By SHERIF AWAD
Madama Esther is an elderly woman in her fifties who had been dismissed from her employ as a housekeeper. In order to survive and to help support her young grandson, she accepts holding illegal cockfights in her backyard only to find she had entered a world she never knew existed. This is the simple yet profound story of a short film called Madama Esther, written directed by Luck Razanajaona, a young emerging filmmaker from the island nation of Madagascar.
We might have been introduced to the name Madagascar through the popular animation series by DreamWorks which starred four animals who escaped from the New York Central Zoo only to find themselves in Madagascar. History and geography tell us that Madagascar is an island country in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Southeast Africa so it is considered part of the African continent. In fact, following the prehistoric breakup of the supercontinent Gondwana, Madagascar split from India approximately 88 million years ago, allowing native plants and animals to evolve in relative isolation. In contemporary times, Madagascar was ruled by France from 1897 until 1960 when it gained its independence. Since 1992, the nation has officially been governed as a constitutional democracy from its capital Antananarivo. However, in a popular uprising in 2009 the last elected president Marc Ravalomanana was forced to resign and presidential power was transferred in March 2009 to Andry Rajoelina in a move widely viewed by the international community as a coup d'état.
In 1975, the Malagasy government nationalized the movie theatres and established the Office du Cinema Malgache. The national film industry, although very much in its infancy, is influenced by both Nollywood, Nigerian cinema, and French cinema. The most notable director was Raymond Rajaonarivelo, director of movies such as Quand Les Etoiles Rencontrent La Mer (When the Stars Meet the Sea) and Tabataba (The Spreading of Rumors). The Rencontres du Film Court Madagascar is an award given to honor the best short films and players in the industry. Film theaters in the capital Antananarivo show Hollywood blockbuster films dubbed into French. From these backgrounds, Luck Razanajaona grew up only to study arts and practice visual arts and music until he focused on filmmaking which he considers the aggregate of all these arts because he can reach out to more audiences through his films. In Madama Esther, Luck, like many contemporary African filmmakers, present a story that can happen any day. In fact the cockfights are customs in Madagascar and the scene where the old lady hosts them were shot behind Luck’s own house. Like many countries where filmmaking is just beginning to rise from its infancy, casting of amateurs and non-professional actors rule. The secret is to have the perfect cast. The old lady who played Esther influenced Luck to accommodate the script according to her capabilities as an actress facing the camera for the first time.
Razanajaona was also invited in the 10th Berlinale Talent Campus in Germany and the Durban Talent Campus in South Africa. In May 2012, he was invited to the 65th Festival de Cannes and its cinemas du monde section winning the Eclair Prize for his script Song of Tlous. His short film Zebu of Dadilahy was screened in France’s Clermont Ferrand International Short Film Festival 2013 among other films festivals.
After visiting the Luxor African Film Festival (LAFF) with his film Madama Esther, Luck is preparing a new short project called Memories where he is mixing Asian martial arts and fantasy films. It will revolve around a warrior protagonist named Rama who is fatally wounded. Accepting his death while traversing across vast forest, a spirit comes to visit him to offer him a second chance.
Born in Cairo, Egypt, Sherif Awad is a film / video critic and curator. He is the film editor of Egypt Today Magazine ( www.EgyptToday.com ), and the artistic director for both the Alexandria Film Festival, in Egypt, and the Arab Rotterdam Festival, in The Netherlands. He also contributes to Variety, in the United States, and is the film critic of Variety Arabia ( http://varietyarabia.com/ ), in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Al-Masry Al-Youm Website ( http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/198132 ) and The Westchester Guardian (www.WestchesterGuardian.com ).