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Back From Africa

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi was 24 when her first film won Best Documentary at Tribeca. She spent the next five years following Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour.

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When A Normal Life, the documentary I co-directed about Kosovar refugees, won at Tribeca, Lauren Bacall told me, “You’ve done this at 24—you could rule the world.” What I wanted to do next was make an uplifting film about Africa, and I thought music was one way to do it. I wish I could say I’ve been following Youssou N’Dour all my life. I haven’t. I discovered him— an African pop star, the Bono of Africa. Youssou is famous everywhere else in the world. He lives so successfully by his convictions, and shows us a very different Islam than what we see in the media. And his voice is extraordinary. If you watch his band Super Etoile perform, you’ll follow them to the edge of the earth.

I moved to Africa, and have lived and breathed this film about Youssou for five years. My grandmother passed away while we were in the middle of shooting, and I couldn’t go to the funeral. It was awful. And I’d like to be a better girlfriend. But I’m a “change the world” person. That’s how I’m wired.

Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love opens June 12 at IFC Center.

As told to John Ortved.

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