Rhys Handley talks to Bertrand Bonello about his latest film ‘Zombi Child’ (2019)
Of late, French director Bertrand Bonello has been somewhat preoccupied with the legacy of his home country. His biopic Saint Laurent (2014), France’s entry to the Academy Awards that year, was a meditation on the memory of one the nation’s most famous exports, the eponymous fashion designer, at the peak of his powers. Then, on the heels of the devastating attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the co-ordinated November 2015 shootings, he released Nocturama (2016) to contend with the anger and propensity for violence at the heart of French society, unwilling to provide easy answers.
With his latest, Zombi Child — streaming now on MUBI — he extends his considerations onto a wider canvas, to look at France’s place in the wider world and its responsibility to the countries and peoples with which it shares cultural and historical ties, for better or worse. The film traces the lineage of Clairvus, a young man in 1960s Haiti struck down by plague and resurrected as a soulless, wandering zombie through to his granddaughter Mélissa, an ex-patriot navigating life at an affluent girls’ boarding school in present-day Paris.
Bonello uses his new feature to bring audiences face-to-face with the colonialist roots of the zombie myth and France’s exploitative, appropriative ties to Haiti and its voodoo traditions. It’s deft work, and we spoke to the director on his brief visit to the 63rd BFI London Film Festival to understand how he teased out such knotty, potent themes for his moving, terrifying feature.
Electric Ghost Magazine: You’re showing Zombi Child at London Film Festival. What is the significance on London, and film festivals in general, to the visibility of the film?
Bertrand Bonello: London is a very big festival and every time I stop in, I’m only here for 24 hours. Festivals are becoming more and more important because it is difficult to get a normal theatrical release for a film like Zombi Child. Festivals are key to helping the film exist. I think it’s important that I attend as many of the festivals it will show at as possible to meet the press and, essentially, take the film out of France.
What drew you to the concept of the zombie, nowadays such a well-tread genre trope?
I came across an account of a zombie-like man in Haiti a long time ago and kept it in my notebook of ideas for films. Over time, I could not get the idea of this man working with his head down out of my head, so he became the character of Clairvus. I read The Magic Island by William Seabrook, which is the origin of our Western understanding of the zombie, but it originates in Haiti. This fed into White Zombie, the 1932 film starring Bela Lugosi — but it is still set in Haiti. I became interested in looking into the truth of the zombie and bringing it back home to Haiti.
“It is an important country in world history as it was the first free black country and I saw parallels in how the idea of the zombie is an invocation of slavery.”
The film deals with traditions of voodoo culture among native Haitians and the wider diaspora. What did you have to keep in mind while handling such sensitive material?
My starting point in the film was Clairvus’ story and how I could tell it. As a white French person, I cannot simply tell this story from a Haitian perspective. I have always been very interested in Haitian culture and the country’s relationship to France, which was what I wanted to talk about. I had the chance to meet a lot of wonderful people in Haiti and hear their stories. It is an important country in world history as it was the first free black country and I saw parallels in how the idea of the zombie is an invocation of slavery. In France, we think we created the concept of revolution, but I wondered if we had been clear with that in our history.
Have you had a chance to show the film to Haitian audiences?
It recently screened in New York, which has a large Haitian community. The screening was initially quite tense, but I think it went down very well and the audience concluded that I had come at this from a good place.
The character of Clairvus is interesting, a man resurrected as a zombie in 1960s Haiti. What was the process of realising this character in a believable and sympathetic way?
It is difficult when shooting a character like this because there was no dialogue in the Clairvus scenes, which meant we had to find the rhythm elsewhere. A lot of that came in the editing room, but we found a lot of the actors who auditioned for Clairvus already knew how to act like a zombie from all the films they had already seen. I wanted to find someone who would help me give you the sensation of that experience, which I found in Mackenson Bijou.
Much of the film is set in the present day, at a girls’ boarding school in Paris with the main character being Fanny – a white French girl from an affluent family. Why did you choose this perspective from which to address your themes?
I knew from the start that I wanted the film to be about two things — the story of Clairvus, and the story of a teenager in love. As I say, I am a Frenchman and so I felt the point of view had to be French. That’s why I came up with the character of Clairvus’ granddaughter Mélissa and her schoolmate Fanny, the teenager in love who I thought would be a good entry point into the story. I chose to make these characters fifteen years old because I think it is a good age for Fanny and her friends to receive Mélissa’s story, as they will have been watching a lot of American horror movies. It also allowed me to use the scene at the start with the history lesson, where we can talk about these concepts of freedom, culture and revolution that will reoccur in the film.
“We must understand that freedom is not just something that we take, but also something that we can give.”
It’s quite complex material for a group of young actors to deal with. Talk me through the casting and workshopping process.
The casting process was very important and we had to take our time. When we cast Wislanda [Louimat], we found that her story was actually very similar to that of Mélissa’s – she had spent half her life in Haiti and the other half in Paris. She had this culture and heritage that she did not know what to do with. The key subject of the film is carrying that kind of heritage and what you do with it. Working with non-professionals, the characters become 50% of what you write and direct and the other 50% is who the actors really are. I spent a lot of time before shooting just talking to the girls and observing them to see how they move and talk, so that the scenes would be authentic.
I noted a lot of instances where different kinds of music play a key role in the film — whether it’s the hip-hop that the Fanny, Mélissa and their teenage friends listen to, the traditional Haitian rhythmic drumming or a surprise needle drop from Gerry and the Pacemakers. How did all these disparate styles find their way into the film?
With all the music, we were choosing what would best serve the narrative, whether that’s the original score or the songs that we used. I had no idea what kind of music the young girls would be listening to, but I have a daughter around the same age and I went on her Deezer to see what she might be listening to. Whatever we went with for any part of the film, it had to be illustrative of what is onscreen.
What lesson would you want audiences to take out into their lives after watching Zombi Child?
I think the core idea of the film is this idea of freedom — it is everywhere in the ideas of French and Haitian history, the end of slavery and our relationship to colonialism. We must understand that freedom is not just something that we take, but also something that we can give.
Zombi Child screened as part of the 63rd BFI London Film Festival and is available to stream on MUBI now.
You can read our review of the film here.