• First Film Competition  
  • Renaud Victor Award


Erika Etangsalé

Retracing the footsteps of her ancestors, questioning her identity through the story of her father, thus is the delicate task undertaken by Erika Etangsalé in her first feature film. Shot between Reunion Island and Mâcon, In the Billowing Night weaves a story of silence, dark dreams, mysterious pain and muted violence. Silence. That of a father who has never spoken of the traumas of exile and his arrival in metropolitan France. Pain. That shared by father and daughter, deep down in their bodies, and of which they can never be rid. Violence. That of the French migration policy of the 1960s-1980s promoted by Bumidom2. Bringing flesh to this story, Erika Etangsalé tactfully and discreetly mingles her voice with that of her father, who, in a narrative that is unfailingly contained, reflects upon his “oneway trip” to Paris, where his aspirations were overtaken by the reality of France.
Interspersing the colour sequences of a dull and melancholic French province with the beautiful black and white images of the majestic volcanic cirques of Reunion, the “maroons”, runaway slaves, are resuscitated. From a near past to a more distant one, the gap is so small. By digging into her father’s silence, Erika Etangsalé elicits a voice that recalls, in halftones and whispers, the memory of slavery and the whiff of colonialism from a not so distant policy, which remains a blind spot in the history of France.

(Louise Martin-Papasian)

Interview with Erika Etangsalé

In your film, you come back to the little-known history of the French Government’s migration policy in the 1960s and 70s with the BUMIDOM (Office for the Development of Migration in the Overseas Departments) through your father’s story, a story that you’ve already addressed in fiction with Seuls les poissons morts suivent le courant (2012). What was the starting point for your documentary approach? Can you tell us how this film came about?
I’ve always felt a sense of unease, probably linked to my father’s silence, which I wanted to understand. When I came to live in Réunion Island, I discovered the complexities of the visible and invisible wounds left by this period of the island’s history during which an assimilation policy was conducted by the French Government. Very little was known about that period at the time, apart from by the generations concerned, most of whom remained silent. This is what gave rise to Seuls les poissons morts suivent le courant in 2011. I was studying in Réunion and I was in Paris to finish shooting. A few hours before my return flight, my parents turned up and my father told me his story for the first time. I set up my camera and I recorded. It was very hard and emotional. I learnt about his life and I became aware of my family’s unspoken wounds as well as those of a lot of people from Réunion. Then I caught my plane. I finished my short film but I still had a feeling of injustice. I felt the need to tell this story and leave a trace of the reality. The generations who came before us are dying and taking their memory with them in a silence and unique reserve that deeply affects me. And yes, with this film, I tried to establish a dialogue with my father.

The colour images from the present are interwoven with black and white images of Réunion’s luxuriant vegetation, supporting the tales of the island’s dreams, sorrows and myths. What prompted this aesthetic and narrative decision? And why did you choose the film roll and 4:3 format?
I wanted to put into images the island’s virgin, primal vegetation that’s now disappeared, a sensory, visual and aural memory passed down by our ancestors, like memories of another time. These images are born of the silence I grew up with, imaging the island, dreaming of it, but also of the lack of images. There are very few traces of this period of the BUMIDOM. The fact that history has been silenced, that it’s still taboo for some, covered up or innocently ignored by others, manipulated or even censored, fuelled a desire in me to reclaim it. In fact, a lot of our slave ancestors left neither graves, nor names, nor countries of origin. All this together created a need to exorcise the pain through images and a desire to make this memory exist, a memory that the people of Réunion have been dispossessed of throughout history.
So I wanted to exhume a documentary truth, even if the process of making it is like making a fiction. Jonathan Rubin, the film’s producer, supported and encouraged me in this intention. His gaze helped me make these memories tangible. He shot the black and white images with his Bolex, deliberately left mute to echo the disappeared memory. The entire film was shot in 16mm. We had 10-minute reels to record the words that were liberated. That’s also what encouraged the choice of concise, precise directing for the sections in colour. It demanded a lot of concentration, including for Jean-René Etangsalé who had the difficult task of watching and formulating his story.
Using black and white also allows for a certain distance from the images and a kind of reserve with regard to these long-gone ancestors. And there was always the desire to capture a kind of spark, a shimmering light, a “memory glow”, which using black and white makes possible with filters. By combining these fragments of recreated memories with the real archives that make up this film, I wanted to legitimise this memory. The decision of the film roll and the 4:3 format allowed for this encounter. In this way, all the images have a shared “shimmer”, a shared memory that resonates. The same goes for the island’s landscapes, the runaways and all the elements of the film. I had this deep desire to personify Nature. For example, I didn’t want people to see the peaks as a mountain range but to have portraits of them with the names they bear, Cimendef, Anchaing, etc.

Your father’s Super8 archives show images of a happy family, often filmed outside, in contrast to his sadness and silence that you describe. Why did you choose these images and what do you think they reveal?
As soon as he got a little Super8 camera, my father wanted to keep moving memories of his family. By doing so, he wanted to pass down to his children archives that bore traces of our roots, images that he and his ancestors were never able to have. In these shots, it feels like he’s looking for something. His camera enables him to extend his gaze. There’s a language in his images, where something’s delicately revealed. And when he films Porquerolles and zooms in on the island off the coast of France, I always have the impression that he was trying to draw closer to his island, Réunion. In these images, taken during the early years of his life in mainland France, there’s a certain insouciance, the flame of life that he used to have in his youth. Then one day, he stopped filming. I see in that another process, an approach that only lasts for a while when you’re wounded. These images are very important to me. They also say that, even caught up in the chain of events of our societies’ history, human beings live life, find love, have children, and so on.

Birds, especially the Réunion harrier, emerge as a leitmotif, including an audio leitmotif with Jean-Claude Roché’s recordings. What do birds represent in the history of this migration and in the film?
The project kept guiding me towards birds in multiple synchronicities. Obviously, birds symbolise freedom. They travel where they wish for free, as my father says. And above all, they’re independent. They remind me of the runaway slaves, fragile but answerable only to themselves, travelling from one peak to another and living in harmony with nature – without necessarily consciously wanting to, but conditioned by the need to leave no trace. In the same way, my father describes a youth of freedom before leaving his island, where he walked long distances from one point to another, from the town to the forest – like we used to, he says – to go and swim in the pools and waterfalls. And then, for me, birds are the link between the sky and the earth, the visible and the invisible, and they have this vertical vision. It matched the zoomed out vision of this small story within the bigger one that I wanted to inspire in the film. As for the Réunion harrier, I associate it with the falcon, the symbol of spiritual elevation. Majestic, he sees everything from above with his piercing vision, beyond the veil…
Birds offer an amazing array of audible colours as diverse as all human languages, even if they’re disappearing too. I wanted to share the birdsong endemic to Réunion, with its individuality in diversity. With the sound engineer Pierre George and his sensitivity and delicacy, we tried to retranscribe this – with respect, I hope. Among other things, we worked with a parabolic microphone. You can distinctly hear Réunion’s native species: the Réunion Olive White-Eye, the endangered Cuckoo Shrike or Tuit-tuit, the Réunion Harrier, which is also an endangered species… These sounds encounter the birdsong recorded by Jean-Claude Roché in Zimbabwe near Victoria Falls in the film’s opening, and there’s always this idea of sound reminiscence, the resonance of origins to find traces of a dormant, erased, almost disappeared memory.

At the end of the film, we hear your father tell the story of two runaways, Héva and Anchaing, in Creole, a language that he says he’s forgotten, and then voices whispering in Changana, Wolof and Malagasy. What does it mean to you to use these different languages, especially when talking about people’s memories?
Jean-René begins to talk very gradually, as though he’s slowly being liberated and finding himself. When we recorded my father’s voice to tell the story of Héva and Anchaing and he began talking in Creole, it was very emotional for me. He didn’t just utter a few words or phrases, he came out of his silence, he found his voice, rediscovered his language, even if it was difficult. And in the same way, at the end of the film, we rediscover the voice and language of our ancestors from Madagascar, West Africa and southern Africa, who, when they got to Réunion, not only lost their names but also their voices and their languages. Using them lets our ancestors bring us their light; it accepts our connection to the multiplicity of our origins, and a potential path towards a source of shared memory.

You grew up in Mâcon in Mainland France and have been living in Réunion for 12 years. Can you tell us a little about going back to the land of your father and what projects you have there?
In 2008, I decided to go and live in Réunion to understand this unease I carried inside me, to learn and understand more about the island’s history. I wanted to reclaim this part of me that I’d felt dispossessed of since childhood, but by which I defined myself because people were always asking me where I came from because of the colour of my skin. Several times, like my father, I experienced racism, and people told me to go back to where I came from, even though I’m French and was born in France. In Réunion, I don’t feel like a foreigner anymore in other people’s eyes and I felt like I was a part of the landscape. It was only then that I began to thrive.
I’ve got various different projects in Réunion but I hope that I can make the films I’m working on more widely in the Indian Ocean. At the moment I’m working on two projects: Gren Zétwal produced by Eva Lova, a short that I’m co-directing with Sophie Louÿs, which combines fiction and documentary and addresses how we’ve become cut off from nature, and we’re trying to get funding to finish the film. And there’s Lila ! Bisik la monté !, a short drama that I’m developing, which combines real images and shots with animation, with Jonathan Rubin again.

Interview by Louise Martin Papasian

  • First Film Competition  
  • Renaud Victor Award

Technical sheet

France / 2021 / 51’

Original Version : Creole, French.
Subtitles : English, French.
Script : Erika Etangsalé.
Photography : Jonathan Rubin, Fiona Braillon.
Editing : Marianne Haroche.
Sound : Pierre George.
Production : Jonathan Rubin (We Film).
Distribution : Amélie Depardon (Agence du court métrage).