This article appeared in the May 25, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here. Catch up on all of our coverage of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival here.

Mambar Pierrette (Rosine Mbakam, 2023)

At the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, among the many history-sweeping epics and time-devouring titles by (largely Western) auteurs, the Directors’ Fortnight selection Mambar Pierrette risks flying under the radar. The fiction debut by documentarian Rosine Mbakam, the film is at first glance a modest drama about a seamstress in Douala, Cameroon struggling to pay the bills, raise her three kids alone, and protect her rickety home and workshop from the floods that threaten to swallow up everything, like some kind of cosmic joke. Yet, as in Mbakam’s bravura nonfiction, the simplicity and directness of Mambar Pierrette belie a penetrating emotional and political vision. In documentaries like The Two Faces of a Bamiléké Woman (2018), Chez jolie coiffure (2018), and Delphine’s Prayers (2021), Mbakam’s affection for her subjects—typically family and friends in her native Cameroon or adopted home of Belgium—mingle with her keen ideological curiosity and eye for composition. The movies feel simultaneously like whispered communal rituals and dialogic inquiries into the very nature of representation, probing the ways in which we learn and relearn to see each other through the mediations of cinema, the distances of immigration, and the inequities and precarities of capitalism.

Mambar Pierrette represents a foray by Mbakam into a new, narrative mode, but the verité fundamentals of her previous work persist: the film stars the director’s cousin Pierrette and several of her relatives and neighbors as lightly fictionalized versions of themselves. Shot in an observant, unaffected style, the movie probes the possibilities and limitations of cinematic realism. Miseries accumulate oppressively in Pierrette’s life, almost in a parody of plot, but Mbakam allows an effortless, resilient grace—palpable particularly in scenes of Pierrette’s tailoring and her quiet communions with the women around her—to weave through and destabilize the dramatic arc. The result is a portrait that feels elusive and unfinalized—and, crucially, devoid of either the pity or the patronizing valorizations that often afflict films about poverty and hardship.

I chatted with Mbakam after the premiere of Mambar Pierrette at Cannes about the balance of fiction and documentary in the film, why she likes to make movies about her family, her desire to challenge representations of Africans in Western cinema, and more.

You’ve spoken about how your interest in cinema started not with movies, but with your family. Why is making movies about your family—whether via documentary, or, as with Mambar Pierrette, fiction—so important to you?

My desire for cinema began with the people I grew up seeing in my daily life, in my culture. I was imagining stories about them. Cinema came after, when I was preparing to study at university. I was sure that I wanted to use all the stories that I had been imagining—by writing, by doing journalism, I didn’t know how. Someone proposed cinema, and I trained for three months to learn to use a camera, and I said to myself that all the stories I had imagined as a child about my family, I was going to tell them through the cinema.

What kind of things were you imagining about your family when you were a child?

I was imagining strong characters. When I would see my mom, my aunt, my sisters, I saw strong people struggling with difficult situations in their lives and still being there. They still fought, they still continued to be joyful, they continued to live. What I was seeing, my reality, was hard. But what I was receiving from those hard moments, from those people, was really powerful.

What movies did you see when you were young in Cameroon? Did they reflect the people around you?

No, no. The first film I saw was Donka: X-Ray of an African Hospital (1996) by Thierry Michel. For me, it was so violent, the way that he was filming people in Guinea. The film is set in central Africa, it is the same culture as Cameroon, but I couldn’t recognize the people, because they were so victimized. When I see Africans represented by the West, it’s always in the position of victims. But that’s not what I saw in my family—even if they were struggling with hard situations, they were not victims. They were joyful and strong, and they wanted to do things, share things. My goal when I started to make cinema was to give back power to those people, the power to really tell their stories.

I find sometimes, especially as an immigrant, that it can be hard to justify the value of cinema to people whose lives are preoccupied with more immediate needs. How did you explain to your family that telling their stories through cinema is important? 

My mother taught me how to do cinema. I think we have something in common with [your country], India, in the way we do rituals and ceremonies—there is a mise en scène to it. I believe in my culture there is always cinema, and in the lives of people there is always cinema—I just have to find it. My mother defined it for me in my first feature documentary, The Two Faces of a Bamiléké Woman, when she said to me that cinema is what you see. I had a lot of complexes when I came to the West to study, because I didn’t have the culture of cinema. And what my mother said is that it wasn’t what I would learn that would help me make movies, it’s [simply] to look at people. The experience of making that documentary brought me a lot of confidence. Pierrette, and all the members of my family, they thought that cinema was another world, for special people and special stories. What we see today in Africa is a lot of reality TV, which says that there are exceptional people somewhere, whom we have to look at aspirationally. But my films showed my family that their experiences were also important.

Going back to what you said about the West showing Africans as victims, one type of movie we still see at festivals all the time, about Africa or more generally the Global South, is the drama where bad things keep happening to the characters, and we are supposed to feel pity for them while sitting comfortably in our cinema seats. What I found so striking about Mambar Pierrette is that it has a similar narrative structure, with many misfortunes befalling Pierrette one after another, but there is a grace that you and Pierrette bring to it, especially toward the end of the film, that forces us away from pity.

As I said in the beginning, I don’t see victims, I see strong people. A woman asked me why Pierrette doesn’t break down in the movie and cry. She does, but differently—by dancing. Even the scene where she’s robbed by the guys on the scooter, people told me it was too sober. But I didn’t want to tell the story of Pierrette the way the West would, I wanted to tell it the way we live it. When it’s hard, Pierrette takes a beer and dances. I do the same thing. I’m not saying I don’t cry, but it’s not my final way of resolving my problems. I wanted to [show] the character in the context of my reality.

You also portray difficult realities with candor and sensitivity. Sometimes filmmakers go in the other direction: they’re wary of showing poverty and destitution because of how the Western gaze might perceive it. Is that something you worry about?

No, because it is my reality. Poverty is my reality. It is the way I film it and represent it that is important and different. I am not ashamed of my reality: I grew up in the same neighborhood as Pierrette. I don’t want to arrange a new reality in order to show “positive” images of Africa. This is a positive image, because I’ve assumed it and represented it. I frame my reality how I see it, not how the West wants it to be.

I know that fiction and documentary are hard-to-define terms, but what is the balance between the two modes in the film?

The documentary aspect is the life of Pierrette, while the political thread in the film is fiction. It’s not that those political ideas are not part of Pierrette’s life—her circumstances are the consequences of the politics around her—but they’re not so visible in her daily life. If I did a documentary on her, I would have had to force those aspects to come out, and that’s not my way of doing things. My cinema is political, and I wanted to show that there is something more to Pierrette’s situation—the fact that she doesn’t have money, that her husband is irresponsible—that is related to the neocolonialism in Cameroon that’s not fully visible, but it’s there. Fiction helped me point that out. But I didn’t want fiction to take power from the life of Pierrette—to overpower the cinema that’s already in the lives of people. So that’s the balance.

I’m sure everyone’s asking you about the scene at the end, when a clown comes by to talk to the mannequin outside of Pierrette’s workshop. It’s one of the most prominent elements of fiction in the film, especially because the clown is the only professional actor in your cast, I believe. 

I didn’t come up with the mannequin. It was already there, in Pierrette’s actual workshop, where I filmed. When I saw it, I didn’t sleep. I rewrote everything.

Why? How did it provoke you?

I wanted to define the neocolonialism that exists in the power of the government in Cameroon, how it closes off the lives of people. That mannequin embodies all that. Even the color of the mannequin is so neutral that you can project everything onto it.

It’s so strange how the mannequin doesn’t resemble Pierrette’s customers in any way—it’s white, ghostly, unnatural. 

Exactly. A ghost!

There are two themes I was struck by in the film. You pay a lot of attention to money, the exact costs of things. And you are also very attentive to labor—to what Pierrette does with her hands. Even when she’s experiencing great misfortunes, it’s beautiful to see her work. Manual labor is rarely presented with such affection in movies.

I always see in the cinema that we build up heroes but don’t show what makes people heroes. It’s why we have so much reality TV today, because people think you can just be. No, you have to work to be. I wanted to put work at the center of the film, because how else can I define Pierrette? It’s her work, her movements through the neighborhood… It’s really aesthetic, too.

And money?

Well, what can you do without money? It is important to see how money travels; it is important to see how we are all bound by it, and sometimes destroyed by it. I wanted to show the power of money in our society, but also that we don’t have to pay so much attention to it, because there is something more important: solidarity. When Pierrette visits various women to ask for help, love comes first. Even if we don’t have money, we can give love.

I’m curious—how do payments work when you’re employing your family and friends as actors? 

When I made my first movie with my mother, I didn’t have enough money. This time, I was able to pay the actors something, and everyone was crying. Everyone had an envelope with their fee for the work they did. It was not too much, but it was something. Then when I received more money at the end of the year, I gave them another envelope. I got more money after finishing the film, and I gave them more again. For me, cinema is life, and in life, I share, no matter what I have or don’t have.

Like Pierrette.

Exactly. Cinema is life, and I put people at the center of my life.

What was your family’s reaction when they saw the film

They were all crying. To see direct representation, it’s really moving. Even if the world doesn’t receive the movie well, I am proud of myself for doing this, because I don’t see people like my family, like Pierrette, anywhere else in cinema. There is a pride that the experience of filmmaking has brought into our lives, and that for me is the pleasure of cinema.