Fuchsia Spring '15 Staff Writer
Born in Guadeloupe, raised in France, and currently settled in New York City, filmmaker Mariette Monpierre AMS ’85 says that her understanding of herself has evolved through the places and educations that have been made available to her. She credits French democracy with making educational and cultural opportunities available; her family’s finances – her mother worked as a shirt sleeve seamstress – would not have afforded the horseback riding camps, high school exchange to the United States and Sorbonne classes that she remembers. Monpierre spoke about these and other influences in her life in a talk at the Lewis Global Studies Center this past Friday, Oct. 25.
The American Studies diploma at Smith, she said, opened up new critical ways of thought; classes on blackness and gender were ones she had never even heard of in France. These themes are essential to her filmmaking, she said, as “I was a very conformist person … It was really my year at Smith that started all this trend.”
Monpierre’s film Elza (2011), shot in French, tells both the story of her life and a happier re-imagining of it. In it, the title heroine returns to her birthplace in Guadeloupe, a tiny Caribbean island, after graduating college to find her estranged father. There, she explores herself in and through the island and reconciles with her father. The film was recognized by both Black Reel Awards (nominated for Best Independent Film and Outstanding Foreign Film) and Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival (won Best First Time Feature Director and Jury Award) in 2012 – impressive criticism for a first film, through Monpierre’s “favorite award,” she joked at introduction, “is The New Yorker magazine Critics’ Pick!”
Like Elza’s heroine, Monpierre returned to Guadeloupe at 20 and found her father there. “In real life,” she said, “my meeting with my father was very brutal; he didn’t recognize me.” She says that two scenes in the film, one in a gazebo and one by a cliff, were the ones most important to her; she shot the first when the producer was off set and had to argue to keep it through editing. These scenes were key to Monpierre’s “happy ending,” which she described as a kind of American Dream, a “therapy film.”
Monpierre’s speech, both personal and relaxed, is reflected in the qualities of her directing. For her American Studies thesis at Smith, she interviewed people at a local radio station; from there, she went into commercials, and only recently shifted into feature films (Elza is her first). While commercials are made to move audiences differently than feature films, Monpierre left no question that she needed to have her own voice and perspective shared through film. “I was afraid of being a director,” she said. “You’re naked. Everybody told me, ‘Don’t do that, don’t do that!’ But you only have one life, so I took that trip, I made that jump.” This attitude of working sincerely and passionately characterizes Elza to the core.
Monpierre advised those aspiring to work in the film industry to be certain that this attitude is their own driving force. “You have to ask yourself, how much are you willing to sacrifice for your art? Your position has to be, ‘I’m going to do this or I’m going to die.’ ” For her, she said, telling her own stories gives power and affirmation to her own identity and to the untold meanings of the places she has lived and people she has lived with. For her future, Monpierre mused, “I’d like to make some commercial stories for a wide audience. I would like to talk about my people, my places, but you need a wide audience.”