Photography: Richie Talboy
Styling: Yael Quint
Creatives are never really tethered to one outlet—so proves French actress, model, and now producer Mathilde Ollivier. Last year, the 24-year-old made her U.S. box office debut in J.J. Abrams’s World War 2 zombie flick Overlord, and this year she’s working hard to wrap up a documentary she produced alongside director Patrick Pearse.
It’s called The Upright Woman and as Ollivier explains, it’s very much about the women of Burkina Faso, the story of what they had gained under the leadership of former Burkinabe president Thomas Sankara, and what they lost when he was killed during a 1987 coup d’etat led by his associate, politician Blaise Compaoré. Compaoré would go on to serve a contentious 27-year term as president before being ousted in a 2014 rebellion and escaping to the Ivory Coast with the help of then-French president François Hollande.
Ollivier is hyper-passionate about the West African nation’s history. Sitting across from me in a loud New York City wine bar, she lists off fact after fact in her rich, emphatic voice, about the evolution of women’s rights in Burkina Faso, the languages spoken, religions practiced, the harm inflicted by French colonization, and France’s shady role in Compaoré’s eventual escape. I knew virtually nothing about Burkina Faso going into this piece, honestly, but walked away with the need to know more. Which, in terms of Ollivier’s ultimate goal—planting the seeds of desire for knowledge in unsuspecting viewers—could be considered a mission accomplie.
Tell us a bit about The Upright Woman.
We started by exploring the journey of this woman Sylvie Nombre, who has been a slave for most of her life, from the ages of 6 to 26 years old. She had been sold to her uncle because he didn't have enough children, and now she's living in Australia and working for an Australian gold miner. Besides her narrative, the main arc is that of Thomas Sankara, who was president of Burkina Faso for only four years. When he took power he said that women should have the same rights as men. When Sankara was killed, his legacy and what he wanted to give women disappeared completely.
What's very important with this documentary is not to tell the audience, "This is what you have to think because of this story," or "This is what we want you to think." It's not what we want at all so we are trying to be as honest as we can be. We shot this film with no judgment and we want the audience to feel and to think what they want to think, to ask themselves questions. I hate when you watch a film or doc and at the end, they push you into what you need to feel and what if I don't feel like that?
Unfortunately, creators will sometimes start a story with a point of view and seek out information that validates their preconceived viewpoint, as opposed to first doing research and then formulating an opinion.
This story changes so much, which is the beauty of it because we were not close at all to what the story should be. We had done research, but when we arrived in Burkina Faso everyone was talking about Thomas Sankara and how the lives of women have changed since his death. When we came back to Paris and started editing in New York, the narrative had changed so much without us even realizing. There was no being closed-minded; we were very open to how we could interest anyone who doesn't know anything about the subject. That's why we went back to the beginning to see what happened to this country, from Sankara to Sylvie to Sankara's wife, who had to run away from her country for 40 years and finally got to come back. What happened to [former president of Burkina Faso] Blaise Compaoré? How did he leave this country?
We wanted to make sure that we were not judging. We made this film to show the beauty of Burkina Faso, and we don't want anyone to think the way we think, and it's actually better the more we talk about the film. If you don't like it, amazing, why? Let's talk about it. If you loved it, fantastic, why? If you didn't know if you liked it, fantastic as well. This is starting a conversation and I think, with any type of art, you should be able to talk about it and not feel like you've been forced into a judgment.
Did Sylvie watch it? If so, what did she think?
She thought it was great, and she enjoyed the fact that she was more part of the “present” narrative than the primary narrative. It was like listening to her will and what she wanted to do. All the stars aligned and it was a puzzle all the way through. She watched it and she became very emotional. We filmed her brother and sisters talking. She really liked it. She watched it in Australia and she sent us a very nice email after.
I spent a lot of time with Sylvie, emailing her before and during production to make sure she was comfortable because she's never been in front of a camera. It's very stressful when you have a crew of seven people putting a mic on you every day. You've got two cameras rolling and some lights. She was wondering, "Is my family going to hate me for that? Are they going to be proud of me?" We had to be very careful and really respect her will and her story. We think that we've done that. I wanted to take care of her, which is important. She's been through too much.
When reporting and interviewing in Burkina Faso, what steps did you and your team take to ensure that you weren't taking advantage of a culture that isn't your own?
It was super important for us to just talk to people and make sure they didn't feel judged at all. For example, we can disagree with forced marriage, but it is the culture; the citizens have been living with this for so long. So the first thing we would say was, "Thank you for receiving us. We just have some questions as foreigners. We're very interested in your culture and we just want to know how everything works." And we wanted to make sure there was no judgment in our questions. Right now, we think things need to change because the world is changing, but it's going to take time and we can't rush and just go there as white people pretending to know everything when we actually don't know anything. For example, Burkina Faso is the first country in the world that is half Christian, half Muslim, and in the same family you can have Muslims and Christians living perfectly together and that's an example to the rest of the world, where people are so divided about religion.
During the entire production, Sylvie played a major part in interviewing the women of Burkina Faso. She was translating our questions to women in the village who didn't speak French and the fact that she was there translating our questions and making sure the women felt like we were no threat really helped communicate that we just wanted to ask questions and know more about these women and their country. We want to film you because you're beautiful. Every person we talked to, even people that said no to us, they all had a story in their faces. You could see struggle and life has gone on and it's beautiful. It was just beautiful.
What was the most challenging part about executing this documentary?
It was making something that actually can explain to the audience the story of Burkina Faso in West Africa, what the country went through—what it had and what it lost. Having it be political but not too political, and having it reflect the present voice and journey of all the women. It was like cooking with all these ingredients and you need to create balance because filming was actually an incredible experience: We were living in people's houses, we were living with the community and that was wonderful. The hardest part was in post-production, trying to make sure that any person can relate to this story in some ways and understand it. And if they don't know, then we want them to just become interested in Burkina Faso, which is such a beautiful country that has been completely destroyed by the French, especially. [Former president of Burkina Faso] Blaise Compaoré and [former president of France] François Hollande, they fucked up everything. Compaoré committed so many atrocities and the people of Burkina Faso wanted him to go to jail, but the French helped him to leave the country and now he lives on the Ivory Coast. He stole so much money from the people of Burkina Faso.
Sankara once said, "We're not buying anything from other continents and other countries. We are a beautiful country, we've got our own soul, we can grow our own food and make our own clothes and we can be proud of that. I want our country to be a wealthy country because we can and we've got intelligent people, strong people and we can make it." When he passed, Compaoré opened the gates to gold miners and destroyed this idea of let's make it our own. So we had to mix politics, history, and the present and make sure that anyone who can see the film will want to know more about this beautiful country that is Burkina Faso.
What else can we expect from the documentary?
One of our composers on this project created all the music, so the score is completely original and there is a lot of influence from Fela Kuti. In the story, Sankara was best friends with Fela Kuti.
You’re usually an actress, but this time you’re a producer. What do you imagine to be the next phase of your career trajectory?
Definitely acting. I am an actress. But the goal of being a producer is to make projects that thrill me and drive me. Like this story. I found it extremely beautiful and I wanted to tell it, so I'm very proud to have my name attached to this project and to produce it and to work alongside the crew. I can see how young artists and creatives struggle so much because they need to have so-and-so attached—they can't show their script because they don't have a producer attached to it. The best scripts today are on a shelf collecting so much dust, while there are so many other projects where you're like, "Why is this film happening?" I want to create projects that thrill me and I think it's a great experience to have as an actress because it’s super important to know all the different parts of your industry. You realize when you go on set that the producer is struggling about location, about time, about lights, about people that need to be on set, and being in this position makes me even more appreciative of the work they are doing. Even if I was aware before, now I'm like, "Wow, I'm going to always be on time, I'm never going to lose my line, no problems from me!"
What other projects are you working on now?
I'm going to Colorado to shoot a pilot for a future series hopefully. It's very exciting; the cast is beautiful. We're shooting for a few days, and I'm the lead in it. I'm doing another project with [The Upright Woman director] Patrick which we will shoot in September of this year. This is very, very exciting. We've been working on this project for four years now and it's finally happening. It's a beautiful story and an incredible character that I am so proud to play.
Discover Mathilde Ollivier in Unrequited, a short film by Joshua Steen.
Production: Yael Quint
Photo Assistant: Omar Flores
Styling Assistants: Mina Erkli, Oliver Campbell
Makeup: Tatiana Donaldson
Video Direction: Joshua Steen