These Are My Friends
An Interview with Michaël Andrianaly (Gwetto)
By Bedatri Choudhury

I met Malagasy filmmaker Michaël Andrianaly in Columbia, Missouri, at the True/False Film Festival where he was awarded the True Vision award, to “celebrate a director’s (or directing team’s) dedication to the advancement of nonfiction filmmaking.” This is the only award the festival gives out every year. He was showing his latest film, Gwetto, as well as his previous film Nofinofy, plus a film that he selected to program. When I told him I would like to chat, he suggested we talk in New York, where he would be presenting his new film at the First Look 2024 festival.

In the days in between these meetings, Andrianaly sent me photos of the lower Manhattan skyline taken from his friend’s West New York, New Jersey, apartment. It is nothing short of magical to see the skyline, which I have taken for granted for almost a decade, transformed through Andrianaly’s eyes. “Windows are the borders of life,” Andrianaly texts me one day. “Borrowing from Abbas Kiarostami’s wisdom,” he adds. Another day, the same buildings look completely different. “In a Picasso mood today,” he says.

When we finally meet to talk about Gwetto, his life, and art, of course we settle on a coffee shop by the water, looking out to the buildings he had taught me to see anew. We talk for an hour until sunset when he pushes his chair and says, “It’s a good light to take some photos.”

Reverse Shot: Let’s go back to the very beginning. How did you decide to be a filmmaker?

Michaël Andrianaly: It was in 2012, when I started to write my first story in a workshop in Tamatave. People from the France Foundation came to Malagasy to help folks who wanted to make films. I did, so I decided to be a filmmaker. It was always a dream. I used to shoot some clips for some artists from Malagasy, but I realized it was not enough for me to stay on that stage. I needed something else. I grew up in a poor family, so I didn’t have the money to go abroad and study filmmaking. This workshop in Tamatave’s Alliance française was it for me. I wrote three nonfiction projects there.

RS: Was it always going to be nonfiction films?

MA: No, the truth is, I wanted to make fiction films. You see, I didn’t grow up watching nonfiction films. I didn't have the opportunity. So later on, it was very, very interesting for me to discover that there was this border of nonfiction and fiction, and that’s where my work lives.

RS: The winner of True/False’s True Vision award gets to program one film in the festival; a film that is important to the filmmaker. You chose Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story. That’s a curious choice for a documentary film festival…

MA: I used to watch a lot of Iranian movies. One day I was reading an Abbas Kiarostami interview, where he talks about his work. And in this, he talks of Ozu. I went, ‘Who is this Ozu?’ I was so curious. I typed his name on Google, and I saw Tokyo Story. And I saw the movie on YouTube for the first time. I saw the frames in that film, and it blew my mind. I'm a photographer too, so I was very impressed by his work. Tokyo Story never left my mind. When [True/False artistic director] Chloe Trayner asked me to name a film that inspired my work, Tokyo Story was the first choice.

RS: Where did you watch films growing up?

MA: In the local Alliance française. All classic French films…a lot of Godard.

RS: And nonfiction films?

MA: None. Nonfiction doesn’t mean anything for Malagasy people. Because it's the lives we live every day, we see it in front of our eyes. You go out of your home, and you see it happen in front of you. For them, my films mean nothing.

RS: Ok let’s go back to Nofinofy, your 2019 film. How did you meet Romeo, the protagonist whose barber shop is razed by the city?

MA: Romeo is my best friend. He is my neighbor who lives in my ghetto; he cuts my hair. He kept working in spite of a handicap, so I asked him why. He said he has a family you take care of, and I could feel some empathy. I got to work and started writing about Romeo. I tried to enter his mind, I tried to place myself in his body and his handicap. I watched Johan van der Keuken’s L’enfant aveugle, and it inspired me. Then in the workshop I kept writing and refining that idea. They asked me to go speak to Romeo, but I didn’t know how to start the film. Then one day the municipality of Tamatave tore down his shop, and I knew I had to start shooting.

RS: Is that how you met?

MA: No, I spent time with him and his friends for years before I even started shooting. We drank together, smoked together. They are my friends.

RS: Has he seen the film?

MA: Yes, in Antananarivo, the capital city of Madagascar. He saw his face on the screen and started crying. It was very emotional. Even now, things are emotional for us. I used to help him, give him some money when I could. But our lives have changed, things are more expensive, I need to feed my family. It’s not the same. I can’t explain it very well, but it’s all very emotional.

RS: And how did Gwetto happen?

MA: I had to leave Antananarivo during COVID lockdown and came back to my ghetto in Tamatave. I saw these young men playing soccer, I didn’t recognize their faces. I was a bit scared because my neighbors were wary of them, they were scared these boys would steal from them. I just started taking pictures of Justin in the car wash and one day I spent a night chatting with him, learning about his life. It was very interesting to me, because he was telling me about his life, but he was also telling me about the larger country of Madagascar through that. So, I started writing about this idea.

I made this little film about Justin all by myself and submitted it to the competition section of Cinéma du Réel. It was really a rough cut and the festival director said it’d do me good to go through Parisdocs’ Work in Progress program. There I got a lot of feedback and went to Cannes Docs. The Documentary Association of Europe gave me some feedback. I realized I had what I needed and just needed to keep working on it. I needed a producer and, thankfully, Sylvie Plunian accepted to work with me. I spent three months in France editing the movie. And by the end of it, I was very depressed.

RS: Why?

MA: It’s hard to decide what you should keep and what should go. This film had to be 52 minutes because it’ll be broadcast on TV5. But when the final cut of my project is done, I'm always depressed. I tell my editor every time, “I think this is my last movie.” You spend a lot of time with your characters, you wait for the funding, wait for the editing. And it takes time and when you finish, it’s all over. But people’s lives go on. I feel so down.

RS: I can see that care in your films. So much of Gwetto is about region-specific references. Something the audience might not always catch on to. What, to you, is the main takeaway? Even if they understand nothing else, what is the one thing you want your audience to know from Gwetto?

MA: Of course, it’s very hard for the public to understand everything. Especially if you don’t know much about Malagasy. The most interesting thing about Gwetto for me is this kind of solidarity among people who come to Tamatave from different places in Madagascar. No need to know about other things, but know about the solidarity in this little space. For me, it’s metaphorical. Identity is a keyword for me now. You see the boys get their IDs in the film. That may not mean anything for people from another country. It’s a metaphor, we Malagasy people have lost our identity. We are trying to be somebody else.

RS: I wanted to ask you about the IDs. Why do they need IDs if they are from Malagasy?

MA: Before COVID lockdown, Malagasy people could go everywhere they wanted within the country. But after the lockdown, the government implemented this rule that if people wanted to travel to the capital city, they needed an identity card. That's why all my characters were blocked in Tamatave, because they didn't have the card to go back to their home.

RS: Your film travels all over the world. People from everywhere watch it. How does that feel?

MA: I think it's very hard for me because we—the Malagasy people—don't live the same way as everyone else. We don't live the same situation of politics, society, and social life in Madagascar. At this time, there is a lot of trouble about this question of identity. Politicians try to fix it, but it's impossible.

RS: We spell ghetto with an h, you use a w, what does it mean? One of the boys in your film says it’s a place for young people and no one else can enter.

MA: Let's say, it’s a placeholder, a key word. In American gangsta rap, they keep saying “f— f— f—.” For us, it’s “gwetto.” This guy who is a rapper says it all the time, he prints it on his clothes. Gwetto for him, let's say, is a mentality. That idea of relentlessness: “f— f— f—.” In a gwetto, you need to hustle, keep your head up, and survive. You need to fight.

RS: What does it mean to you?

MA: For me, Madagascar is a ghetto, the whole country. So much policing of people, you see that all the time. The politicians make it a ghetto. That’s it, the ghetto is a metaphor for the whole country.

RS: And how do you create art from within all of this?

MA: In my neighborhood, all the young people spend all their time together in a small space. They don't have a good relationship with their families. So all your best friends stay in the ghetto. To me, it's a little family of young people. They can talk to each other, and they can do all the stuff that we want. That inspires me.

RS: Tell me, why do you make films?

MA: It’s a feeling. I feel something is very interesting and want to tell the story. There is always some danger involved. For example, before leaving Madagascar, I was making a film about a friend’s drug use. He is the little guy in Nofinofy. I want to make this movie and I'm searching for a producer for this short film. Because I need to save his life. Sure, I make films as an artistic pursuit as an artist, but I make films to help my characters, my friends first.

RS: You remind me of the filmmaker Alice Diop. She once told me a Malian car mechanic she filmed for Nous—Ismaël—was her friend.

MA: Yes, I like her films. When I saw her movies, I saw myself in them and in the way she makes her films.

RS: How do you build trust with the people you film?

MA: It's the time I spend with them before shooting, before I get the camera. Because without that trust, I can’t make a movie. It's always my way of working. Maybe that takes two years, maybe five minutes, maybe I take 10 years. It’s something I learnt from my mother, this patience. For Gwetto, it took five months. It was lockdown, and I was in the ghetto all the time. With Romeo, I took three years to get to know him.

RS: What happens if the people say, “That’s it, I don’t want to be a part of the film” midway through filming?

MA: Maybe I’ll say okay, but maybe I will talk to them, ask why they are making this decision. That's why I talk to people for years before making a film. Because I don’t ever want to deal with a situation like this.

RS: But how will a film save a friend’s life?

MA: I shared a cut of this film with someone in the capital city of Madagascar. They said they could help him with detox. When I go back, the only question that I want to ask him is, "Are you really determined to stop using the drug?" For Romeo, my wish is that he gets back to his barbershop. My wish is that all the people in my films can leave the filmmaking experience and land in good situations in life.

RS: What does your family think about your filmmaking?

MA: In Madagascar, the cinema is not really our culture. If I go to the streets to shoot my movie, everybody in Tamatave thinks I am crazy. My family has no interest in cinema. They know I'm here, but they don't know what I do.

RS: What’s a recent film you have liked?

MA: That’s easy. Perfect Days by Wim Wenders. It's my favorite because now I have a big project coming up in France, which will be screening in cinemas. It's about prostitution in Madagascar. It's my first time filming a woman, I don't have a place in this movie. I have taken two years to find my place. The first time when I wrote this, I was on screen with her and my producer asked, "How are you different from a customer?" So, I moved away. It's not the kind of movie that I've made before. I need to be off of the screen.

RS: Michaël, I was winding down the interview! But now I am hooked. Tell me more.

MA: I started to write it in 2019. About this woman I know through her brother. She is a prostitute but also works as a tailor. I don’t know her world. That’s why I watched a whole lot of Wim Wenders’s films—The Salt of the Earth, Tokyo-Ga. I needed to know how I can create my voice in this film and find some style. I'm very nervous because my character is a whole new person. She is very talkative, has struggled a lot. The question you asked me about people walking off of a film, that was her. She stopped talking to me, I stopped filming for two months. But I asked her to write a diary. When I read the diary, it was like seeing a film. We spoke and she agreed to be in the film. But the problem is in this movie she's with a man who has a family of his own. And this film can destroy his reputation even though he has agreed to be filmed. I'm afraid. I need to think about this.

RS: Tell me what you think is the responsibility of a filmmaker?

MA: I think it's just to tell the truth. People tell you things about Madagascar, the newspapers will tell you things. But my films are a novel way to talk about Madagascar. And it's just a truth I need to share with the world. But that's not enough for me. For me, it’s also about what you do with the relationship that you have with your characters. When you finish one project, you tend to another project, but they’re probably still living out the same life, the same situation. I think it's very hard for me to let go of that and go forward with another project. I can’t back out of their lives; I don't know how to do that. I think my responsibility in my work is just to share the truth, but also to find my characters a good way of living. They give me their stories; they give me my films. And in return, I try to see how I can find some way to save their life.