Hot Docs 2021 Women Directors: Meet Maéva Ranaïvojaona – “Zaho Zay”

Maéva Ranaïvojaona is a French filmmaker with Malagasy origins, living and working in Paris and Vienna. She wrote, produced, and directed two short films that have been shown and awarded at several festivals, among them the International Film Festival Rotterdam and Cannes Film Festival. “Zaho Zay” is her first feature film and has been awarded at FIDMarseille in France and Viennale in Austria. Since 2017, Ranaïvojaona has worked as a screenwriter, filmmaker, and producer at Subobscura Films.

“Zaho Zay” is screening at the 2021 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, which takes place April 29-May 9. The fest is digital this year due to COVID-19. Streaming is geo-blocked to Canada. The film is co-directed by Georg Tiller.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

MR: I like to call my film a documentary tale, or a Malagasy western noir.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

MR: I would say mainly the encounter with my uncle, and the discovery of Madagascar’s desertic landscapes. It started in 2017. My uncle was driving me through the island for a series of location scouting for a different film project. I was there with a good camera at hand, technical material, and the person who would become my co-director, Georg Tiller.

From the beginning of the trip, I was fascinated by the silent presence and archetypal cinematic traits my uncle naturally displayed when walking around – actually, doing any gesture. Even when he was waiting – still and in thought, leaning against his car – he would attract a cinephile’s eye. I would constantly see in him a silent murderer or an old gangster awaiting some tragedy.

And those ready-made scenes happened in the middle of canyons and magnificent deserts that I was discovering. There was no way around the filming of the protagonist of what would become “Zaho Zay.” However, wandering in the wilderness, where the images were so strong and so promising, pushed me to build everything after this first year and complete a film.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

MR: I hope they think of Madagascar as an island they might not have known before and still don’t know so much about after watching. I hope “Zaho Zay” piques their curiosity enough for them to take a trip over; or have more awareness of people who fight for dignity and life in a very difficult place; or realize that they have many beautiful and universal messages to share with the world.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

MR: On the one hand, filming in the overcrowded prison of Fianarantsoa among the 850 prisoners was a challenge. We were lucky to obtain access and tried our best to prepare for this more “documentary” aspect of the film. But once there, we had just one week to film everything, bond with people, conduct interviews, and re-storyboard scenes directly on set. We put all our script ideas and requirements for mains scenes in a new shape, fitting the reality we fronted. It was both physically and emotionally intense. I still wonder how we did it and once it was over, it felt like a dream.

On the other hand, the longest challenge was the editing. We had two parallel stories: a gangster father who wanders in the wilderness murdering people, and his daughter waiting for his arrest, who works as a prison guard in a city of the island and hopes she will see her father again once he comes in as a prisoner.

We made a film without dialogue, with a daughter almost never appearing on screen. The camera provided her point of view. We met a talented writer and poet to create her voiceover but the moment of editing it all together — it took seven months of constant pressure and fear to just be crazy filmmakers, doing something that might not be possible to achieve.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

MR: “Zaho Zay” wasn’t funded. It ate the funds from other films’ financial income, therefore making my other projects a little more challenging to achieve. It took free time from passionate people as well as a last-minute private investment from a brave producer for post-production. All for a film that was not ever supposed to be made.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

MR: One night during my art studies, I came back late and couldn’t sleep. I turned on the TV and saw the last scene of “Werckmeister Harmonies” from Belà Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky. I was so moved, I started to cry all alone – okay, I maybe had a few drinks outside that evening. I thought, “That’s what I want to do in my life: create these kinds of emotions with these kinds of pictures.” The adventures started then.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

MR: At a film festival diner, I was talking about how hard it was to make my films happen and to enter the industry. A producer that I won’t name told me, “Don’t be so crispated and tense about what you want. Don’t try to force it so much, otherwise, the whole cosmos feels it, and it blocks everything.”

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

MR: If you are afraid to direct or deal with a man because he might be misogynistic, just go to the encounter persuading yourself that you are a man. Once completely convinced, all will work just fine.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

MR: Jane Campion’s “The Piano” because it made me cry.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how? 

MR: I am adjusting very well: enjoying the extensive time that one can obsessively spend watching a million films; and making lots of over-perfected funds application dossiers, scripts, and storyboards. I’m also part of the COVID-baby-boom makers as I managed to get pregnant. I feel that it calms the need for travel, outside adventures, and shootings. Storytelling is great preparation for parenthood. I just do that.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing – and creating – negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

MR: Hmm… let people like me make more films and fund them profusely?

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