June 17, 2009
We caught up with award-winning director Chai Vasarhelyi to discuss her newest film, documenting the extraordinary life and work of international super star Youssou N’dour.
Chai will host Q&A sessions at the Village East Cinema following shows on Friday & Saturday (details & advance tickets).
Q: WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO MAKE THE FILM?
A: I wanted to make a film about Africa that would challenge the way in which the continent is currently portrayed in the media.Â Africa is not just about poverty, disease and war.Â It is a beautiful place with an incredibly vast and diverse history.Â I felt that music would be the best place for me to start and, while I did not know a lot about Youssou’s music or the West African musical tradition, I was completely taken by him – as a musician and as a moral leader.Â He is an incredibly captivating and driven performer, with a voice like an angel, who represents to millions of Africans the possibility of living successfully by one’s convictions. Sharing a tolerant side of Islam also became one of my most important motivations.
Q: WHAT IS THE CURRENT UNDERSTANDING OF YOUSSOU IN THE UNITED STATES?
A: Youssou is extraordinarily famous everywhere in the world, but less well known in America. He wrote and performed the official anthem of the 1998 FIFA World Cup, however here in the US most people know him through his collaborations with other artists such as Peter Gabriel with the song â??In Your Eyes.â?Â He is probably the most famous musician people haven’t heard of.Â To the African Diaspora this film represents a very intimate look into the personal life of an icon – to those who are discovering him for the first time, I hope this is a moving story that complements the power of his music.
Q: WHAT INITIAL REACTIONS ARE YOU RECEIVING TO THE FILM?
A: The film has been very well received at film festivals throughout the world and has won several audience awards.Â The audience response has been overwhelmingly positive.Â Itâ??s so interesting to see the way these very different people (from Telluride to Abu Dhabi) respond to this personal story.Â Music fans who know Youssouâ??s music naturally seek out the film.Â Many also find him an inspiration because of his activism and his strong religious convictions while others simply thank me for â??making a film with such a positive story about Africa.â?? But African American and Muslim-American audiences often come up after screenings and tell me how much they identify with Youssouâ??s personal story.Â I made this film with the hope of sharing Youssouâ??s story with a wider audience that may not already be familiar with his music. It has been a very hopeful experience, watching others discover Youssouâ??s inspiring story for themselves often walking away with a renewed hope about the Westâ??s relationship to the Muslim world. I made this film with the hope that it may contribute to a dialogue about Islam and the west; itâ??s truly gratifying to see audiences responding and discussing the issues addressed in the film. Ultimately, Youssouâ??s story is a compelling example of how each of us has the power to change the world.
Q: HOW DID YOU CONNECT WITH YOUSSOU?
A: I met Youssou at Carnegie Hall and pitched him the idea, he seemed interested without saying â??yes.â?? After some time, I was able to get permission form everyone involved, except Youssou, because he was so hard to pin down – he travels constantly.Â Several months after meeting him in New York, I flew to Senegal and, through a former body guard, I followed him to an outdoor concert near the border of Mauritania – after which he gave his â??yesâ?? and we set a date to start filming. I suppose he responded to my determination; the lengths at which I would go to reach him.Â He then knew I was committed and I believe he also understood how important it was to try to share his story with an international audience.
Q: WHAT NEW EXPERIENCES DID YOU HAVE WHEN MAKING THE FILM?
A: This film presented new experiences every day, it was an extraordinary journey.Â I was the only woman on tour with 25 Muslim musicians over the course of two Ramadans – something I would never have seen my self doing before I got involved in the film.Â I traveled with Youssou across West Africa, Morocco, Egypt, throughout Europe and much of the United States. I visited the most celebrated concert halls in the world, and I was surrounded everyday by world class musicians. I was also welcomed into Youssouâ??s family and allowed to experience the inside of Senegalâ??s most sacred Muslim practices.
Q: HOW DO YOUSSOUâ??S FRIENDS AND FAMILY RESPOND TO THE CONTROVERSY OF HIS MUSIC?
A: His family was quite surprisedÂ and ultimately concerned by the reaction.Â Up to the release of his album Egypt in 2004, every one of his albums have sold extremely well in Senegal. To get a real sense of the stakes you have to understand that Youssou is one of Senegal, if not Africaâ??s most beloved musicians. To have his audience at home turn against was very dramatic and quite serious.
Q: WHAT LOGISTICAL CHALLENGES DID YOU FACE WHEN MAKING THE FILM?
A: I traveled with a very small crew – myself, I did audio and cinematography.Â Keeping up with Youssouâ??s energy and traveling around the world felt like an extreme sport. One day we would be in an extremely hot desert location with no running water, the next day we would be in Washington, DC testifying before Congress. It was both exhausting and exhilarating.Â It was hard to film Youssou and watch him go through such a challenging personal turning point in his life. It was very powerful.
Q: WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE WORKING ABROAD?
A: I was an American traveling through Europe during the war in Iraq and I was very aware of how I was seen in many people’s eyes. In Senegal, a mostly Muslim country, I did not feel the same tension; I was completely welcomed and always treated respectfully.Â Iâ??m not religious nor am I a Muslim, but I was very comfortable there. The Senegalese Muslim community very much wanted to share in the filmâ??s message of a tolerant Islam.Â They even allowed us to film in the Mosque in the holy city of Touba – something that had never been done to that extent.Â They understood that I was there to try to learn and tell their story – the film is my attempt to share what I learned and to create a more diverse portrait of Islam.