LAURENT CANTETS SEXUAL IMPERATIVES
French filmmaker Laurent Cantets concerned his that film, Heading South in which middle-aged sexually repressed North American white women visiting Port-Au-Prince fall in love with a young, lusty, impoverished black Haitian man might be misconstrued as being about sexual exploitation.
In France, Ive had to fight that impression, to justify my making this film, says Cantet. This films not about exploitation I dont want people thinking oh, those poor Haitian guys are being exploited by those bad American women.”
Cantet conceived of Heading South in 2002, while visiting Port-Au-Prince, where he was shocked by Haitis poverty, attracted by its sensuality and intrigued by the complex social and political situation.
I wanted to make a film about what it means to be a tourist in such a world where sexuality is an expression of social, political and economic power and only physical desire can bridge the huge gap between rich and poor, says Cantet, who based the script on Dany Laferrieres short stories which he read on the plane back to Paris.
Laferrieres book presents a kaleidoscopic image of Port-Au-Prince, showing tourists who, like the women in the film, avoid seeing the poverty by staying inside their hotels. Laferriere was adamant that the film explore whether in that context, sexual relations could lead to a realization other than humiliation and oppression, something more than guilt or compassion. I agreed with him about that.
MERIN: I found Heading South somewhat titillating and very sad, very moving but not exploitive. Why this reaction in France?
CANTET: Im glad to hear you say that. I think the French see Heading South as different from my previous films, which are thought to be militant. For me, theres continuity and, I dont think my films are militant. Im not militant Im involved, engagé, concerned about whats happening around me, yes, but I dont propose answers. The worlds very complex and I like to show this complexity. I dont think Im the cineaste du travail that they expect me to be so this film surprised them. They think because the women have sex with Legba, the films about sexual exploitation. I agree that its politically correct to denounce sexual exploitation, but thats what this film is about. So, now I must justify myself and making the film.
MERIN: How do you do that?
CANTET: By emphasizing the continuity between Heading South and my other films. Like the question of masks at the beginning of Heading South, the old women says everybodys wearing a mask, so you dont know whos good or bad. In my films, characters dont show who they are, they present images as though masked before others. And, my films link intimacy and political issues.
MERIN: How so in Heading South?
CANTET: The films more political than its characters. Theyre two oppressed groups coming face to face the Haitians are politically and economically oppressed, and the women have no rights to their desires. Since theyre equally oppressed, their intimacies arent exploitation. If men were coming to get young girls, for example, that would be sexual tourism. Then, the film would be about exploitation.
MERIN: How do personal politics inform your filmmaking?
CANTET: Well, Im very far left but I dont make politics, I make films. I think my most overtly political film is probably Human Resources, where I wanted to show that people who think were living in a class-free society where the class dialectic no longer exists are wrong.
MERIN: And in Heading South?
CANTET: The film addresses many issues simultaneously north and south, black and white, how tourists go someplace and without being involved or risking anything, think theyre intimate with local people. That kind of hypocrisy is dangerous. But I wanted the women in Heading South to be guiltless, acting from their pure need without self-consciousness or compassion.
MERIN: Why arent any French women in Heading South?
CANTET: In the 70s, people rarely crossed the ocean for vacations. Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) is European but lives in Boston. More importantly, these women seem American rather than European, because theyre puritanical. Maybe this is my making stereotypes, but I dont think French or Italian women have the same problems with their bodies or with aging.
MERIN: Why so?
CANTET: Religion is less important for Europeans than for Americans. For example, in the film, Brenda (Karen Young) is very puritanical and very strangled by that. I cant imagine her as a French woman. In the story, shes a Baptist ministers wife which means nothing to French audiences, so I cut it. When someones that oppressed, just open the door a little and the reaction is huge anything can happen. For her, meeting Legba (Méthony Cesar) opened that door. Theres no going back.
MERIN: Were there other story changes?
CANTET: Yes. In the story, Albert (Lys Ambroise) the hotelier was also in love with Legba, but that was distracting. I found it more interesting, more focused, if Legbas just this guy with this body who seduces women and is seduced by them.
MERIN: Do you rewrite often? Improvise on set?
CANTET: I write a first version, then cast, then rehearse a lot especially when working with nonprofessional actors because they need to understand their character, or sometimes I must change their character to fit them better. I like this give and take. It helps develop characters, and is good for the film. This time, it was hard because Charlotte was in Paris, Karen was in New York and Louise Portal was in Montreal while Méthony and Lys were in Port-Au-Prince, and I was I dont know where. We couldnt rehearsal until a week before shooting, when we went to the Domincan Republic, read the script, tested situations and made changes. That week was a bit too short for me, but we managed.
MERIN: Is writing, shooting or editing most important to you?
CANTET: Shooting, I think. If you dont have it in shooting, you wont get it in editing. Although, it helps to have the same guy who co-wrote the script Robert Campilloedit the film, too. Robert and I have similar sensibilities. We attended cinema school together years ago.
MERIN: Why set Heading South during the 1970s?
CANTET: Todays Haitis a ruined country. No tourists, no hotels, no beaches, no nothing. We shot resort sequences in the Dominican Republic, but city scenes were shot in Port-Au-Prince.
MERIN: How was filming in Haiti?
CANTET: Dangerous. Armed gangs were kidnapping and killing people. I was concerned for the crew. I was responsible for them. For myself, I got used to it. Thats terrible to say, but you get used to it. We had guards while we worked we had to, for insurance purposes, because the crime level made it unreliable that we could finish the film.
MERIN: if theres a lesson to be learned from Heading South, what would it be?
CANTET: That things are more complex than how we think of them. I dont want this film summed up in two sentences. I want it to be as complex and as illogical as life itself. Thats what Im always trying to show. Thats what I dont like about most scripts that theyre more logical than life is. Life is arbitrary, and risky. I want to show it that way. (Published in New York Press)