After a critically lauded career as a documentary filmmaker, writer/director Rosine Mbakam arrives at the Cannes Film Festival in the Directors’ Fortnight program with her first narrative feature: Mambar Pierrette. The film sees Mbakam returning to her homeland of Cameroon to tell the story of a dressmaker — Pierrette (Pierrette Aboheu Njeuthat) — as she deals with mounting financial calamities that threaten her children’s school year and the health of her business.
It’s a conceit that feels familiar to Vittorio De Sica’s film, but with a different, uniquely African touch. While Mbakam has switched mediums for this film, the story, and its translation is similar to the director’s previous films, such as Chez Jolie Coiffure, Delphin’s Prayer, and The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman in their focus on Black women who use their respective craft to cope with the hurdles they encounter. For Mambar Pierrette, Mbakam retools these familiar themes for Cameroon. The result indicates a change of direction for the filmmaker with regard to mood and tone, switching from ruminative to joyous, from staid to colorful and vibrant. Because all around Pierrette is life: It’s her children, it’s her village; it’s her vivid customers and the lively dresses she designs.
With Mambar Pierrette, Mbakam offers the unique cultural lens she’s spent nearly a decade crafting to give viewers a vision of radical empathy and a change in perspective. After having spent several years working in television, she attended film school in Belgium, where she is now based, before going on to create her first trio of feature-length documentaries that shared stories of Cameroonian women.
She talks to OkayAfrica about wanting to show a different Africa, making a film with her family, and subverting the traditions of Western filmmaking.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve spent your career doing documentaries, but this is your first fictional film. Why did you feel you needed to switch for this particular story?
Fictional features were my first desire. I discovered documentaries when I was in film school. But my desire when I wanted to do cinema was to do features because it was what I was seeing on television in Cameroon. It was not documentaries. When I was in film school I really didn't know what kind of fiction I wanted to do. And when I discovered the documentary [form], it gave me a lot of freedom to be myself, to really experience what I wanted to, because I didn't want an intermediary between me and the people that I wanted to film.
Because of all the legacy of colonialism — I was in Belgium — I didn't want to use a white person or a person that didn't know what I wanted to question. But the documentary really helped me to deconstruct my gaze, and to just find my way and really see what kind of fiction I could do. Because the fiction that I learned in film school was Western fiction, and it was difficult for me to apply it in my reality in Cameroon. I'm really happy to come to my first desire of cinema, of doing fiction and really the fiction that I want to do with all the knowledge that I had from documentaries.
Rosine Mabakam speaks at the premiere of her film in the Directors’ Fortnight program at the Cannes Film Festival.Photo courtesy Directors’ Fortnight / Delphine Pincet.
Your previous films are set in Belgium, but for this one you returned to Cameroon. Why did it make sense to return now?
Because when I was in Belgium I was there in the context of the legacy of colonialism. And I was confronting it every day. I wanted to really find my position there because I chose to live there, even though my inspiration was Cameroon. I wanted to deconstruct that and find my way because I knew that when I was deconstructing it that it would help me to see my reality differently. Because when I was in Cameroon, I was colonized. I didn't know I was reproducing all the things that I was seeing from the films I was watching in Cameroon. I wanted to discover how the rest of the world saw people like me in Belgium. It was important for me to deconstruct that first and to go back to Cameroon afterwards because I didn't want to reproduce the power of Western cinema on people that I wanted to film in Cameroon.
I love that you see it as a deconstruction of the image white people have of people from Cameroon or really any African country. You always get to the inner lives of the people you capture by looking at their craft. With Chez Jolie Coiffure, for instance, you focus on hairdressers. What draws you to a person's relationship with their craft, and why did you choose a dressmaker for this film?
In Cameroon, in my culture, all of those small spaces are where people come and drop stories and drop pain and also reconstruct their mental health. And I want to underline those spaces that sometimes people neglect because for them, maybe, it's not important. For me, for Chez Jolie Coiffure, with the hairdressers, it's the same thing. It's the space where women, and some men, come to just drop something and or take something.
I want to make people understand that sometimes it's not big spaces or important spaces that make us feel confident or that make us feel fine. I grew up in those smaller spaces. My mother was a dressmaker and my grand sister was her hairdresser. I really know those spaces and I know how it's built my imagery for stories of strong women. I wanted to show that.
I love the designs of the dresses; they’re so vibrant and vivid. What do they represent to you and to the character of Peirrette?
It's the dresses and how people can rebuild themselves through them. It's the space where your life can change with the world, with solidarity and also with love that people have brought to you through those spaces. You are surrounded not only by one woman, but by all these people who are coming. And yes, I really like fashion and also the colors.
In Cameroon, we don't have enough confidence in what we have. Even in fashion, we’re always looking at the West and how the West dresses without taking into account what we have. I wanted to show that it's beautiful and our story is important by just talking to ordinary people to show that even if we are ordinary, we have something important to say.
Rosine Mbakam’s first narrative feature is set in Cameroon.Photo courtesy Directors’ Fortnight.
The actress who plays Pierrette is your first cousin, correct? And it’s her first time acting?
It's not only my cousin. All of the cast are members of my family except for two people. But the rest are my mother, my aunts, my cousins, my sisters, my grand sisters.
Did you find it challenging directing people who you're not only related to but are in a situation where they’ve probably never acted before?
It's more challenging. There is a power in cinema and we know how that power has been used to stereotype Africans. I know the consequences of that power. And even more so with my family. Because they didn't really don't know what is the cinema, and how that power can be destructive. It's easy to take that power and to make them do what I want. It's important for me to be more vigilant and to give them the space to express themselves. That was really challenging because I had to be more careful about that.
With all of the travesties that befall Pierrette, a woman on an economic edge, I was really reminded of Vittorio De Sica’s films like Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. And yet, you don’t remain on a track toward heartbreak like those films do. It’s almost like a De Sica film would be impossible to pull off because the idea of community is so present here?
I didn't feel it was possible to end like that because, usually, it doesn’t end like that in my family. With every problem you have people going together to resolve something, to bring joy, even if there is something very painful. For me, it was a perspective that I wanted to give to that story. And I wanted to give the perspective of that power that I can see in Pierrette and all of the members of my family. I wanted to show that power is higher than the difficulty. That was the intention behind that ending with the mannequin, and of all the neocolonialism that exists. Our power can overtake those problems.
In ‘Mambar Pierrette,’ Rosine Mbakam enlisted family members for the film.Photo courtesy Directors’ Fortnight.
Her shop is also very small, yet open. Whenever Pierrette is making dresses, in the background you can see the street and you can see the life of her neighborhood. Could you talk a bit about why you framed her in that way as opposed, to say, close-ups?
If you see my film Chez Jolie Coiffure, you’ll notice it's really close. But if I close the perspective, here, it's not how we live in Cameroon. There is always a door open somewhere or someone can open the door to give you something, to give you help, to give a testimony. But in Chez Jolie Coiffure, in the West, Black people are closed into their space. In Cameroon it's different. There is always a perspective, there is always a solution. And I wanted to show that, to open that place, even if it's small. In Chez Jolie Coiffure, in the salon there is no door open anywhere. It's really close. It's like a prison. It's really close. In this film, it’s different. You can see the life of the earth coming, you can see light coming.
What do you hope people take away from this film when they’re finished?
I hope people will see another Africa and another way of filming Africa, another way to imagine Africa, and how we can look at Africa differently. I don't think we usually see that perspective, to be in the position of someone in Africa. I want people to be with these people and to help them understand what they want to say. I hope that people will watch the film and will remember the images and the words of this Black woman.