A Near-World Class Model in the African Forest

a story, by Jacques Delacroix

Long story short: In my thirties, I am part of a French crew going to film a commercial in Casamance. That’s the southern and forested part of Senegal, on the west coast of Africa. (It’s close to where the old and successful TV series “Roots” was filmed.) Senegal is a former French colony. French is widely spoken there, including by all formally educated Senegalese. We ride in a short caravan of VW buses from the local biggish city and into the forest. It’s hot. The commercial will be filmed the next day on a river next to the edge of the tropical forest. Where we will stay tonight, and probably the next night, is kept secret.

In the middle of the caravan, there is an older model Peugeot sedan, or maybe, it’s even a Mercedes. It’s the only air-conditioned vehicle in the procession. The star of the future commercial rides in it, in full comfort. She is actually a top model of near-world class fame. The client is a big French company selling informal but fairly chic women’s apparel internationally, kind of pricey apparel. The advertising agency in charge does not have any reason to try and cut corners. It’s gone for the best, or for the very-next-to-best talent in that line of work. The model is a tall, lithe blonde (of course) with a long elegant neck, long legs, long arms, and a torso like a ten-year old boy’s. She has a beautiful face, of course, not like some of my ex-girlfriends, for example, but like something a bit out of this world, ethereal, if you will. She is alone in the car, like royalty.

After about an hour, or 25 miles, riding on good dirt roads we, arrive at our place of rest in late afternoon. It’s a magnificent three story building of Moorish style made entirely of dried mud. I will learn later that local people erected it with their bare hands. There are windows on each of its façades that are separated by thick vertical ribs from bottom to top. The windows have no glass panes but each is neatly covered with fine white mosquito netting. There is just one small entrance on the ground floor near where we stop. It takes a while for all of use to file in for checking as one would in a regular hotel and, that gives us time to admire again the building’s dramatic architecture. Inside, there is a normal counter with two clerks taking our names and assigning us mostly each to a small room. There is enough light coming in from the outside for the registrations to proceed normally.

The rooms have no door but the walls are so thick that one would have to contort one’s neck quite a bit to get a good view of the inside of any of them. Each has a wooden table and two chairs. The broad bed is fixed to the wall and made of the same adobe material. There is a thin mattress, two pillows, and cotton blankets on each bed. All those items are sparkling white. Myself, I like it a lot already in that hotel that’s barely a hotel. As the night begins falling, quickly as it does in the tropics, a local teenager barefoot and in shorts coughs politely at the entrance to my room. I invite him in and he lights the oil lamp mounted on the wall and shows me where the matches are, just in case.

Evening preparations are interrupted by a shrill voice protesting in accented French. (The protester is Danish or Swedish; French is not her native language.) Miss Near-World Class Model is complaining because her room is on the third floor and there are no elevators. The producer immediately has her baggage moved to a new room on the second floor. She does not like it there either because there is no view, that floor being beneath the tree branch line. Back to the third floor she goes. Twenty minutes later, begins another vivacious exchange between Miss Near-World Class Model and the producer. I eavesdrop, of course. (Well, I am professional social scientist; what do you think?) It seems they had agreed that she would receive her fee in the form of a round-trip business class ticket Paris-New York. (It’s a common way to avoid some taxes.) Now Miss Near World Class Model demands that the ticket be for the costly supersonic Concord. I, and probably everyone else in the auditory loop, thinks it’s just a tantrum. The Concord shaves something like a little over one hour off that trip. She can’t be in that much of a hurry. She just wants bragging rights. Plus, we are in the middle of Africa, years before cell phones. There is nothing the producer can do right now except, perhaps, perhaps, promise. And that may be the whole point of the argument, before her works begins, in only a few hours.

Quickly, the whole company, around twenty-five of us, is called to dinner. It takes place under the trees, around a nice big wood fire. We all sit on the ground and each of us is handed a miraculously hot, big recipient made of clay (same as the building behind us) filled with a sort of rice porridge with hard-boiled eggs and pieces of hard chicken. There are old French biscuits for dessert. We drink the bottled water and the beer some of us were smart enough to buy while we were going through the town. Everyone is in a good mood and, probably being put in mind of the Boy-Scout camps of their childhood; a few begin singing. Two local young men enter the circle with their small hand drums. Most of the crew joins in and that bunch of white city people from far away have one of the best evenings in their lives, in the Casamance forest.

Everyone is in bed before ten nevertheless. That’s because the first and main scene of the commercial we are there to film is supposed to be caught against a rising sun. Our princess is nowhere to be seen or heard. She is not currently berating anyone. She may be eating cold sandwiches in her lonely room. Except that, around nine, she sends someone to tell the producer she is scared to sleep by herself in her room with no door. He proposes the company of any number of vigorous youthful dudes in the crew, including me. On her declining, he persuades a very young woman, an assistant’s assistant probably, to spend the night with Miss Model.

To be fair, Miss Model’s conduct is neither that surprising nor that awful in context. Put yourself in her position. The wildest place she has ever been is probably a rock club in Copenhagen or in Stockholm. No one around her in the crew can provide the comfort of her native language. She is almost certainly uncomfortable in French, which is not even her second language. (English is more likely.) Is it possible that being suddenly surrounded by black people dredges up primitive racist fears in a female citizen of a country with no colonial African past, and therefore no experiences of proximity to black people? To ask the question is to answer it. Finally, there is the tenacious influence of envy that gnaws at the hearts of simple-hearted girls, beginning in a high school. Miss Model has probably only five or six rivals to whom she compares herself, other tall, lithe, career-oriented young women in the same league as she is: Mary-Ann gets to fly in the Concord; I will die if I have to fly a regular commercial jet!

The next morning, everyone is forced to wake up at five. (Can’t miss the sunrise, remember?) Someone has managed to produce some coffee, weak stuff, obviously brewed and boiled in a large pot but hot enough, with milk and sugar. There is also day-old, or two-day old, French bread. Unfortunately, though there are flush toilets at every story – with a big bucket of river water near the commodes – there is no real running water. So, washing off your face demands a harsh decision. You hope you actually packed up towelettes. How do I know it’s river water in the buckets? Well, I am an experienced fisherman.

Some of the crew go directly to the river’s side to check on the physical preparations. The director goes there specifically to greet the twenty or so locals who will be an important part of the video. They must be shivering, wearing only a loincloth – as instructed – before sunrise, standing near the long canoe they will be paddling up river in a short time. Most are postal workers and teachers, and such. (They all have to know French well to be able to follow the director’s instructions. Real paddlers, if they were to be found, probably couldn’t.) Some are receiving last minute initiation to paddling. The storybook – such as it is – is a collection of colonial clichés, of course. Nobody cares then. (It’s the seventies.) The African extras care least of all. They will be earning fat money, paddling five times five minutes, if that, and sitting under a tree shooting the breeze between cuts.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are still near the hotel building; we stand around downing coffee and smoking cigarettes waiting for our marching orders. It’s a bit like being a recruit in the armed forces again: hurry up and wait. Miss Model is nowhere to be seen. No one says anything but I know I am worried. If she had another tantrum and managed to get a ride to town during the night, the whole project is dead. Then, she appears in the dimly lit doorway.

Her hair is impeccably combed and held in place in a style markedly different from yesterday’s. I am guessing this is the hairdo the storybook calls for. She is wearing perfectly pressed white linen pants and a simple yet somehow elegant form-fitting pink t-shirt. I am guessing, again, that those are clothes from the collection we will be advertising in the commercial. She is carrying a squarish box by its handle. A young local woman who might be a hairdresser is waiting for her. (I think she is a hairdresser because, unlike other women in the area, she is not wearing a head scarf and her hair is processed.)

The African woman points to a downed tree trunk with a clean towel set on top. Miss Model sits on it and opens her case without a word. The local woman squats and hold a large mirror to her face. I get drafted to hold a flashlight just so, between her face and the mirror. I watch in amazement Miss Model create a work of art on her face in the semi-penumbra. She uses at least twenty different colors of make-up held in tiny square containers in her square case. I observe that she relies on six different brushes and several crayons in addition to four shades of lipstick. She handles her tiny tools without hesitancy. A few times, she signals to me to adjust the direction of the cone of light. Her other helper, being a woman, seems to know exactly what to do with the mirror. Miss Model soldiers on for forty-five minutes or more. Now, I have often looked at people working but I have never seen such attention to detail or such concentration, such seriousness. There, under a canopy of strange and vaguely threatening trees, in the middle of Africa, and in the darkness, Miss Model gives us all a lesson in perfect, cool professionalism.

Soon, she stands up and mutters a few words of thanks to the mirror lady and, in absent minded fashion, to me. The director has been standing there, watching and saying nothing. He guides her to the river for the opening shot just as the first premises of a rising sun show themselves.

If I forgot that I am talking here about a four-minute commercial destined only to be shown at intermission in French movie theaters, I would say the rest of the day is a triumph. Everyone does his or her job swiftly and intelligently; the parts fall into place with ease. The paddlers get into the spirit of the thing. They forget they are going to have to go back to work in an ironed white shirt tomorrow, or the next day. They produce from deep in their chests the satisfying sound of men pulling hard although they have only gone about fifty yards for each cut. It helps a lot that they have seen the same movies that inspired the storybook.

Miss Model herself responds exceedingly well to the modest requests for minimal acting in the storybook: She is asked to stand prettily in the bow of the long black canoe paddled by twenty half naked black men. She holds one hip slightly and graciously askew the better to display the embroidered back pocket of her pants. She has been told not to smile to avoid drawing attention away from the t-shirt she is modeling. There are several takes. In the end, she acquits herself fabulously. The apparel merchant, the sponsor, will be more than happy. And, I know you are curious about this: The producer was inflexible, Miss Model did not fly to New York and back on the Concord.

2 thoughts on “A Near-World Class Model in the African Forest

  1. Only one quibble- formerly and formally have different meanings (fifth sentence).

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