Heading into December, the forecast for New York is balmy. This unlikelihood is produced by the Guadeloupe-based drama Elza (Le Bonheur d’Elza), which opens November 30 at MIST Harlem Cinemas.
Elza marks both the fiction feature debut of Mariette Monpierre (as seen in photo 1) and of Guadeloupean women, period. It's drawn from Monpierre’s own story of seeking her biological father back in her Caribbean birthplace.
Monpierre steps in front of the camera to play a single mother living in Paris with her eponymous daughter (Stana Roumillac as seen in photo 2). Despite being the first in her family to earn an advanced degree, Elza nonetheless feels incomplete. She was young when her biological father left, and she yearns to discover him–and herself.
Over her mother’s protests, she heads off to Guadaloupe. Mr. Desiré (Vincent Byrd Le Sage) turns out to be a prominent citizen with all the post-colonial trimmings of success right down to the olive skin, straight hair and sultry mistress. Pretending to be a babysitter, Elza insinuates herself in her father’s household, where she bonds with his granddaughter (Elza’s niece) and braves the dysfunctions of his children and white wife.
The film brings a heart and a pulse to a dismal statistic: “Sixty percent of children living in post-slavery society--including in the West Indies--are estranged from their fathers,” notes Monpierre. “They either don't know their father or don't live with him or don't see him often.”
On the eve of Elza’s release, thalo asked Monpierre to parse the implications of this phenomenon and her six-year odyssey to bring her story to the screen.
thalo: What’s the history behind the absent-dad stat?
Mariette Monpierre: Slaves weren’t allowed to build families. A child was a piece of furniture that belonged to the master of the mother. The father was used to procreate, and those babies would become plantation slaves. The father was often sold to different plantations and cut off from the family. He’d usually create new babies on the next plantation. He was never responsible to raise them. The wounds of slavery take decades to heal. Many men still don't feel responsible for their children.
th: How did growing up fatherless affect you?
MM: I was obsessed by the idea of meeting him. I was six when I came to Paris, and when I was 12 I decided to go back to my homeland to look for my father. I needed to know my identity; I needed to see his eyes. I needed him to hug me and to recognize me as his child.
th: What happened?
MM: The first thing he said to me was, “With kinky hair like yours, you cannot possibly be my daughter.”
(as seen in photo 3)
th: That’s what Elza’s father tells her. Was directing the “younger you” cathartic?
MM: Although in real life my father didn't embrace me, I was able to turn the page and move on. I made my film to inspire children to reach out to their fathers [and visa-versa]. A father is the first man in a girl's life.
All photos courtesy of Mariette Monpierre