‘Cuties’ Helmer Maimouna Doucoure on Directing Modern Fable ‘Hawa’ with a Cast of Newcomers

Maimouna Doucouré, a French director of Senegalese origins who grew up in a social housing project in Paris and started her career with a screenwriting contest, isn’t one to buckle under any type of pressure or challenge.

She certainly didn’t dwell on the misguided backlash to her film “Cuties.” The controversy was provoked by Netflix’s promotional material for her Sundance prizewinning feature debut, which aimed to shed light the sexualization of children. In her sophomore outing, “Hawa,” Doucouré embarked on another challenging project, a modern-day fable boasting a cast entirely made up of non-professionals, including the celebrated Malian singer-songwriter Oumou Sangaré, astronaut Thomas Pesquet and popular singer Yseult.

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As with “Cuties,” which earned Fathia Youssouf a Cesar award for best promising actress, the Amazon original film “Hawa” is headlined by Sania Halifa, a newcomer who delivers a robust performance. Halifa, a teenager with albinism, plays the title role, a lonely and rebellious misfit living with her terminally ill grandmother. Hawa sets off to meet Michelle Obama during the former first lady’s book tour in Paris and convince her to adopt her. The film is co-written by Doucouré, Alain-Michel Blanc, Zangro and David Elkaim.

Following a five-month open casting call spearheaded by Elsa Pharaon, Doucouré chose Halifa and auditonned her seven times. “She’s the opposite of Hawa, she’s radiant and outgoing, but I just knew that she could pull it off better than anyone,” said Doucouré on the eve of the movie’s global premiere hosted by Amazon Studios in Paris. The helmer coached Halifa every day for months and trained her to speak, walk and look like Hawa, whom she described as a “wild cat hiding under a hard shell.” The open casting call also uncovered Titouan Gerbier, who plays Hawa’s only friend. Neither were given the screenplay ahead of the shoot. Doucouré instead told them the whole story from start to finish and would rehearse each scene one by one.

Doucouré said she was drawn to tell this uplifting story about “a girl who is different from others and is determined to achieve her dreams” after discovering that her newborn daughter had special needs.

“I made this film because I thought that if one day I’m no longer around, I want my daughter to be able to see ‘Hawa’ and be inspired by what it says about the power of determination,” the helmer said with teary eyes.

Doucouré said she worked with Pesquet and Oumou Sangaré as she did with the children, meaning she didn’t give them the screenplay and she walked them through each scene. Pesquet, who had recently landed back on Earth after a mission, was not able to rehearse ahead of filming but “he was on set right on time and was so kind and professional.”

The award-winning helmer enlisted Amazon Studios after pitching the idea to Thomas Dubois, head of French originals at the streamer. “(Dubois) trusted me with this project and allowed me to be totally free creatively,” she said, adding that the executive gave her some feedback along the way. “We had a dialogue throughout the whole process but I really made the movie I wanted,” she continued.

In contrast with her debut “Cuties,” which was financed and produced within the traditional independent system before Netflix came on, “Hawa” was an Amazon Original from the get-go; and as such it was made in record time. “I pitched it to Thomas Dubois in December 2020 and we started shooting it in December 2021,” Doucouré explained.

The director is currently preparing her third and most ambitious film yet, a feature film about Josephine Baker, the pioneering American-born French dancer, singer and actor. The project is being produced by Studiocanal and Bien ou Bien Prods., the banner presided by Doucouré’s husband and long-time producer Zangro.

Doucouré said she’s writing the script with a co-writer and bingeing on “anything related to Josephine Baker.” “She had such a fascinated life, more so than anyone in the world — every day I’m discovering something extraordinary she did,” said the filmmaker, describing how Baker witnessed racial segregation and participated in the French resistance. She met Josephine Baker’s sons, Jean-Claude Bouillon Baker and Brian Bouillon Baker, and the Rainbow Tribe, who are living in Paris and are fully endorsing the project. Although she wouldn’t reveal who will be cast to play Baker, Doucouré says she won’t work with a newcomer this time around. “It will be an American actor,” and possibly a famous one, she teased.

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