Sarah Malléon: “all my films are set in Martinique or feature Caribbean people”

Sarah Malléon: "I make films that federate, that are accessible for people from different backgrounds, different horizons"

Behind some episodes of famous French series such as Mongeville, Sam or Tropiques Criminelles, hides the talented and sharp pen of a young Martinican, Sarah Malléon. Graduated from one of the best screenwriting schools in France, she has been working since 2015 between television and cinema, between commissions and creations. Doubout, her short film written and directed with Pierre Le Gall, was the winner of the Prix de Court Festival in 2019. She tells us a story whose determination is the common thread and which promises beautiful chapters to come.

Sarah Malléon 1 : Why did you choose to be a screenwriter?

Sarah Malléon : It’s a vocation. When I was 9, I saw The Legend of the Headless Horseman at the Olympia in Fort-de-France. I found this film incredible : the story, the acting, I was afraid, I laughed… All the emotion I felt in a film, I wanted to give it back. I promised myself that when I grew up, I would write films. Later, when I was 12, I saw Rue Cases-Nègres and I thought : “If Euzhan Palcy could do it, so it’s possible”.

Sarah Malléon 2 : How did you move from this promise to a reality?

S.M. : When I was in high school, I found two scriptwriters schools : Fémis and the Conservatoire européen d’écriture audiovisuelle – CEEA (European Audiovisual Writing Conservatory). The latter defends the idea that a screenwriter is a craftsman and I liked that. There was also a very secret side : people who enter this school sign a confidentiality clause. I thought it was great! In addition, it’s highly selective, they only take 12 people a year. I liked that rock’n roll side and at the same time unattainable.

After a master’s degree in communication at the Université des Antilles and a year as a French assistant in England, I decided to take the CEEA entrance exam. Luckily I passed it because I didn’t have a plan B!

There are three stages of selection. The first one is the sending of a script. The second is the test on the table : writing the synopsis of a feature film in 6 hours. I felt like I completely failed it. I cried but there was still the last stage, the oral interview. A friend advised me to go as if I had nothing to lose, to be natural and to say why I wanted to do this job. When the jury asked me what I thought of my synopsis, I criticized it thoroughly! That’s exactly what they expected, self-criticism. At the CEEA, they teach you to listen to feedback and to take a step back from your work. You understand that the job of a screenwriter is not to write, but to rewrite.

I took the training for two years. The rhythm is the same as in pre-med. We wrote all the time. That forced me to finish my texts. Fear of failure often means that you don’t go at the end of what you’ve undertaken. I also learnt to work in accordance with a budget, in various formats, long, short, series, animation… I came out of CEEA in 2015 with a TV fiction bible and an animation fiction bible. A few months later, I had my agent and I entered the labour market as a screenwriter.

Sarah Malléon 3 : What are your influences?

S.M. : My influences are many, they belong to everyone. So, I don’t try to make elitist films. I make films that federate, that are accessible for people from different backgrounds, different horizons. For me, a film can be imperfect, but if the author has put his heart and guts into it, it gets me inside and it touches me. I try to make my films with that in mind.

Sarah Malléon 4 : What stories do you want to tell?

S.M. : All my films are set in Martinique or feature Caribbean people. When I was in secondary school, they wanted to teach us how to do research. While I was leafing through a book in the Lamentin’s library, I came across a paragraph entitled “An tan Robè”. It caught my attention because my grandmother often talked about that time. I understood that it was a difficult period but I didn’t know who this Robert was. When I read, I felt like a punch in the stomach. I discovered that Resistance wasn’t just Jean Moulin with a baguette under his arm and a cigarette in his mouth. Under the call raised by General de Gaulle, Martinican men and women joined the army to go and beat the Nazis and liberate France. There was an American embargo, and risking their lives, they crossed the Dominica or St. Lucia Canal to join the French forces. They went to fight against racists and they themselves faced racism. The more I read, the more angry I got.

No one had told me that people close to me had gone to fight and were part of this beautiful story of the French Republic. They had been mistreated and then forgotten. At the time, Euzhan Palcy had not yet made her documentary and the dissidents had not yet received a medal. I told myself that they laughed about us, that they were telling us the story they wanted to tell us. So like Aimé Césaire, “mouth of those who have no mouth”, I promised myself that I would write the stories of these people. Stories that were never told.

That’s my anger as a filmmaker. This job is difficult, sometimes I want to give up everything, but every time because of this anger, I get up every morning and go back.

Sarah Malléon 5 : What’s your first short film, Doubout, about?

S.M. : By talking with Pierre Le Gall, my co-author whom I met at the CEEA, we realized that he was an older brother and I was an older sister. When we went to Paris for our career, we had both left our younger brother or sister behind. We often tell the story of the one who leaves but rarely the story of the one who stays. So we wanted to tell it and make it a family film, a little fantastic. I told him about the Legend of Lentikri that frightened me when I was a child. Pierre loved it.

Doubout’s first script was 32 pages long. We proposed it to our producers. It wasn’t easy because it’s a fantastic film, it’s about a kid, black people, and it’s set in Martinique! Except that they were crazy enough to follow us. Other producers told them they were crazy but they went for it. I will never thank them enough. We did 13 or 14 versions before we getting to the final script.

Sarah Malléon 6 : Doubout was very well received in Martinique, it won the Prix de Court 2019. Are you satisfied with these unanimously positive reviews?

S.M. : We appreciated people identified themselves. There was this story of brothers and this specificity of a film set in Martinique but which is not a “doudouiste” film. We don’t see a beach there. We wanted to tell something with people anchored in reality, not a cliché.

We asked ourselves the question of reading grids. The western viewer would not understand all the subtleties but he would at least have a reading grid. No spectator would be put aside. Love, fear, sadness, separation is universal. On the other hand, Doubout is rooted in a West Indian, Caribbean culture.

The film was very well received around the world. In Russia, it won the Family Values Award! It was screened in festivals in Bangladesh, Korea, Sweden, Poland, Mexico, Brazil, New York, Montreal, Trinidad, Haiti, Kenya, Berlin, Scotland, England… However, it didn’t have much success in France. We didn’t participate in big festivals because the film didn’t fit into a pre-existing editorial line. It’s a genre film… with black people. They don’t know what to do with that kind of stuff. I had already been told that there was only a small window of opportunity for Caribbean films and it had to be a remake of Rue Cases-Nègres, a sort of Marcel Pagnol in the West Indies. It’s hard to expand this cell or to create another one. I don’t write to fit into a cell, I’am not here for that. Not in cinema. I already do it for TV.

Sarah Malléon 7 : Some Caribbean filmmakers are moving towards the African or Canadian film industries, what do you think?

S.M. : I fully understand the process, if I have this opportunity for a project, I will do it. In Nigeria, for example, they are not afraid of the genre. Nevertheless, I have a “fêt’ chié” side. I’m in France, you’re clearly trying to make me understand that I’m bothering you? Well, I want to stay, just to piss you off. I’m just as French as you are so I’m going to make my films in France, with French financial aid and I’m going to make you understand that you’re part of the problem. Maybe one day I’ll get tired of all this but right now this role is important to me. Leaving is letting others win. I don’t want to let the “hexagonal” self-segregation win. I think it’s still possible, I have hope.

Sarah Maléon 8 : As a filmmaker, what’s your opinion on recent events questioning some colonial symbols?

S.M. : I think this free speech movement is great. The concept of the “white savior”, the story that says France offered us the abolition of slavery, this is no longer accepted. I didn’t think my generation would have tore down statues, but what it means is : “We’re fed up with this national narrative, you’re not trying to question or discuss it”. This ideal of a secular France, which doesn’t see colours, is not what happens in reality. The problem is that they don’t listen, so if we have to tear down statues to get them to start listening, let’s tear down them!

When I tear down a paternalistic statue, I don’t attack Schoelcher but the symbol, what it represents. This global emulation should open up the debate. I belong to a generation that must have discovered “Dissidence” by chance in Martinique. In pictures of the Liberation of Paris, there are no blacks because they asked that they be hidden. That’s also the history of France. A male history and a white history. The paternalistic discourse which consists in saying : “You don’t know what you’re fighting for, you want to change history”, bothers me. We don’t want to change history, we want to change the national narrative, it’s different. This fight is akin to that of cinema.