I love our ShortList Film Festival. Every year it reminds me why film is special, and how it can be a powerfully democratizing force in our world.
Exhibit A is this year’s Jury Prize winner, Maïmouna Doucouré, who came from faraway Paris to Los Angeles for the first time in her life to participate in the festival.
She came all that way by herself, but laughed it off at the opening night dinner at my home: “Why not?” she said, as she walked into the backyard from the airport with an optimistic grin. Yeah, I thought — why not?
The next day Doucouré, whose parents are from Senegal, beat out 11 other award-winning finalists for the Jury Prize with “Maman(s),” which tells the story of a little girl who endures the arrival of a second “mother” in the family, or rather the woman-plus-baby her father brings home after a trip to Senegal and whom the family is forced to accept.
The story comes loosely from the life of Doucouré, who grew up with two mothers in a Parisian immigrant community where that was far from uncommon.
“I really wanted to show the suffering of women and particularly of children because, for me, we often forget to think about them and speak to them,” Doucouré told TheWrap in an interview about the film.
That Doucouré chose to tell this private story is remarkable, but more remarkable is the sensitivity and skill with which she tells it, and which the jury could not miss.
Eight-year-old Aida (Sokhna Diallo) is seen up close, shot by Doucouré with an unmistakable compassion. One scene has the point of view of the little girl as she hides beneath her parents’ bed and they fight above her. The mother sits on the bed and sobs, but all the viewer sees is her ankles. In a climactic scene of anguish, Aida takes the new baby and throws him in the public trash bin, the camera bouncing indignantly behind her angry pigtail.
Where did Doucouré learn to make movies with such intensity? “I’m self-taught,” she told me at the closing party, after the awards were announced. But does photography or writing run in her family? She laughed that same optimistic laugh. “No,” she said. “My father is a street sweeper, my mother works in a shop.”
When she first told her mother that she wanted to make movies, she said that her mother, who wears the veil of a devout Muslim, told her to leave it alone.
“That’s not for us,” she said, “us,” meaning: women. Africans. Immigrants.
Doucouré said she redoubled her commitment to filmmaking to prove her mother wrong. (Doucouré wore a strapless décolleté top to the closing event. Not sure how her mother would like that either.)
Now she’s working on a film about adolescent girls in Paris who are hyper-sexualized by a culture that pushes them to dress and pose like adults.
Doucouré knows she is blazing a trail, pushing into territory that has not been attempted by others. She, too, knows the power of cinema.
When accepting her award, Doucouré spoke incredibly eloquently: “I just want to say that a lot of horrible things happened in France and is still happening in several countries around the world,” she said. “I think where policy fails cinema can help to bring people together. We need cinema to know each other and love each other. Today we chose love.”
Doucouré spent the week in L.A. before heading back this weekend to work on her film about adolescent girls. We were privileged to get to meet her, as I’m pretty sure we’ll being hearing from her again — soon.