

How did you plan to film that superhuman side?
The original idea was to glorify this effort, to glorify Kabwita after having met him, to glorify someone who does this work. I knew that I wanted to film and magnify the whole thing, that it wouldn’t just be a simple statement of "OK, it’s hard," but rather I wanted to make the audience feel and experience the sensations. Then, there is a certain dreamlike quality because beyond the acknowledgement and the sharing of an effort, there was a beauty in this perseverance that I wanted to convey. When we were filming, I ran around a little bit, trying to find shots, and when I had one that expressed something, I wanted to make maximum use of it.

The bicycle is a real character in the film...
I wanted it to exist physically. We worked a lot with Manuel Vidal, the sound engineer. We placed a microphone in the bicycle and recorded a lot of the sounds of the little details and the friction. I wanted to give the impression that it was like a ship that was being pushed, heaving, and that it’s alive, since that’s also how you become aware of the state of the bicycle and the weight of the bags. Basically, it’s always about the search for sensations. Kabwita also had a wireless microphone on him for his breathing, since I wanted to have as many details as possible of the sounds relating to the action.

What about the construction of the film in three parts, with the preparations, the road and the city, all with their very different atmospheres? Did it evolve during filming and editing?
From the beginning, I knew that there would be those three parts, but what I was less successful in identifying was what happened during the first part in the village. I knew that it was a very long period because while in the film you get the impression that it’s very fast, in fact it takes weeks to make the charcoal. My initial idea was that the first part would be a very short prologue, as what interested me the most was the road. And I also thought that the city would be just a conclusion, that the sale of the charcoal would be fast. Finally, the two sections of the beginning and the end were fleshed out because when I saw all the work that Kabwita had to do to get the charcoal, I understood that I had to show all the steps: cutting down the tree, building the oven, lighting it, collecting the charcoal. On the other hand, we had filmed a lot of scenes of life in the village, but I cut them. I realised that they were secondary. I wanted to stay with the essential narrative drama, which, as a result, is a little fictionalised since when you focus that narrowly on an action, it’s like fiction. In documentaries, we’re used to showing the surrounding life, but the more I developed that, the more it became a chronicle of life in the village, and that was moving away from the whole purpose of the film.

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(Translated from French by Margaret Finnell)

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