French producer Thomas Lambert discusses his fantastical Zaho Zay, set in Madagascar and fusing stunning indigenous documentary footage with magical realism within its hybrid structure.
Zaho Zay is both a story (imagined or otherwise) played out in the mind of a murdered girl and a documentary describing the ethnography and prison life on the island of Madagascar.
The central character is a recognisable cinematic trope, a murderer who throws dice to determine the fate of his victims, also a silent and unsmiling drifter who seeks and demands solitude.
Or is he? How much of what we hear over the of course of the film’s 78 minutes is imagined or conjecture? Is the girl’s murder itself a figment of a febrile and hallucinatory imagination? How reliable a witness is she, even over her own fate?
However one interprets the story, what is reliable (and at times glorious) is the accompanying documentary footage that co-directors Maéva Ranaïvojaona and Georg Tiller shot for the film.
Producer Thomas Lambert tells how the pair were scouting on the island for another project (which is still in development) and while they were there Ranaïvojaona’s cousin, who works for an NGO, asked her to make a short film about prison life on Madagasar.
“She delivered the film for them and they were very happy,” stresses Lambert. “But at the same time the idea of this documentary/fiction film was born, because what they shot was amazing and they wanted to use it for another film.” That film eventually became Zaho Zay.
The prison on the island is jam-packed with inmates, all of whose heads are closely shaved. They commune together, eating, singing and dancing. Some even walk together, conjoined, arm in arm. We see them grooming one another, dry-shaving heads and creating ornate designs. Later we see female prisoners, some of whom have children, quietly talking and laughing, tending to each other’s needs within the prison dormitories.
Other footage in the film, just as impressive, describes a ceremony that occurs on the island every ten years as the dead are dug up and reinterred, all shot from an elevated vantage point. Rather than being ominous or disturbing, the ritual is joyous and musical, and remarkable.
Thomas met the directors at FIDLab in 2017. He was intrigued by the pair and their project and remained in close touch before eventually signing up to produce. When they showed him a 40-minute rough cut he was very impressed, but the work needed another dimension, he reckoned, at which point the production team enlisted the support of French/Madagascan writer Jean-Luc Raharimanana to write a rich and creative voice-over which was weaved into the film during the 8-month edit.
“From the beginning they wanted a parallel story,” says Thomas. “The triangle was completed with Jean-Luc’s voice-over.”
The film was made without CNC or French broadcaster support, the producer points out, “so we really had the chance to make the film with total liberty without any financing partners to say ‘it’s too long, it’s too this, too that’. Until the end we made this film with total freedom.”
“As a producer we should make things with our heart and with a strong belief, so I am not worried that the film will not have a good career in festivals and on release etc, but 2020 is a very particular year, and the festivals are taking fewer films than in previous editions. It is already very competitive, but this year will be even more so for festivals.”
That said, the film’s selection at FID Marseille was very satisfying, especially as it began life there in 2017. What’s more, it will be shown before a live audience. “FID is the perfect place, the best place for this hybrid film, the perfect window for a French production and premiere,” says Thomas. “And finally I will have the opportunity to see it on a big screen.”