Claire Denis Talks France’s New Abortion Rights Protection; Judith Godrèche’s #MeToo Campaign & Upcoming Africa-Set Bernard-Marie Koltès Adaptation

French director Claire Denis is set to return to West Africa for her next feature film, an adaptation of late French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès’s 1980 work Black Battles With Dogs (Combat de nègre et de chiens).

“It’s a play written by a friend of mine a long time ago and directed by Patrice Chéreau on stage in the 80s. He was dying from AIDS and he wanted me to make a film out of it,” Denis told Deadline on the fringes of the Doha Film Institute’s Qumra meeting in Qatar.

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She is planning to film in either Senegal or Cameroon.

Denis grew up in West Africa and set a number of her early films in the region, such as Chocolat (1988) and Beau Travail (1989). This will be her first major fiction feature shot on the African continent since the 2009 drama White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert as a coffee plantation owner caught up in a violent revolution.

“Bernard wrote it after an experience he had in Nigeria on a construction site. He was always willing me to do a film with it but for me it was a little bit frightening because it was so much a story of his,” Denis said of Koltès, who died in 1989 at the age of 41 due to complications with AIDS.

Denis is planning to shoot it mainly in English, with some French dialogue if it ends up filming in Cameroon or Senegal, where they speak French.

The original play is set against the backdrop of a building site in Africa enclosed by a guarded barrier, run by two French expats, the older one of which has recently been joined by his European fiancée. A local man arrives at the site looking for the body of his brother, who died in a work accident.

“I wrote it with English dialogue because I thought maybe it would be closer to what Bernard wanted at that time,” said Denis.

“There are two white men, probably coming from England, a white woman coming from Europe. I hesitate a bit, in the play she was German, I’m not sure yet, and the main character is a Black guy from Nigeria.”

Denis has ruled out the project reuniting her with High Life star Robert Pattinson.

“I’m dying to work with him again but maybe not on this project, but I hope it will happen one day,” she said.

Denis is attending the Qumra talent and project incubator event as one of its Qumra Master mentors.

In a masterclass over the weekend, the filmmaker recounted how she had worked as an assistant for a variety of male directors, most notably Jacques Rivette and Wim Wenders, after graduating from film school in the early 1970s.

“I needed the money, and it was not like it is today. There weren’t opportunities for a young woman like me to direct,” she said.

Talking to Deadline after the masterclass, Denis acknowledged that the French film industry had come a long way since in terms of equality and opportunities for women, at once acknowledging and downplaying her role in this evolution.

“I didn’t want to be a pioneer. I did it because I felt like it. I wanted to be me. That’s all. And it was so important for me that I accepted to suffer for it,” she said. “I’m happy that it’s easier now for woman and I’m proud to be a woman.”

Denis pointed to long-time protégé Mati Diop’s recent Berlinale Golden Bear for Dahomey, as a sign of progress. The French-Senegalese actress and director got her first big screen break in Denis’ 2008 film 35 Shots of Rum and the pair have remained close ever since.

“It’s the complete society that is evolving. Mati has grown into a woman of today with two cultures. She has something in her that is very precious and she’s bold,” she said.

Quizzed on the recent #MeToo developments in France following actress and director Judith Godrèche’s public accusations of rape against directors Benoît Jacquot and Jacques Doillon (which they have denied), Denis revealed she had known Godrèche when she was younger.

“She didn’t look like a victim at that time, but I think it took her time to be able to speak up or even to realize, she was so young,” said Denis. “I think it’s great to say it out loud like when it happened three, four years ago with Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo.”

Denis also pointed to France’s move on Tuesday to enshrine the right to an abortion in its constitution as another positive development.

“This is an important move. I used to think it wasn’t necessary but then some people suddenly changed their mind politically,” said Denis, who has previously expressed alarm at the fact that abortions are now banned in 14 U.S. states.

“So, it’s good that it happened, and for me it’s good that someone who was a young actress and who is still a young woman is able to speak loud about this thing that happened to her.”

The filmmaker suggested that there was still much to be done in the name of women’s rights.

She recounted how she had woken up on Tuesday to a TV news item on the U.N. report saying that it had ‘convincing information’ that sexual violence had been committed in the October 7 Hamas terror attack on Southern Israel as well as against Israeli hostages in Gaza.

“In conflict, the first victims are women. Everywhere, not only in Israel, or in the West Bank and Gaza. I was asking myself, why these screaming headlines,” she said. “Since the beginning of the world, raping a woman is the first predation possible. You need a gun, a knife but you can also rape a woman.”

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