VENICE (Reuters) - Acclaimed actress Isabelle Huppert plays a French expatriate farmer facing civil war in Cameroon in “White Material,” a violent family drama presented at the Venice film festival on Sunday.
As government troops battle rebels around her coffee plantation, Huppert’s character Maria Vial is determined not to abandon the place where she built her life and return with her family to the safety of France.
Frightened native laborers one by one desert her, as the troops close in on the rebel leader and his army of rugged child soldiers. But Huppert digs her heels in, almost blind to the danger which is about to destroy her household.
“It’s a woman who seems very much in control, who knows how to run an enterprise and lead people, how to drive a tractor and a truck. But her weakness is this land she does not want to give up,” Huppert said in an interview with Reuters.
“At first it’s legitimate but then it becomes like a disease, everything is going up in smoke and you don’t want to face the reality.”
Director Claire Denis, who grew up in Africa, said she drew inspiration from Doris Lessing’s novel “The Grass is Singing” about racial relations in what is now Zimbabwe. A photograph of the British writer briefly appears in her film, which is competing for the top prize at the Venice festival.
“White Material” touches on the legacy of the colonial past, its impact on both expatriates and natives, and the price paid by civilian populations during war.
The lush landscapes of Cameroon and some of those themes were also present in Denis’ 1988 work “Chocolat,” perhaps her best known film internationally.
Christophe Lambert stars as Huppert’s former husband, also living on the plantation but remarried with an African woman, and trying in vain to convince Huppert to leave with their son.
“If you don’t share the richness that you bring, you’re bound to get kicked out of that country because it doesn’t really belong to you,” he told Reuters.
But he said that local leaders, and not just colonizing powers, bore the responsibility for Africa’s woes.
“Cameroon is actually one of Africa’s most democratic countries, but it has had the same leader for 25, nearly 30 years” he said.
“I shot ‘Greystoke’ 25 years ago in Cameroon and I came back 25 years later. The country was exactly the same. The same roads, the same unfinished buildings, the same miserable houses, the same houses with no water, no electricity. In 25 years nothing has changed.”
Editing by Myra MacDonald