SheCAN Interview: Pioneering Director Euzhan Palcy of Sugar Cane Alley Film at 62nd BFI London Film Festival

“The success of Sugar Cane Alley gave me hope, wings I would say. I thought wonderful people would just embrace my idea of making a movie about South Africa, but I was so naive it was another struggle. Nobody wanted to produce a movie about South Africa. I am a warrior like most of our sisters and mothers, so I never gave up or took no for an answer and kept fighting the same way I fought for Sugar Cane Alley, nobody wanted to touch a movie with black characters  and no white leads”

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Euzhan Palcy’s Sugar Cane Alley (1983) which at the 40th Venice Film Festival,  was awarded the Silver Lion for Best First Film for Palcy’s impressive debut and the Volpi Cup for Best Actress to Darling Légitimus, both firsts for a black director and actor at the venerated festival. (main image still Sugar Cane Alley)

Depicting the life of working-class blacks, set in Martinique in the 1930’s the film is based on Joseph Zobel’s semi-autobiography novel and was one of the most honoured and globally distributed films of that year. Palcy became the first black director to be awarded the Cesar Award for Best First Film (highest award in French cinema) the following year. Sugar Cane Alley has won 17 international awards and Palcy continued to break boundaries by becoming the first black female director to produce a major Hollywood studio movie, with MGM in 1989,  A Dry White Season brought Marlon Brando out of a nine-year retirement and Palcy is the only woman to have ever directed the late acting icon.

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Pictured left to right Euzhan with Jenny Zobel daughter of novelist Joseph Zobel.

We caught up with the Euzhan Palcy at the Mayfair hotel in London as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2018.

Why is the restoration of the Sugar Cane Alley important?

It will allow the film to have more life, so the coming generations can see and continue to appreciate  the movie in 4k.

Are we making process for women and women of colour, with directors like Dee Rees and Ava DuVernay, and movies like “Black Panther”?

I would say very humbly with the making of Sugar Cane Alley I paved the way for the young and next generations of directors and actors so it was a very very important moment in cinema history, and I did it with the few other directors who was there at that time and yes there is progress but we should are still not just sit down on it and say OK, it is great, everything is fine, this is solved, no it is not solved. We still fighting to get things right for directors, for female directors and it is  important that people understand that. Just because we have one or two films on the market making money, now everything is alright? No! we need to keep fighting and pushing the boundaries.

When you directed A Dry White Season, were you aware you were making history, tell us a bit about that moment?

A Dry White Season, it was another kind of struggle because when I was ten years old as a young girl in Martinique, my country I knew I wanted to make films, not to be an actress but to be on the other side of the camera to direct movies. I wanted to see our people on the screen as at that time there was not many. There was very few few few of them and when you would see them on screen it would always be in very degrading roles or parts, so I wanted to do Sugar Cane Alley, there is three movies that, three projects that were very dear to my heart. The first was Sugar Cane Alley, then the next (what turned out to be A Dry White Season) was about South Africa and the third about Toussaint L’ouverture, known leader of the Haitian Revolution . The success of Sugar Cane Alley gave me hope, wings I would say,  so I thought wonderful people would just embrace my idea of making a movie about South Africa, but I was so naive it was absolutely another struggle, and nobody wanted to produce a movie about South Africa. and you know I am a warrior like most of our sisters and mothers and I never gave up I would never take no for an answer and would keep fighting the same way I wanted to do Sugar Cane Alley as nobody wanted to touch it because it was a movie with black characters no white leads.  When the studio called me to work on their project and I turned down everything they offered me, and I said I have this movie and finally they said OK and we started to develop the film and MGM produced the film. It was very very important to me to do A Dry White Season as a statement and also give the black South African people a voice by doing something that had not been done before, giving real black South African actors a chance to portray them and that was not negotiable for me it was all or nothing and I won that battle with the studio and I am very proud of the that.

What influenced your decision to become a Film Director?

As a young girl I saw several movies the people who really inspired me were Sembene, Hitchcock,  Billy Wilder, Djibril Diop Mambéty, all those people where my spiritual mentors, each of them taught me something about film making, the technique, the storytelling and quality, so they were my inspiration.

Do you think you can still make a good movie for 3 million dollars?

I think that you need money to make film, but there are projects you do with little money, whereby at the same time you can have a lot of money and make a bad film.  You can have a little money, for example look at “Get Out” and look at the quality of the film and look at the success of the film. So, you need to have a good subject and good actors and do a good job. But sometimes, some subjects, the projects that I have and have had for a few years like the story of the first female Negro pilot I would not be able to do them as I have had that project for 20 years and nobody wanted to touch it because she is female and she is black and also it is period piece, I need money to make a good  movie there are times when you have a project like that, that is so important you cannot make it with nothing as later on you would have to apologise to people that you did not have the money, no, so you have to put it in a draw and move  forward and find the money in order to do justice with the subject.

Synopsis: 1930: on a sugar cane plantation in Martinique lives José (Garry Cadenat), a bright mischievous 11-year-old and his grandmother (Darling Légitimus), an illiterate yet tough and wise woman determined to save him from the hard life she has known. When Jose wins a scholarship, she is ready to sacrifice everything for his chance at an education and an escape from the fields.

Watch clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrLXkEigFS4

 

 

 

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