Variety is teaming with Unifrance, an agency that promotes French cinema around the world, to focus attention on four emerging talents in the French movie industry as part of Unifrance’s “New Faces of French Cinema” program. Here Variety profiles the rising filmmakers: Justine Triet, Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec, Hafsia Herzi and Mati Diop.
Born to a family of musicians and filmmakers, raised in France, and trained at the Le Fresnoy National Studio of Contemporary Arts, Diop has already built an impressive track record on the international circuit.
She’s taken her short- and medium-length films to festivals in Marseille, Venice and Montreal, collecting prizes left, right and center, and has starred in acclaimed works from directors including Claire Denis and Antonio Campos.
This year she’ll make history as the first black female filmmaker to compete for the Palme d’Or with her feature debut, “Atlantics.” She said she was pleased to be the first black woman filmmaker in Cannes Competition. The film serves as both an extension and companion piece to her 2009 short “Atlantiques,” which won the prize for short film at the Rotterdam fest.
As Diop describes in her director’s statement, her Cannes debut “is a film about being haunted, being spellbound, and the idea that ghosts are created within us.”
As filmmaker, Diop has often contended with her own background and family heritage. With her 2013 doc “A Thousand Suns” she considered the impact of “Touki Bouki,” a landmark of Senegalese cinema that was directed by her uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty, and that took home the Critics’ Award in Cannes 1973.
As she describes it, “Atlantics” shares an equally personal charge, even if the story isn’t precisely her own. “A first film is often autobiographical, even indirectly,” Diop writes. “Inventing the character of Ada was also a way of having the experience, through fiction, of the African adolescence that I hadn’t lived.”
Herzi broke out in a major way with 2007’s “The Secret of the Grain.”
When cast, she was a 19-year-old unknown who had never acted in a film before, and by the time all was said and done, she emerged with prizes from the Césars and Venice Film Festival and an international career that continues to this day.
But Herzi also credits that big-screen debut with sparking her interest in her latest undertaking as well. “I like writing, and I wanted to tell stories,” she says. “And shooting ‘The Secret of the Grain’ confirmed my desire to do so with film.”
She directed her first short in 2010, and has been developing different projects since then. However, when a recent attempt stalled out waiting for financing, the would-be director took matters into her own hands.
“Instead of sitting around waiting for the financing to come together [for that other project], I looked for something I could put together and get off the ground right away,” she explains. “I put together a small crew of about four people, and I said, let’s shoot. I decided to do this project on a Thursday morning, and by Monday we were in production.”
Herzi wrote, directed and produced “You Deserve a Lover,” and filled both the cast and crew with people working on their first feature shoot.
“It’s very important for me to work with first-timers,” she notes. “Just like someone gave me a shot, I’d like to do the same for others. I like fresh ideas and new voices, and I don’t believe in adhering to any rules. My only rule is this: if you like cinema and want to make it, you’re welcome on my set.”
Once her 2008 short “Escale” announced her as one of the most promising new talents in French animation, Gobbé-Mévellec opted to continue working as an animator on other director’s features in order to better understand the process and ready herself for her own eventual debut.
Over the past decade the animator worked on several high-profile projects, but she credits one in particular for offering her a new creative vision.
“ ‘Ernest and Celestine’ was the revelation of my career,” she says. “It validated my interest in watercolors and open lines by showing how beautifully they could work in animation, and it proved that such a graphic style could be a powerful storytelling tool.”
When the producers of “The Swallows of Kabul” went looking for a co-director for their film and invited Gobbé-Mévellec to pitch, she considered the project’s new story and setting, and let her mind wander back to her previous watercolor work.
“It created connections in my head,” says Gobbé-Mévellec. “The white of the paper could also represent the light of Kabul, I thought. A good story announces its own form, and you have to listen to what it tells you, and the look of the film was inspired by what I did before.”
“The Swallows of Kabul” plays in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard.
Her first feature now under her belt, Gobbé-Mévellec has a few projects in early development and remains enraptured by her chosen profession.
“I will continue doing what I love, which is to draw,” she says. “Animation takes a step away from the real world in order to consider it with a different set of eyes. It allows us to explore different ideas and see old things in new ways. That’s what nourishes me, and that’s what I love about cinema in general.”
Triet has always needed to court chaos.
After studying video art and documentary at France’s prestigious National School of Fine Arts, she found her inspiration in the street violence and political unrest of her immediate surroundings. “I had a lot of difficulty shooting Paris, because it felt like a museum,” she says. “In order for a place to excite me, I need to find the action and volatility within it.”
She shot docs in Paris and Sao Paulo, and then inched toward fiction filmmaking for entirely pragmatic reasons. “I could never film exactly what I wanted without threat of a lawsuit,” Triet laughs, “so I figured I’d have cast real actors and call the film a fiction. That way nobody would threaten to sue!”
She made her feature breakthrough with “Age of Panic,” a film that thrust two professional actors into a series of unplanned and fractious events in the lead-up to France’s 2012 presidential election, and followed it up with 2016’s “In Bed With Victoria,” a deconstructed romantic comedy about the neuroses of urban life.
This year, she makes her Cannes Competition debut with “Sibyl,” the story of a collected psychiatrist whose professional cool begins to unravel when she takes on an actress as a patient, and whose tether to reality only further loosens once she starts bearing witness to the controlled chaos of a film set.
The film might not be directly autobiographical, but it speaks to one of Triet’s key principles as she continues to explore feature filmmaking.
“I have a way of working where I always need to throw things into disorder,” she says. “Either by bringing in animals or children or whatever else, I must always find a way to get out of my comfort zone.