Maïmouna Doucouré’s “Cuties,” which plays in Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition and will then screen in the Berlinale’s Generation Kplus section, has been picked up by Netflix worldwide, excluding France. The film’s producer Zangro gave an exclusive interview to Variety about the film, and his next project.
“Cuties” is about the hyper-sexualization of pre-adolescent girls. It follows an 11-year-old girl of Senegalese origin, living in one of Paris’ poorest neighborhoods, who is raised in a pious tradition, but joins a group of young dancers who hope to twerk their way to stardom. Doucouré won Sundance’s Global Filmmaking Award in 2017 for the script.
Doucouré’s previous short film, “Maman(s),” about a girl being raised by two mothers in a polygamous family, was selected by nearly 200 festivals and won more than 60 awards in festivals including best short at Sundance, Toronto and the Césars.
Zangro produced both “Cuties” and “Maman(s)” with Doucouré through his production company, Bien ou Bien Productions. Zangro grew up between Spain and Morocco, before moving to France at the age of 16. In 2018 he received the Young Producer Prize 2018 from France Télévisions, and in 2019 was named by Variety as one of Ten Producers to Watch.
He also directs, and has built up a cluster of filmmaking talent around a project titled “Ramdam,” set in a Muslim community in the South of France, which began as a weekly series of three-minute Internet sketches, with more than 35 million views, evolved into a pilot for a TV series, which won best series award at the Festival de la Fiction, La Rochelle in 2017, and the project is now a 90-minute TV movie co-produced by Arte.
Why were you keen to sign a deal with Netflix?
For obvious reasons because it gives us access to a world stage. Netflix and other streaming platforms have really changed the media landscape in France. When I was first trying to get my TV series “Ramdam” off the ground, French TV wasn’t ready for a series like this. But the new platforms are coming with a new mindset. I think Arte is also bringing new ideas to the market.
Was it important for you to premiere “Cuties” at Sundance?
Absolutely. Maïmouna really wanted to premiere the film in Sundance because they’ve supported her from the outset. After she won the script award for this film they really helped her and are very close to the main character. We really identify with the vision at Sundance, which some people may even say is a bit naïve, that films can change the world.
What was the inspiration for this project?
It came from Maïmouna’s personal experience. She grew up in a large family living in one room in the 19th district of Paris, in a social housing project. She regularly goes back to the neighborhood to see her family and in one of the local festivities she saw a group of young 11-year-old girls dancing very provocatively to an audience with many mothers wearing traditional head scarves. She found it fascinating and disturbing and it raised the question of what role models young women can follow. It’s a very visceral movie. It really got under her skin and we feel it.
How did you cast the 11-year-old female lead, Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi?
The casting process was a saga. We spent over six months and saw 650 candidates and it was only in the very last hour of the last day that we found Fathia. It was a really emotional moment.
How did Maimouna work with the young cast?
She already worked with a young cast in “Maman(s)”. It’s amazing to watch. She works at the same level as the kids. She has a deep and intimate relationship with them. She acts with them. She cries, and they cry. There’s a magical link and a deep sense of trust.
There seems to be a link between the approach taken in films such as “Cuties” and the projects you have directed such as “Ramdam.”
We’re interested in telling stories that involve minority communities in France, such as Muslim communities and African communities, but in a universal way that doesn’t treat them as separate groups. We’re looking for common emotions shared by everyone. People tend to have fixed ideas on these issues and want to take a stand, but we’re looking for a non-judgmental approach, often exploring comedy. We think these are important projects that can change people’s preconceived views. France is not same as the United States. We have to fight every day to preserve the representation of our diversity. We really feel that we’re doing something for our country and we’re very passionate about it.
Are you planning any new project as a director?
Yes I’m working on a script for a comedy about a white guy living in a community in the South of France where all his friends are black. The provisional title is “Babtou,” which is a play on “Toubab,” an African slang word for white people. I’m working with a well-known French comic actor, but I can’t say who he is at the moment. I think comedy is a good way to explore the things that keep people apart, and can help us understand the world a bit better.