Madonna's Latest Transformation: Crusading Filmmaker

At Cannes, the star opens up about men, motherhood, Malawi and aging gracefully.


CANNES, May 22, 2008— -- It's edging up on midnight. But even on a Tuesday night at film festival time in Cannes the town is still hopping, packed with the people who make movies, the people who want to make movies and the people who like to hang out with them.

Far above the sidewalk leaning over the top balcony of the famed Carlton Hotel is a woman the world knows by one name: Madonna. Parties are not high on her agenda for this trip. She's in the South of France to show her new documentary, "I Am Because We Are," a solemn chronicle of the one million AIDS orphans in Malawi.

There couldn't be two more different worlds that Cannes and Malawi. Madonna — as she has done so often — embraces the extremes.

"There's something beautiful about it," she told "Nightline" co-anchor Cynthia McFadden. "On the one hand you can see that Cannes represents superficiality, but so let's bring some reality into it. There's a lot of people here that I think would like to feel inspired by more than the gown they're wearing or the famous person sitting next to them."

Madonna talked about one of the inspirations that led to the making of the film. How did the Material Girl end up in one of the poorest nations on earth, a decidedly non-material place, adopting a child and making a film?

"I guess it happened at a time in my life where I was just dialed into the frequency of wanting to do something that wasn't just concentrate on my career and family and I wanted to go outside of that," she said.

As she approaches her 50th birthday, Madonna said she's not thinking about it.

"F**k you. I'm 50. That's what I'm going to say when I turn 50. Sorry."

"Why's everyone rushing me over the finish line?" she said. "No, I'm not thinking about my birthday. I'm thinking about what I'm going to eat for dinner tonight. That's my future plan."

Still, the star said that she's "very happy" with her life and doesn't compete with her younger self.

"If I didn't feel good and wasn't doing what I wanted to do with my life, maybe [turning 50] would bother me," she said. "But I feel good about what I'm doing. I feel like in a way it's given me a feeling of accomplishment for living this long and to still be able to do what I want to do and feel as good as I do. It's a blessing."

Speaking about her photo spread in the May issue Vanity Fair magazine (she graces the cover), Madonna said, "I like the way I look better now. My thighs aren't as chubby. I'm not kidding. I'm being perfectly honest with you. …I see myself as practical and handsome and useful. I don't think of myself as a great beauty. But I think of myself as stylish."

"I look thinner naked," she added. "Don't ask. It's weird."

She acknowledged that there's a double standard when it comes to women's ages; that more is being made of her age than that of male rock stars such as Sting (56), Mick Jagger (64), Billy Joel (59), or David Bowie (61).

"I don't think we live in just a sexist society, we live in an ageist society, connected to women," she said. "I think women in an unconscious way are valued for their youth, youthful beauty, not so much for their wisdom and experience. Hopefully, we're going to change all that."

Effecting change is part of what drew the star to make the documentary. Madonna said that she had already been talking to husband Guy Ritchie about the possibility of adopting a child when she received a phone call from Victoria Keelan, who does humanitarian work in Malawi.

"When the student is ready a teacher appears," she said. "This light bulb went off."

In April of 2006 Madonna headed to the tiny South African country — one of the poorest countries in the world — intent on adopting a child and making a film. With her on that first trip was a young man who for years had helped take care of her kids and worked as her gardener who she had decided would direct her film — a choice that raised many eyebrows.

"Well, it's not good to think in a limited way," she said. "After all I used to be the jelly squirter at Dunkin Donuts."

The film they have made together is in many ways unexpected. It is not about Madonna and only indirectly about her attempt to adopt a little boy named David. It is a sweeping look at a country where children are raising other children and where more than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Madonna steps off center stage and lets the children tell their own stories.

"I wanted to get out of the way and every once in a while come in and explain some details. I let the people tell their story."

"I still cry when I see it," she said. "You can just feel the humanity of people. The vulnerability of people … You really see the strength of women, that's the other thing about Africa. The women seem to carry the burden of everything. They seem to be the ones pushing forward to make change. They seem to be the ones who were the victims of so many things. They moved me more than anything."

But buried in the bleak images of despair, there are smiles … genuine smiles. It is not just the pain which is palpable in this film. There is also joy.

"I had never seen so much, sort of, tangible suffering, but I've never experienced so much joy and openness," she said. "I think that comes from living in the moment without having a lot of distractions, which we have a lot of. And not knowing if the next day is going to come so really experiencing things in the moment."

Which brings us another joyous and painful subject: David, her foster son from Malawi who she is intent on adopting, seen in the documentary as a tiny baby being carried by a young girl called Wezi.

She says she knew she had a connection to him, and that her husband Guy experienced that as well when they returned to Malawi. She says Guy also "experienced David's magic," but took a little longer to make the decision.

"You know men, they always take a little bit longer to catch up," she said.

Joking aside, their adoption was supposed to be finalized last month, then last week … then yesterday … but has been repeatedly postponed by the Malawi court despite the excellent evaluation of the Ritchie household by the court-appointed social worker.

Madonna marvels that even the evaluation was leaked to the press.

"I got a gold star for parenting? Is nothing private?"

David's biological father, who stepped forward when the adoption made international headlines, now supports the adoption. But still they wait.

"It's just bureaucracy, she said."I'm going to be patient. For him, I'll be patient."

All the while Madonna still tends to the needs of other children in Malawi by providing health care, housing and education for several of the children in the film.

"I feel responsible for all those children in the film and for all those children that didn't make it into the film. I promise you if the government didn't make it so hard I would have brought a truckload of them home with me. I hope that through his film, people will be inspired to do the same."

When we talked Tuesday night the documentary's debut the next night was very much on her mind. She said she was nervous because "I want to make a difference and I want people to like the movie and feel moved by it."

Madonna also talked about her new album, "Hard Candy," which debuted at number one in 37 countries around the world and broke a record along the way. Madonna now has more number one hits than Elvis Presley says she also still gets nervous when a record comes out, and that she doesn't "rest on her laurels."

Madonna recorded her latest record "Hard Candy" with Justin Timberlake, Pharell Williams and Timbaland — who she calls "divas in their own right" — because she wanted to challenge herself.

"We all had our hiccups where we jockeyed for positions and we tried to get to know each other, because songwriting is a very intimate experience. I would say there were a few uncomfortable moments. …With Pharell, he actually made me cry. I've never told anyone that before.

"I think I was just having a bad day," she said. "You know when you're not fine. You know sometimes when you just burst into tears for no reason?"

She says that the two "had it out, and now I love him. And we made great music together. But I think we had to go through that."

Madonna's new tour is already selling out. "I love performing," she said, adding that the first two weeks and the last two weeks are always the best. "It's like a piece of gum when you first put it in your mouth. It's so good. But when you spit it out, you're so relieved to get rid of it. It's killing your jaw."

The woman who says she savors beginnings and endings is also enjoying this time of her life.

"I feel good about everything that's going on in my life. I feel very blessed. I have an amazing family. I'm excited about my documentary, about the film I directed, about my album. I have amazing friends. What's not to be happy about?"

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