interviewBy Adie Vanessa Offiong
Christine François is a French film director whose first feature film, 'The Secret of the Ant Children,' was screened at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) last November. Her 2004 movie, 'I have Two Moms' was on the Special Jury Mention at the Festival of Women's Film, Turin. In 1992, her movie, 'Bloody Weight' won the Public Television Screens' first class work. She has also produced Mina Does Not Want to Play, "Psy gold" Festival Lorquin (2000); 'Brigade minors: Love Overdue' Category Blows of Heart Lussas (1998) and 'The Weight of the Body', the Grand Prix Media Foundation for Children (1995). In this interview, she spoke about unraveling the secrets behind the ant children and her love for Africa as well as the possibility of going back there for another movie.
Could you tell us about your movie 'The Secret of the Ant Children'?
To say it in a few words, it is based on a true story but I have used locals who are mostly amateur actors and actresses for the production.
The movie is centred on infanticide in Bènin Republic of West Africa. It tells the story of a French woman 'Cécil', in her 30s, who is on a visit to Benin to see her boyfriend. Suddenly a woman appears, pushes a baby into her arms and disappears.
Cécil makes efforts to find out who the parents are but is unsuccessful. The boy, Lancelot, is treated as an outcast as the locals recoil from him and the orphanage in the community refuses to take him in.
With no other option, Cécil decides to adopt him and takes him back to France. Seven years later, Lancelot begins to have nightmares. Cécil traces the cause to his home country and returns with him to Bènin. Back home, a gruesome truth awaits them both, with its origins buried deep in religious ritual.
I would say that the movie is an account of maternal devotion and a denunciation of ritual infanticide.
I am hoping that the movie will spread awareness about infanticide and hope that through it, women in Bènin will have a voice to speak against infanticide and child sorcery.
The paternal side of the family decides what child lives and which one dies, according to the delivery process of the child. The mother has no say. It is a very paternal society.
This is why in the movie, the mother comes running and gives the child away. She runs away with the child and gives it to the French woman.
The parents never see the child after this and then begin a round of prayers to bring the child back home so that they can offer apologies.
This is what got us thinking in the movie. One would think that as the child is getting sicker and sicker, a regular thinking person would say the child has psychological problems. But with my interaction in that society I can see that the prayers and chanting the parents are doing is what has brought the child back.
The movie does not tell if they were able to have more children.
They were barren for about seven or eight years after they had this first child. But after the apologies, it is like her womb opened and they had two children.
What are the things you would be most concerned about if you had to collaborate with filmmakers from other countries on the topic?
The disparity between the emerging economies and the super powers. It is a question of how the super powers are not letting the lower continents progress. They are okay there, but they are not really helping the poorer countries to come up.
You don't think globalization is helping poorer countries?
No, I don't think so. I don't have that impression at all. They are selling more of their things to you than giving you a chance to sell yours. The rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
It is very difficult for an individual country to make a breakthrough and give room to another country to grow alongside. It doesn't happen. This kind of progress is always at the cost of another nation.
Through film, how would you remedy this?
We have to redirect our policies and politics. I am in a system that allows me use my film as a voice and films cause a lot of changes and raise awareness.
The film is seen by the people and by the government. With some awareness at both levels, we can make some progress. That is what the movie, 'The Secret of the Ant Children' is hoping to achieve by bringing awareness to the people of Bènin Republic and the government that such things should not happen.
I hear that in India it is not allowed for parents to know the sex of the child before he is born. It is the same way in Bènin that it is forbidden to say if the child was born normal or bridged. The midwife is not allowed to tell if the child came out leg first or head first.
It's interesting how these differ in cultures. In India if a child comes out leg first it is considered a sign of luck as they say 'he has come out kicking the world'. But in Bènin it is bad omen.
Our interpreter had twins. Her daughter came head first and her son leg first. It was celebration and gratitude all the way at his birth.
It all depends on perceptions and the way they are interpreted.
I think a lot of it also could be regarded as fear of the unknown infanticide must be stop.
What informed your choice of the title of the movie?
What happens in the film is that when the child went back to Bènin they were going to kill the child by putting him in an ant hill. With soldier ants in great numbers, from underneath, they were to sting him until he died. This is what inspired my choice for the title.
It's an irony. Ordinarily a child that age can kill the ants. But in the number that they exist in the anthill, they can overcome him.
In the culture, the belief is that the ants disseminate the body into many, many bits and the evil spirit is completely rid of and cannot come back as one entity. It just disappears in the sand.
Personally, how did producing the movie and interacting with this community impact on you?
I cried a lot. I cried as I tried to understand the theories behind these beliefs. Making the trip to Bènin, interacting with the people and listening to every one of them whom I asked questions I was actually able to relive the experience in the making of the film.
I changed my way of making films. Africa entered into my film, literarily. Living in Bènin, living with the people meeting the family has changed me as a person and immensely impacted on my style of film production.
How long did it take to make the film?
It took me six years to write it. Two years to seek financial aid, two years to make the film and two years to release it. In all, about ten years.
Since its release in May 2012, many, many festivals around the world have shown it. It has been shown in Vancouver, Canada; France; Hamburg, Germany; Morocco, Milan, and Goa, India amongst others.
Has it received any recognition?
None yet as regards awards. But at least now, people know the quality of my movies and it will be less difficult for me when I decide to make other films.
My success is now known internationally.
There are a lot of works done on women and children issues. Do you think there are male issues worthy of this attention?
(Laughter) It's interesting that you ask because my next film is on a man and his son. But nobody wants to finance it.
I am researching other possible topics and in January I will begin writing. After my experience in Africa, I will like to shoot there again. The experience was very nice and also easy.