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Simon Moutaïrou on Epic Thriller No Chains, No Masters for Studiocanal

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Simon Moutaïrou, the critically acclaimed screenwriter behind the spy thriller hit “Black Box,” has partnered with some of France’s biggest players — leading producer Chi-Fou-Mi (“November,” “All Your Faces”) and Studiocanal — on his ambitious directorial debut, “No Chains, No Masters.”

Now in post, “No Chains, No Masters,” is an epic movie inspired by historical accounts of former slaves in West Africa, nicknamed Maroons, who emancipated themselves from French settlements.

Set in 1759, in the French colony of Mauritius Island, “No Chains, No Masters” is an epic historical drama following a father, Massamba (Ibrahima Mbaye Thié), and his fierce teenage daughter Mati (Anna Thiandoum) who defy all odds to survive a manhunt across the jungle and emancipate themselves from the hell of a colonial plantation.

The story revolves around Mati, who refuses to accept her fate and flees from the plantation, hoping to seek freedom in a remote part of the island, where a community of fugitives is said to live. As the plantation owner (Benoît Magimel) hires the merciless slave hunter Madame de la Victoire (Camille Cottin) and her sons to pursue Mati, Massamba has no choice but to break his chains and set off on a desperate search for her. As a relentless hunt ensues in the island’s unforgiving jungle, the father and daughter forever break away from the colonial order.

It marks the first big-scale narrative French movie in recent history which sheds light on slavery in French colonies. It’s produced by former Studiocanal senior executive Nicolas Dumont and Hugo Selignac at Chi-Fou-Mi, a Mediawan banner. Studiocanal financed the movie and is repping international rights. French public broadcaster France Televisions has also pre-bought it. Studiocanal will present a promo reel at the European Film Market.

Speaking to Variety on the eve of the EFM, Moutaïrou told Variety that “No Chains, No Masters” was a personal project dating back to his childhood in Benin, another former French colony in West Africa which used to be called the Kingdom of Dahomey.

“When I was a child, I remember playing on the beach with my brother and seeing this big door, like a red monolith called the ‘Gate of No Return,’ facing the ocean,” Moutaïrou says. “I knew it was memorial to the enslaved Africans who were deported, so I kept imagining how so many men, women, children and entire families had been deported and swallowed by the sea.”

“Slavery is a big part of Benin’s history and it’s something that we discussed a lot with my father and with my family, so I knew that my very first movie would be about this topic,” Moutaïrou says.

The shoot of the movie, which took place on location in Mauritius Island in the Indian Ocean, was itself epic, notably due to a violent tropical storm. Moutaïrou, who worked closely with historians, hired many non-professionals who speak Wolof, the native language spoken by a large ethnic group in West Africa. Thiandoum, who plays Mati, was picked from the 500 young women who auditioned in Dakar and had never acted before. Mbaye, meanwhile, is a famous Senegalese stage actor who starred in Mati Diop’s Cannes-prizewinning “Atlantics.”

“It was important for me to be as close to the truth as possible because cinema’s role is to fill the gaps of historical representations,” says Moutaïrou, who admits that he wishes he had learned more about slavery when he was younger. “I didn’t have any icons, my imagination lacked representation and that’s why movies are meant to represent myths and legends.” Moutaïrou says a few movies about slavery by Guy des Deslauriers, Med Hondo and Euzhan Palcy were made in the 1970s and 1980s in France, but nothing much since then.

Dumont shares Moutaïrou’s perspective on the dearth of representation of France’s colonial past in popular culture. “American filmmakers have tackled slavery for the last 20 to 30 years, but France hasn’t truly addressed this chapter of colonialism … I think it’s a symptom of a larger issue,” he says.

“We hope that with this film we will be able to awaken consciousness and tell younger generations about this painful period of French history,” Dumont says. Slavery was abolished in France in 1794 amid the Revolution.

Moutaïrou points out there are many difference between the slavery practices in the Americas and West Africa. “In French settlements, the foremen were Black, there weren’t white men as in cotton plantations in the United States. It’s true that we talk about ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ and ‘Django,’ but our films tells a different world, one that is authentically French,” says the filmmaker, adding that he hopes “No Chains, No Masters” will form a bridge with the French films that were made in the ’70s and ’80s.

The helmer says he was also drawn to tell this story because it revolves around Maroons, who set themselves free and established their own settlements.

“Ultimately, ‘No Chains, No Masters’ is timely because it’s a movie about saying ‘no’ and coming out of a system of domination, whether it’s gender-related or economic,” Moutaïrou says. “It’s about standing tall at that time and today.”

“No Chains, No Masters” also has a “feminist dimension,” says Dumont, because it’s “driven by many heroic female characters, from Mati to her mother, who dies in the ship because she refuses to become a slave.”

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