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12 QUESTIONS with MARIETTE MONPIERRE

—Published on 6th Jul, 2020.

Our July featured filmmaker was born in Guadeloupe, grew up in Paris, and lives in New York, USA. Mariette Monpierre’s diverse background gives her a unique perspective that has allowed her to see solutions that are creative and original. She holds a master’s degree from the Sorbonne University and Smith College and began her career at BBDO, a New York advertising agency that produces commercials for Pepsi, Visa, Pizza Hut, etc.  Monpierre’s creative portfolio includes fiction, narrative, and documentary films. Her first feature-length narrative film, “ELZA” (“Le Bonheur d’Elza”) was the New York Times Critics’ Pick when it was released at the theatre, and won several awards internationally. Her documentary, “Between Two Shores”, an immigrant story, aired on PBS’s AfroPop series. Mariette completed her first TV series pilot, “Caribbean Girl NYC”, for Flow Network and France Televisions Network. Her latest documentary, “Towards Mecca”, on Muslims in the West Indies, is currently airing on France Televisions Network and having a successful run on the festival circuit.

FILMCO: What initially attracted you to filmmaking? 
MM: When I was a little girl growing up in Guadeloupe, movies fascinated me. My aunt worked at a ticket cash register at the Renaissance, the first movie theatre in Guadeloupe. I can remember how good it felt to be in the red velvet seats of the theatre. When the curtains opened, the magic started. I was mesmerized. I saw musicals from India, Karate movies from Hong Kong, westerns, and religious movies from Hollywood. When we moved to Paris, my mom continued that tradition. Almost every Saturday, she would take my sisters and me to this amazing movie theatre in the Barbes neighborhood, called Luxor. I loved being in this dark space; I felt really safe with the beautiful images flickering before me. That’s how my passion for filmmaking started. 

FILMCO: How did you get started in the business?
MM: After graduating from Smith College in Massachusetts, I moved to New York. I’d gotten an internship at WBLS radio, then landed a job at BBDO advertising, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world. I worked in the TV Production department and produced spots for high profile clients such as Pepsi, Pizza Hut, etc. I developed my craft-making 30- and 60-second “films”. My career thrived; going to Hollywood and Los Angeles to shoot edgy commercials. I learned from the best TV commercial directors, editors, and creatives. I lived a fun and easy life. After 15 years of great experiences, I felt a void in my creative life. It was time for me to move on to something more intimate and personal. At BBDO,  I was telling wonderful short stories but they weren’t my stories. I didn’t see people from my culture on the screen. I was offered the opportunity to produce a series of music videos for DeClic, a French record label. Their top recording artistes, Malavoi, Edith Lefel, Ralph Thamar, and Acoutik Zouk came to New York to work with me. That’s how I started directing. It was my way of keeping in touch with my Caribbean culture. I was lucky to work for British Caribbean artists such as Burning Spear and Spanish-Caribbean singer, Jose Alberto El Canario. Shortly after, I made my first short film, “Rendez-Vous”, which went to the Toronto International Film Festival and was nominated for the Djibril Diop Mambety Award in partnership with the Directors Fortnight in Cannes. It was a strong need to tell my own stories that made me become a director. If you don’t tell your own story, no one else will.

Mariette Monpierre

FILMCO: Your filmmaker portfolio is quite diverse. You’ve been involved in the making of narrative films, television series, documentaries, commercials, and music videos. How do these genres differ for you, in terms of the creative process? Do you have a favourite? If yes, which and why.
MM: I like working in all different formats. To me, it’s not about format, it’s all about the story. Nothing is more powerful than seeing your own language, colour, people, drama on screen. At the end of the day, it’s about making films by any means necessary. A film, whichever the format, is a powerful tool because, under the guise of entertainment, it can open the windows of your heart. A film can start a discussion. It can make you think and change your vision on a subject matter. What I enjoy most in the process is being on set and working with actors. My work as a director is to create a space that allows the actor the ability to blow and to reveal their true spirit on camera. I’m a social person and I thrive on building trusting relationships with my actors. Developing that special bond with them, I think, is key. 

FILMCO: Who or what have been some of your biggest influences in film/television in the Caribbean, and why?
MM: Sarah Maldoror, who directed “Sambizanga” in 1972, was a true inspiration for me. She was the first woman from Guadeloupe to direct a feature film. She was married to Mario Andrade (the first president of Angola) and participated in the fight for the liberation of Angola. Her films are exceptionally beautiful. Sadly, she passed away in April. My other influence comes from Africa. Senegalese director, Djibril Diop Manbety, who directed “Touki Bouki” (“The Journey of the Hyena”). It’s just a wonderful visual journey into the life of two amazing characters, trying to make money in order to travel to Paris. It’s visually enticing, nothing like you’ve seen before; a non-linear story. When I saw it, it impacted me. 

When I made my first short film, I was under the spell of “In the Mood for Love”, by Hong Kong director, Wong Kar-Wai. It’s a breathtaking movie – I love his cinematography, saturated color, and the non-linear way he tells the story. U.S. director Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas” is one of my favourite films of all time. Most of these films are characterized by non-linear narratives, atmospheric music, unconventional approaches. 

FILMCO: In what ways have both your Caribbean and French cultural experiences guided your choices as a filmmaker over the years, and what draws you to telling Caribbean stories?
MM: As a filmmaker, discovering my unique voice was a long and difficult path because during my childhood I was told that I did not have a voice. I shared this emotional story in a short film I directed in 2005 called “Motherland” (“Chez Moi”). In this narrative, the 10-year old that I was, rebelled against my mother; an immigrant in Paris. I felt Paris was my home, but my mom kept telling me, “Shut up, you’re not in your country, be invisible, work hard, that’s the only way you’re going to succeed here.” I loved Paris but did Paris love me? I learned that I had to work twice as hard as any French person if I wanted to succeed and be legitimate. That thought stayed with me. 

When I became a filmmaker, it was hard for me to believe that what I had to say mattered – that my story mattered, that my life as a Caribbean woman mattered. Eventually, I came to realize that being a hyphenated person with different cultures is a real strength. I can tap into my rich experience and heritage to create stories. My diverse background is precisely what makes my voice unique and original. My philosophy for filmmaking is rooted in who I am and knowing that I can produce films that only I can create.  

I learned to hone my craft and use my distinctiveness to my advantage: being a Black, French Woman from the Caribbean is a blessing and it’s valued. I think now is a good time for us filmmakers from the Caribbean because mainstream Hollywood is running out of ideas. They are looking for new stories coming from indigenous peoples, different ethnic minorities. That’s where the new great film ideas are buried. It’s precious. We have to surf this wave to change the misrepresentation of who we are and impose our own vision, this place where our stories and our voices are not what people expect. We must surprise them. We must balance emotions in a story to bring out the universal truths and connect our story with a larger audience. 

FILMCO: If you could collaborate with any filmmaker in the Caribbean region, who would it be and why?
MM: There’s a colleague of mine called Jean-Claude Barny. I respect and love his work. I also love what Storm Saulter is doing. Because of the language barrier and our colonial past, I feel there is a gap between the Spanish, French, and British Caribbean. We don’t meet each other and communicate much. The trinidad + tobago film festival helps to bridge the gap and bring us all together. I welcome any collaborative initiative across the Caribbean; it would be wonderful to have a united Caribbean film industry.

Mariette Monpierre with Caribbean Girl NYC Cast

FILMCO: You have recently been working on your comedy series, Caribbean Girl NYC. What can you tell us about your experience with writing and directing for television?
MM: I really enjoy the process even though in television you lose part of your creative freedom because you have so many people to please. I don’t have a final cut. I’ve learned to listen and play the game. Television is a powerful tool. When my films air on TV, whether on France Televisions, PBS in the US, FLOW network, or Canal Plus, they are seen by millions. I’m thrilled and lucky to have access to a massive audience. It gives my work such great visibility.

FILMCO: Many filmmakers understand how difficult it can be to access resources for producing a film. What are some of the steps you have taken in the past to open avenues of income and manage your producing responsibilities?
MM:  France is a country that recognizes the power of culture and so the government plays a big part in the financing of films. We have an agency called CNC which producers can apply to for funding. It’s very competitive, but I was able to get some financing for my feature “Elza”. The beauty of it is, you don’t pay the money back. One other thing that’s important to me as a filmmaker, is to always be aware of what is available around you. Be open, kind, and gracious to the world around you. Have humility and respect for others, so that, in turn, the world will have humility and respect for you. As a director, you have to share your vision and collaborate with a team of producers who trust and believe in you. Even if you don’t have all the budget you need, you can always figure out a way to make things happen if you’re humble and put out good intentions. People will follow you if they can see themselves in you, especially when times are hard. 

FILMCO: Given the knowledge of filmmaking that you now possess, if you could have a conversation with your 16-year-old self about pursuing a career in film/television, what would your advice be?
MM:  Be bold and believe in yourself. When you radiate with trust and good intentions, people will take a gamble on you. Don’t listen to people who will tell you you’re not going to make it. When I first made “Elza”, people told me that no one was going to be interested in that kind of movie. But whenever somebody tells me don’t do something, that’s when I get even more excited about doing it. If someone told me back then that I would get distribution, a theatrical release and tour the world for three years, make money getting hired as a speaker at universities to talk about me, Mariette Monpierre, a female filmmaker born in the Caribbean who grew up in Paris, working in New York and making a good living as a filmmaker, I would’ve said, “That’s impossible”! No one believed I would have such wonderful success. 

FILMCO: What do you think are the three things we need to be able to build a sustainable film and television industry in the Caribbean?
MM: We need financing to build a sustainable film and TV industry in the Caribbean. That’s the keyword. We also need to build bridges to create a united Caribbean industry that includes all the Caribbean islands. Right now we are divided: the French-Caribbean, Spanish-Caribbean, and British-Caribbean; we need to develop one integrated market.

ELZA Poster

FILMCO: Elza has been very successful. Tell us a bit about your post-production experience with this project in your capacity as producer/ writer/ director.
MM: At first, I applied to a lot of major film festivals like Sundance, Cannes, and Berlin. I quickly realized that as a “film with black talent”, I couldn’t get into any of these. I discovered that in America, even film festivals were segregated. So I applied to all black film festivals like PAFF, the Pan African film festival, in Los Angeles and I was blessed enough to win the BAFTA Choice Award and the programmer’s award. I then took it to the ABFF– the American Black Film Festival in Miami. Soon after I was invited to the African New York film festival, UrbanWorld, Roxbury Film Festival, and the Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival where I won the best narrative feature. In the end, “Elza” made a very successful run in all the major black festivals. That was a strategic choice. The recognition I received in that world allowed me to get a distributor to release the film in New York. “Elza” got the opportunity to play as the first film for the opening of a new theatre in Harlem called M.I.S.T, in November of 2012. It was amazing! I knew that the New York Times was going to review the film and when the review came out I was so shaken. I told my friend to buy The NYT and tell me what they said. She called me and said, “oh they loved it!” The film was the New York Times Critics Pick that week. 

Soon after, I was selected at FESPACO, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, the biggest film festival in western Africa. “Elza” won the Paul Robeson Award for the best film of the diaspora. I started to get a lot of calls. The French consulate then contacted me to be part of a program called “Tournée Festival”. Each year, France selects 18 films to represent France on American campuses. “Elza” was one of them and featured on their website. Universities and institutions teaching french could use “Elza”  as an educational tool. The film was a jewel because there were so few films from the French Caribbean region. It was used, not only for language learning but for women’s studies, Latin studies, and African-American studies. The film resonates with the African-American experience because of the absentee father theme and its consequences on the psyche of black families. “Elza” was partially autobiographical. Making the film was somehow a therapeutic experience. I used the film to understand my own story, turn the page, and move on with my life. Even though “Elza” takes place in Guadeloupe, the subject matter is universal. The relationship between a father and a daughter is something anyone can connect with. “Elza” will soon be available on #Filmco2Go. 

FILMCO: Tell us about what you’re working on now/next?
MM: Caribbean Girl NYC,  I already shot the pilot and we’re developing the project now. It’s a dramedy. Fresh off the plane, an island girl, Isabelle, looks for fame and love in NYC but she has no working papers and no money! Confronted with the harsh reality of life in NYC, she falls flat on her face. Like a fish out of water and with the support of her Caribbean girlfriends, she picks herself back up again and again. Isabelle faces her fear and overcomes each obstacle. She discovers that friendship is stronger than adversity. What’s unique about this TV series is that the girls’ experiences as Caribbean women will allow viewers access to the multiple diasporic worlds of New York. That’s what gives the show its universality. What’s funny in “Caribbean Girl NYC” is that New York is the suburb of Port of Spain, Bridgetown, Dakar, and Pointe-à-Pitre and not the other way around! “Caribbean Girl NYC” is a modern-day immigrant story told from a perspective that has never been explored. It appeals to young aspiring professional women because they see themselves represented, but it also appeals to men at large because they will gain insight into what women of the big cities all around the world really want. I chose to tell this story now because it’s relevant, especially in the light of all the Black Lives Matter protests and police brutality going on around the U.S. and the world. We need more than ever before, a universal character that brings us together. With her Métis look and playful side, Isabelle is ethnically ambiguous. She is black, white, Latina, Asian. She’s a citizen of the world who sails in all the diasporas in NY. It was interesting for me to show how a girl from the islands confronts life in this megalopolis where communities live without mixing. Isabelle integrates and brings everyone together. In the comedy mode, we live the daily adventures of this student and her friends. We discover their current concerns, their contradictions, and their passions. They dare to undertake, make mistakes, but they never give up. It is this perseverance, this determination, this strength to go towards their happiness that makes Isabelle and her friends charismatic and universal characters.

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Follow “Caribbean Girl NYC” on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/caribbeangirlnyc/
Watch the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVCS4lV0RmM
Website: www.caribbeangirlnyc.com
Mariette’s website: www.mariettemonpierre.com

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