Bertrand Bonello • Director of Zombi Child
"Films are also made for communicating with spirits"
by Fabien Lemercier
- CANNES 2019: French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello explains the thinking behind Zombi Child which was unveiled in the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival
Returning to the Directors’ Fortnight after presenting On War [+see also:
film profile] in the same section in 2008, Bertrand Bonello is no stranger to the Cannes Film Festival, with almost all of his films having screened here (The Pornographer, Tiresia, House of Tolerance [+see also:
interview: Adèle Haenel
film profile], Saint Laurent [+see also:
Q&A: Bertrand Bonello
film profile]), with the exception of Nocturama [+see also:
interview: Bertrand Bonello
film profile]. He talks to us about his new opus, Zombi Child [+see also:
interview: Bertrand Bonello
Cineuropa: What drew you to the subject of Haitian zombie culture?
Bertrand Bonello: A mix of things. I wanted to do things a bit differently in terms of production, budget, speed and approach; and I wanted to do it elsewhere as I’d never filmed abroad, except in Montreal, but I was living there [at the time]. In between the desire for difference and for an “elsewhere”, I also wanted freedom, and as I thought more about zombies and about the very simple question of what a zombie actually is from a Haitian point of view, I remembered Clairvius Narcisse, whom I’d read about in texts a long time ago. I pictured him as a guy with his head down, walking across the lands of Haiti; who hides and who’s removed from the world. In terms of simplicity and the possibility of filming elsewhere, it suddenly seemed obvious that this would be the starting point for a possible project. Then, the story progresses, and we arrive in France, at the boarding school, etc.
Two stories set in two different times and in two different styles...
The starting point was Haiti and very soon afterwards came the question of how to tell this story. As a white Frenchman, it would’ve been a bit tricky making the film solely in Haiti; to arrive over there and say: “I’m going to make you a film about your voodoo and your zombies”. These are already delicate, very touchy subjects for Haitians, but to then have a French foreigner want to film it?! I realised very early on that it would have to be told from a point of view that clearly came from France. I took the true story of Clairvius and added a granddaughter whose parents would die in the earthquake, and a Legion of Honour for the mother who manoeuvred so that this teenager could come to France. And I brought in four young French girls who, in my mind, were the ideal vessel for all this. I really liked the idea of having this adolescent side [in the film]. So I had the two set-ups all ready and then I developed the intertwining elements in the story and the many contrasts: Haiti and France, the chatty girls and a very quiet man, etc.
You use romantic love as some sort of mirror of the zombie situation; like a form of possession. It is this a parallel that you wanted to play with?
Teenage love is quite a special thing: it’s the end of the world. It suddenly dawned on me that we feel like we’re possessed when we’re in that state, so what we actually want to do is to free ourselves from it. What I find brilliant about the age of adolescence is the mixture of certainties combined with all that’s unclear in their lives.
How far did you want to push the underlying political discourse on slavery, the unkept promises of the French Revolution, the Légion d’honneur lycée, etc.?
It wasn’t intentional, it happened little by little. When I had my group of girls, I didn’t want the film to show them meeting up in cafes, or to involve their parents, etc. So, I decided to put them in an all-girls boarding school. I did some research online and found the Légion d’honneur lycée, which I didn’t know existed. That was when I discovered it was founded by Napoleon. It was unbelievable: Napoleon, Haiti, the abolition and then the re-introduction of slavery! Sometimes, we have intuitions about things that produce a very strong sense of meaning. I never planned to make a political film that would encourage France to question its own sense of responsibility; but, with my two small stories about teenage suffering and a walking man, it just so happened that it ended up raising bigger questions on legacy and on what we do with our History, both on the Haitian side as well as the French side. When we think of France, we think of the Revolution, but has it always lived up to its values?
The fantasy film featuring Mambo Kathy communicating with spirits – did you like it?
I love it. Films are also made for communicating with spirits.
(Translated from French)
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.