“I feel like the Benetton ads,” said filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, posing for photos with Senegalese singer Youssou NDour and fellow director Mike Nichols at a screening of her new documentary, Youssou NDour: I Bring What I Love, at the Paris Theater on Thursday night, June 4.
The film follows the recording and reception of Mr. NDour’s Grammy-winning album Egypt. The album presents a peaceful side of Islam, fusing secular and spiritual traditions, and the timely screening coincided rather fortuitously with U.S. President Barack Obama’s Cairo call for tolerance.
“I wanted to make a big, beautiful, happy film about Africa that a lot of people would see,” Ms. Vasarhelyi explained. Her first film, A Normal Life, following the lives of Kosovar refugees, won first place at the Tribeca Film Festival when she was just 24.
The only person in a floor-length gown, she seemed charming if a little shy—charmingly shy!
Mr. NDour was initially reluctant to participate in the project. “In the beginning, I was really protecting my privacy, and what interested me was that she tried to have a relationship [with] the members of my family,” he told the Daily Transom. “Everybody. And by the end, the members of my family said, ‘You have to get to know her.’”
Making a documentary about a fellow artist can be tricky, but Ms. Vasarhelyi said she thought the undertaking had been a true collaboration. Of course, Mr. Nichols took a different outlook when he introduced Ms. Vasarhelyi, saying that he was tempted to quote David Mamet: “Film is a collaborative medium; bend over.”
Documentary film seemed to be the unifying theme among the unlikely mix of personalities in attendance. Portrait photographer and documentarian Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart) posed gamely while holding up a point-and-shoot. Philippe Petit, whose 1974 walk between the former World Trade Center’s twin towers was chronicled in last year’s Man on Wire, hobnobbed in solidarity with a fellow documentary subject.
“Oh, hi, guys and gals,” Dick Cavett greeted the press. “I’ve been told not to talk when my picture’s being taken,” he added, but not before swapping stories with a photographer about Marlon Brando punching people.
The subject of the most pre-arrival speculation was Lou Reed. “Lou Reed’s gotten really into it,” claimed one photographer, wryly joking about the legendary guitarist’s typical red carpet antics. The grizzled speaker was a cartoon paparazzo, chomping a toothpick and wearing orange-lensed sunglasses and an earring.
“Really?” replied a colleague. “He used to be terrible.”
Indeed, he still is. She had been taken in by her colleague’s rascally wit. “The only way Lou Reed’ll pose is if Laurie tells him to,” he explained.
This prediction proved accurate. The former Velvet Underground frontman attempted to march, zombie-like, into the theater until wife Laurie Anderson coaxed him to pause. Ms. Anderson’s tremendous dimples may or may not have compensated for Mr. Reed’s stony-faced surliness.
Tolerance, it seems, is all well and good, but it only barely extends to the press.