“I wanted to make a film about the positive side of Africa,” says writer-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, whose latest doc, Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love, details the religious controversy surrounding the eponymous African music legend’s 2004 album, Egypt. “Youssou N’Dour is amongst the most important voices coming out of Africa today, however I wasn’t interested in making a traditional biographical portrait.” So after one particular sit-down in which Vasarhelyi heard the record for the first time, she knew she had found the subject for her documentary.
In a film that explores N’Dour’s music, faith and cultural influence, Vasarhelyi delves into exactly why N’Dour and Egypt caused such massive waves of displeasure in his native Senegal and how he and his audiences reacted.
In an e-mail exchange, Princeton graduate Vasarhelyi kindly answered a few questions on the eve of the DVD release of Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love. In her responses she discusses what it was like filming in the epicenter of the religious upheaval surrounding Egypt, which scenes were the hardest to cut from the final version of the film and her choice to operate with a svelte crew of two.
Andrew Gnerre (MM): Do you remember the moment you decided to make a documentary about Youssou N’Dour?
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (ECV): The first time Youssou played me the music he had recorded for his album, Egypt, and explained to me his hopes for the recording to share his rich, spiritual vision of a tolerant Islam with the world, I knew this was the film for me. Personally, at that time, I was feeling very helpless and frustrated by the political situation at home and abroad. However, I found that Youssou and his actions defied the sentiment that we, as individuals, are unable to create change. Youssou inspired me immediately, because he is someone who lives by his convictions.
MM: How did the controversial religious subject matter affect filming? Was it hard to gain access to certain places you wanted to film? Was it tough getting some people to give honest, interesting answers? ?
ECV: I didn’t anticipate the controversy surrounding Egypt when it was first released in Senegal. In terms of filming Youssou’s personal experience of what were some pretty dramatic events, I found myself in an unpredictable and volatile situation as he was swept up into political and religious intrigue, trying to wrestle with being renounced in Africa, where he has long been a hero—even as he garnered soaring praise and a Grammy nomination in America. However, at the same time, I also understood that despite the challenges, an accurate and educated understanding of religion in Senegal was critical to contextualizing Youssou’s story and I was determined to spend as much time as possible in the holy city of Touba. That said, given the controversy around the Egypt album, Youssou could not spend time in the holy city, so my crew and I set out independently to film in Touba to get a more general experience of the faith.
Senegal is a 95 percent Muslim country, and as when entering a holy or sacred environment belonging to any religion, it’s imperative to respect local customs. For example, traditionally, women aren’t permitted in the men’s section of a mosque. Naturally, I was intimidated, but we found that people were curious about why this American film team was on this grueling religious pilgrimage, and once they understood that I was interested in learning more about the religion—even though I’m not Muslim—for the most part people were very open to sharing their experiences. Through the filming of I Bring What I Love, I went on the pilgrimage to Touba three times, and by the second visit the caretaker of the main mosque remembered us. Taking the time and care to understand the religion from the inside gave my crew a certain integrity. So ultimately, this investment in time and attention paid off, our access was unprecedented, even Youssou was very surprised when he saw the images of Touba in the final film.
?MM: I imagine that for a movie like this, in which intimate access is as much a necessity as being able to supremely shoot massive concerts, choosing DPs is a vital part of the process. How did you go about choosing your cinematographers?
ECV: I had the privilege of working with three incredible cinematographers. To preserve the intimacy of the project we worked as a team of two—I would record audio and travel with one DP. I was introduced to Nick Doob through my first sales agent, Jane Balfour. I was thrilled when Nick accepted the project; his cinéma vérité approach to filming a subject captured some of the most memorable moments in the film: For example, the film’s final scene, where Youssou is backstage at Carnegie Hall. In addition to being seasoned cinéma vérité shooters, Nick and Jojo Pennebaker are also both killer music cinematographers—which obviously was crucial.
The third cinematographer I worked with was Scott Duncan. Senegalese Islam is as visually stunning as it is spiritually uplifting. I wanted to capture that in the visual landscape of the film. I was familiar with Scott Duncan’s work; he has received numerous Emmys for his opening sequences for NBC’s Olympic coverage and Mark Burnett’s prime-time “Survivor” series. I knew it was a reach and that we couldn’t afford Scott’s commercial rate, but I thought he could bring the visual element of the project to life. I made a cold call and I was psyched when he said yes. We’ve been working together on different projects ever since; he’s producing my next film, Touba: City of Peace.
?MM: You filmed this movie over a span of three years. Is the act of editing that footage down to 102 minutes as maddening as it sounds? Can you think of one or two scenes that you were devastated about not to be able to include? ?
ECV: Making a film is about making choices. It was hard to exclude the fun back-story of how Youssou first came to music and formed his legendary band the Super Etoile de Dakar. Likewise, the day-to-day interactions between Youssou and the Egyptian Orchestra were also a highlight but just didn’t have a place in our story.
?MM: Were you very involved in the creation of this DVD? Do you have a particular favorite special feature?
ECV: My favorite special features are the scenes between Youssou and Egyptian orchestra, including the making of the Egypt album itself. There are also several super [Senegal dance music] mbalax performances with Youssou and the Super Etoile de Dakar. ? ?
MM: Can you recollect one or two lessons that you learned in making this movie (whether in filming, editing, distributing or anything else) that you could relay to any moviemakers reading this piece?
ECV: Patience. The real happens when least expected. Making this film I certainly learned to appreciate patience in the field and also to be patient with myself.
Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love is on DVD now, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories. Enter to win a free DVD copy—courtesy of MM and O-Scope—at: http://www.moviemakersub.moviemaker.com/contests/dvd_giveaway_youssou_ndour_i_bring_what_i_love_20100406