Interview with director Chai Vasarhelyi

An interview with director Chai Vasarhelyi, whose film, "Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love," will be shown at the 21st Annual Foreign Film Week at the Varsity Theatre in Ashland.

Revels: Initially, what drew you to the music and life story of Youssou N'Dour?

Chai Vasarhelyi: I was interested in making an uplifting film about Africa, and music was one way to approach that. From that point of departure, Youssou's name comes up and the first time I saw him perform at Carnegie Hall, it's a life-affirming experience. You may not understand his lyrics, but the emotional honesty of his voice alone is transformative. However, I was still not sure, and it was when Youssou shared with me his Egypt album that I knew that this was a film I had to make. At the time, like many in this country, I was frustrated by the political situation both here and abroad, and here was an artist from Africa who was living successfully by his convictions and was willing to celebrate a tolerant Islam (in a non-dogmatic way) at a time when all you saw in the mainstream media was fundamentalism. I thought what Youssou was doing was incredibly brave and I thought a film could help share his inspiring story with as a wide an audience as possible.

Revels: Was it problematical for you to strike a balance in the film between the music/concerts of N'Dour and the interviews?

C.V.: The balance between music and the narrative structure of the story was one of the most challenging parts of making this film. Ultimately, the use of score really helped me "liberate" Youssou's music. Ours is a musical story. However, initially instead of presenting Youssou's music within the proper context of the story, I was tempted to make musical choices in terms of the "emotional" feeling of any given song. Using an original score composed by James Newton Howard, Martin Davich, and Youssou allowed me to support the emotional narrative with score and choose which Youssou songs to include in terms of our story, not their tone.

Revels: What was your biggest hurdle in seeing the project through?

C.V.: Again, it was the question of how to contextualize Youssou's story. I wanted to give enough context to allow an audience, no matter where you were from, to identify with Youssou's journey. At the same time, I didn't want it to feel like "medicine." So crafting that emotional narrative that would allow you to go on this journey with Youssou was a real challenge. Also, the languages were a major hurdle (there are four in the film — I speak fluent French, but not Wolof or Arabic). Financing the film was also very difficult — we always were running out of money. This film was made on the kindness of others. We really received so much donated support. I am incredibly grateful.

Revels: Why do you think (N'Dour's album) "Egypt" was embraced by the West and yet did not resonate (as so much of N'Dour's music does) with his Senegalese audience?

C.V.:I believe "Egypt" was embraced by the West because it's a beautiful album, and I can't speak for the West but I know I was hungry for something different, a different face of Islam, and audiences in the West had a chance to actually listen to the album. Whereas in Senegal, the controversy broke out so fast, where 20,000 cassettes were returned by street vendors overnight, that no one had a chance to actually listen to the album, and if you did you were scared to speak up. These are serious issues, the politics of religion, even in a place as tolerant and cosmopolitan as Senegal. I should also say that "Egypt "also represented a major artistic departure for Youssou — that was not what his Senegalese audiences expected from their favorite artist.

— Chris Honoré

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