Last year, the trailer for Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood” dropped: one long panning shot of a gang of girls chatting in the middle of a busy Parisian square. The brief but captivating trailer was enough to generate excitement – finally, a new coming of age film focusing on the lives of black teenaged girls.
Since the film’s recent North American release, conversations surrounding the film have hinged on the importance of representation, but also the implications of a white filmmaker writing and directing a story about black teens in the projects of the Paris suburbs.
I sat down Sciamma for a conversation on race, gender, and what drew her to telling the story of “Girlhood.”
Zeba Blay (ZB): Congratulations on the success of the film! It continues the “coming of age” theme we’ve seen in your last two films, “Water Lillies” and “Tomboy.” What drew you to the specific story that we see in “Girlhood”?
Celine Sciamma (CS): Well this time [I decided] I’m going to go for it once more – and it will be the last time I write and direct a coming of age story. People were beginning to talk about it like a trilogy and I liked that Idea. This time I really wanted several things: I wanted to talk about friendship and sorority. The first two films were mostly about triangle relationships. In the first two films, the group was important because it was about wanting to belong to a group – that was the characters’ goal. But this time I really wanted to talk of the bond between girls, and the roles you’re often assigned when you’re in the group.
ZB: You delve into that with Karidja Toure’s character, how she starts out as the quiet one and eventually becomes an equal, especially to the leader of the girl gang, Lady (Assa Sylla).
CS: Yes. I was [exploring] that influence, that uniformity – especially for women. Being in a group is a way to actually to speak up, and define yourself in the comfort, and the complexity of the group. So that was something I really cared about. And also I wanted to make the movie more [anchored]. The two first films, they were more extemporal, you couldn’t actually tell when they were set since there were for instance no cell phones. This time I wanted to fill in more detail.
ZB: That translates. The film is specific in terms of time period. It felt very steeped in how teenage girls live now. The texting, the viral videos, the selfies, listening to music with your friends on the train.
CS: Yes! We wanted it to be contemporary. A strong tale, more romantic. [I wanted to] stick with the rules of the emancipation novel, [and tell the story of] a young girl who wants to live her life and be free, who wants to avoid the destiny set for her. I really wanted to put a stone in that traditional French narrative, but with a very contemporary character never seen on screen. And I very much wanted it to be a black girl.
ZB: OK, let’s talk about that. The casting of a black lead was one of the elements that spoke to me the loudest in this film, but obviously there have been critiques essentially asserting ‘This is a story of black femininity being presented via a white feminist gaze. It doesn’t fully tell the true meaning of what it means to be a black girl.’ How do you react to that?
CS: Obviously, I can’t tell the story of what it is to be a black girl, but maybe I can tell something else. Girlhood is not about what it’s like to be a black girl, it’s about what it’s like to be a girl.
ZB: True, but with the movie landscape such as it is, the fact that the film follows a black teenaged girl is pretty significant. In the hands of a white, female director, do you understand how that can still prompt criticism?
CS: That’s the paradox. Because there are very few representations, suddenly the movie has a new responsibility. That’s a lot on my shoulders. But I knew that when I was going into it, and I was okay with it. But I mean, I didn’t know how messy it could get. I’m making this universal, and I decide that my character, who represents the youth of today for me, can be black. But then some people might tell you…
ZB: She’s no longer universal then.
CS: But she should be! It feels crazy, but I believe that in 5 years, there’ll be other movies like this, and this one will be one, of many. That is my hope.
ZB: As a filmmaker/director, obviously you have your own vision of what the story means to you and what the character means to you. But I’m assuming after a while you just have to let it go right?
CS: That’s what I’m doing. But also really listening to audiences, especially black women and black feminists. I have to listen to those who are are saying this is actually good as much as I listen to those who are saying this is actually really bad.
ZB: When you talk about how black women specifically are receiving this film, is it women in America, where the film has just come out? My American girl friends are all like ‘Oh my God! It’s amazing! A movie about carefree black girls dancing to Rihanna, yes!’ But I’ve spoken to a lot of French black women who are saying ‘This is just a typical banlieue movie. Why are all the black male characters villains? Why are we just seeing these girls fighting in the streets? This is not who we are!’
CS: [Audiences] want good representation, [especially] when you have so little representation. I totally understand the anger. It [speaks] to the larger issue and the fact that there are so [few] black women directors, especially in France. I have the privilege and the power to tell the story the way I want, and they don’t. But I would not say also it’s the typical banlieue, you know, we aren’t talking about religion in the film, its not about race, its not about struggling with racism. But I know one can also reproach that response too.
ZB: How do you feel respectability politics plays into the conversation around this film? Here we see our main character Vic and her friends fighting on the subway, shoplifting, drinking and having sex – the same behavior that’s romanticized in white teenaged characters (think Palo Alto) but seen as destructive with black characters.
CS: Yeah, and I really wanted to show that. I wanted to show that they could be strong and empowered and loud. They could be melancholy and lonely and just little kids dreaming of being iconic. You know? They could be shy but also wanting to just look at the beautiful ass of a guy. You never see it like with a girl actually wanting a boy, actually in charge of the moment, actually gazing and desiring a boy’s body, you never see that on screen.
ZB: Can we talk a little bit about your leading lady Karidja Toure? She was luminous on screen. How did you discover her? What was it like working with her and building this character on screen?
CS: There was a long process of casting! For four months and we looked everywhere. We looked at agencies but there were [almost] no black girls at agencies and very few under the acting classes. 99% [of the casting was done] randomly on the streets. Frankly we had a strong agenda, we had to build the group but we had to have some strong individuality [too.] Girls that were able to really deal with the lines, able to [study] the scripts but also able improvise the comedy scenes. They had to be really smart and quick and witty. The girls were amazing! It was the best performance of my life because there was such a strong proposition and we came up with that group. But the hardest thing to find was the lead because she has to be so many things. She had to be a face that you always want to look at because it’s in every frame of the film. She’s also an observer so she has to always be interesting but interested – which is not something that’s easy to do. She has to be several characters…
ZB: …and maintain them throughout the film.
CS: Yes! And Karidja actually was the only one [who could do so.] That’s why I picked her. She has the incredible photogenic vibe. She tried to perform the first time that I got her on tape, whereas everybody is always trying to show who they are. She tried to be somebody else. She told me a story, she was kinda clumsy, but she really tried to act. In that moment, I I knew we were going to work together and build something because wanting to be somebody else, that’s part of the process…
ZB: And that’s part of the character too?
CS: Yes – that’s part of the character. And especially with non-professionals when casting that’s also the film. My impression is that you picked them but they pick you, too. You look at them but they look at you too. And that’s what’s [captured when] I’m looking at these young girls [through the camera], they’re also looking at me. It’s a dialogue.
ZB: And its not voyeuristic either, right? I’ts open…
CS: I know, its open and its chaos! I’m picking them not knowing what their lives are. They come from here and there. They have very different backgrounds from eachother, and from their characters. Karidja comes from Paris, she’s not her character. But I don’t care because I picked her because she has talent as an actress, and she’s captivating.
ZB: And there has to be some mystery?
CS: There has to be. I didn’t want actresses to come in playing themselves. I wanted them to look at what they’re doing and actually feel something.
ZB: Did the actresses have a lot of input in terms of, how the characters lived in this world you were creating? Obviously even though they may not necessarily live those lives, they could have some insight into them.
CS: Of course, I listened to them, I said okay, if you feel like something feels stupid or not true or I don’t know what I’m saying, just tell me. But it was really fiction. It’s not written in any way trying to, create folklore its really…
ZB: …it’s a story.
CS: Yes it’s a story. You know, a lot of people were telling me I could have avoided [having to deal with race] by just putting a black girl, a white girl, and an Asian girl in the film. That’s what we do in France, because we’re obsessed with diversity. But that just does nothing. I’m not saying it doesn’t work, I’m just saying that…
ZB: Well, it’s false diversity.
CS: Exactly! But to put only black characters doesn’t mean you’re saying black people are like this or that. It’s creating a world. It’s saying “this is also too cinema.” It’s like I’m not looking at it like I’m documenting this strange, exotic world that we should try to understand. I think that what happens in the periphery of what we see in Paris is what’s happening in all societies. Basically, I’m trying to tell the story of a girl.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.