Interview with Emmanuelle Demoris

March 6, 2013 | By Laura Pertuy

Mafrouza, a five-part polyphonic chronicle of a shantytown in Alexandria by French director Emmanuelle Demoris will be shown at the MoMA in New York from March 6th to 10th, followed on the 11th by a discussion with Demoris. We asked her about this uncommon project.

What led you to Mafrouza as the subject of this project ?

It’s a long story...  I ended up in that shantytown of Alexandria in Egypt in the course of a research trip for another former film project that dealt with the relationships between the living and the dead. I travelled by car for nine months in the Mediterranean area, stopped in Alexandria, and, at first, discovered the Mafrouza neighboorhood for the simple reason that it had been built by its inhabitants inside the remains of a Greco-roman necropolis, which meant they were some dead ones around there, together with the living. I got to meet some people from Mafrouza and I felt immediate and mutual friendship towards them, one that was made of tenderness and humour. And from these first encounters, I was amazed by them. By their freedom of thought and speech, by their vitality, by their ability to express feelings, by something I would call their crazy capacity for happiness. So I dropped the dead to make a film with the living people from Mafrouza, to understand and share their life and to make the world discover this stunning little place of freedom and vitality. I filmed there for two years and a half, then came back to Paris and edited the film that was theatrically released in June 2011.

What attracts you to the documentary form ?

I wouldn’t separate documentary from cinema in general. I am attracted to any form that can make the world complex, open, somehow unfinished, which means leaving us a space where to live inside of it. But I would say that what I liked in the Mafrouza project was the way we worked and shaped the film together with the actors, which also means the way I was not doing a film « about » them but « with » them. No scene being written in advance, we chose or created some situations (and that could come from them or from me) in which we would interact thanks to our mutual propositions (their acting and my filming). And that was a creative space in which each one was free and responsible for their own acts, words or gestures. To me, this process has to do with theatre work and the improvisation part in it (which is not the dominant tendency of how fiction films are made - some films are nevertheless done that way).

Have the movies been showed to the people you filmed ? What were their reactions to it ?

The film was screened in April 2011 in Alexandria and the actors got to talk with the audience. The reactions of the actors when seeing the film were very good, they weren’t so surprised and they found I respected them in the editing as well as I would do when filming. Respect meant not generalizing from them but, on the contrary, showing the details, contradictions or emotions that make each of them unique and singular. That is what we had agreed on, which they found in the film when they saw it finished. They were happy and relieved that the film was released after the revolution because they felt free to say what they pleased and to express their rage towards their living conditions. They had always wanted the film to be shown in Egypt, but had it happened before Mubarak’s dismissal, they would have feared coming to a public screening and assuming their part in this showing such a poor neighbourhood. In March 2011, they could really enjoy the screening and the discussion with the audience. But, on the other hand, they all got a bit sad seeing the film. We shot from 1999 until 2003, we were younger by that time, the neighbourhood was more joyful, and we used to meet everyday whereas now we don’t live in the same country. Their relationship to the film – and also mine - is still very emotional, so the immortality somehow given by cinema is sometimes a bit melancholy.

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