IDFA 2018: The Miracle of the Little Prince
16 November 2018
Marjoleine Boonstra is back at IDFA with her Dutch Competition title The Miracle of the Little Prince, about the impact of aviator Antoine de Saint- Exupéry's classic novel on indigenous communities across the world that are fighting to protect their language and culture. The director talks to Nick Cunningham.
According to Marjoleine Boonstra (and this is a fact attested to by Wikipedia), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's highly lauded work is the most widely translated book of all time, if one discounts the Bible. But Boonstra's film isn't a hagiographical account of the book's aristocratic sky-bound author, nor a wistful reminiscence about a childhood love for the work. Rather it is an essay on the preservation of culture and language, as well as a discourse on the desire/need to share great art through translation.
"That was all in the film plan but it became richer when we were on the spot," explains director Boonstra. "It also surprised me, because during the process of editing we realised that language is also a very painful thing, such as what the Chinese are doing in Tibet and what the Arabs have done in Northern Africa."
The film, supported by the Film Fund, starts in the Moroccan Sahara where we encounter a writer and poet who for decades have been trying to preserve the Tamazight language, the second language of Morocco, in the face of wholesale adoption of Arabic. At the same time they find resonance in the Little Prince's practice of talking to animals, which is commonplace in their culture.
Sami speaker Kerttu found much solace in the book after the death of her sister and bullying in her Finnish boarding school, and eventually translated it into her native tongue. Meanwhile El Salvadorian Jorge is creating his own translation into Nahuat, an indigenous Aztec language, with the aid of three aged native speakers. Today the language is spoken only by some 300 people after the Nahuat/Pipil population was all but wiped out in 1932.
"Lies Janssen (researcher), Pieter van Huystee (producer) and I had the idea to examine what it means to translate from one culture into another, and what makes a book just as readable in another culture, and how/why the translator is never in the foreground, always in the background," explains Boonstra of her film. "It was Lies' idea to take a very popular book to compare how it is translated across different times and across different cultures."
The director may have come late to The Little Prince herself but was much taken by the purity of an alien child asking questions about the new world he encounters. "Important and emotional questions... What are you doing and why? It's so beautiful because it is so simple and clear."
"And of course, what is so great about the book when you speak to the translators is that it is devoid of politics and religion. When you take these away then you can write about human beliefs, which are on quite another level. It has very strong philosophical overtones, but is not overbearing in terms of a political or religious message."
Boonstra finds parallels between The Miracle... an d her earlier film Bela Bela (2002) about four poets imprisoned for their critical use of language. "They had written poems against the regimes... Language can change people's lives on a very emotional level."
The Miracle of the Little Prince is a feast on the eyes as we zoom over volcanoes, skim across the desert and sledge through drifts of Sami snow, always in the company of animals, such as reindeer, camels and the story's central desert fox. "Documentary filmmaking has to do with observing in silence, and doing the camera myself I was observing the world through the eyes of the Little Prince, looking into the eyes of the animals. Are we making contact, yes or no? A film about the Little Prince is just not possible without animals."
SEE NL Magazine #33 November 2018 / IDFA Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by EYE International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.