By Miranda Schiller @mirandadadada
Karidja Touré, the celebrated star of Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, looks small in the big hotel room armchair where she sits doing back-to-back interviews all day. She looks small, but not lost. She is visibly really enjoying this, soaking in every minute of this new part of her life, being an actress. She was literally cast off the street for Girlhood, but she did secretly always dream of being an actress.
Karidja explained: “Sometimes when people ask what you want to be, and you say an actress, they’re like, OK… she will never be an actress, just let her dream. So I kept it to myself and just continued to study like a normal teenager. And it happened!”
Girlhood has taken her to the film festival in Cannes, and on promotion tours as far as Miami and Dubai. It does not seem to have impacted on her sensible, down-to-earth personality though. When I ask her about how she feels about being a role model for lots of black girls who comment on her very popular Instagram account, she says she is aware of this new role, but adds “I have never been a bad influence. I’m the kind of friend who my friends’ mums are really happy about. They know that when I go out with their child, we won’t do anything bad.”
This couldn’t be further from the girl gang member she portrays in Girlhood. It is the gritty world of the Parisian banlieue, the suburbs full of high-rise social housing estates. A firmly established setting for French social realist films, ever since Matthieu Kassovitz’ La Haine defined the banlieue film genre in 1995. Girlhood, however, is very different. First, it puts girls at the front and center. Second, it’s not gritty, but very colourful and beautifully shot, the deliberate intention of Céline Sciamma, Girlhood’s director:
“This is my third film and it’s my third coming-of-age story set in the suburbs. Except this time it’s the official suburbs of French cinema. And this time I wanted to have more social anchorage. I wanted to reinvent the romantic heroine of today and to give her a new face. So I decided to film, in the hood, but not in the way it is expected. It’s always either gangster-like, like La Haine, or documentary style, and always with a low-fi, low-profile aesthetic. But I decided to make it like my previous films, with an aesthetic that is committed to being sensitive and intimate with the characters and still make it colourful and compose my frames and look at these places as a set and as a territory for fiction.”
“It’s not about representation, it’s about building characters”
I meet Céline right after Karidja, in an adjacent hotel room. She seems more exhausted by the day-long succession of interviews than Karidja. We touch on some of the reactions by black feminist bloggers in France. Céline has been criticised for reinforcing stereotypes by showing girls who grow up in hopeless circumstances and resort to violence and petty crime and for telling black girls’ stories through a white gaze. She puts this down to the fact that there is hardly any representation of black women in French cinema, but she feels put in a corner:
“No film should have the responsibility of being purely representational, it’s not my goal to be definitive and say: ‘this is what it’s like growing up in the banlieue”. Celine explains that she set out to build real fictional characters that have layers; they have good sides, bad sides, paradoxes, they are fragile, they can be violent, they can be lots of things.
Karidja’s film character develops through a succession of distinctive stages, involving having her name changed from Marième to Vic (for Victory), and illustrated by changing outfits and hairstyles. The hairstyles alone seem to tell a story of their own, without being explicitly mentioned much. Céline Sciamma did the costume design for the film herself.
“I wanted the experience of her different identities to be really striking, to be really cinematic. And I really wanted them not to be hip-hop at all, but more like, blouson noir, more rock, which I think is really close to reality.”
“In French movies, you can’t relate to anyone”
Karidja and I discuss French cinema a little; she feels strongly about the lack of black talent in French cinema:
“I was only watching American films and I didn’t even know any French actors, because when you see a French movie, there is nobody you can relate to. You want to have a black girl, so you can say, this is my character, I’m going to follow her all through the film, but in French movies, you can’t relate to anyone.”
Sciamma turned some classic French movie tropes on their head. The male characters in Girlhood only have a very marginal role. “They are not characters at all”, Sciamma says. “They are objectified, like women are objectified in most films.
She goes on to explain about the male characters in Girlhood “They have a very different kind of burden; they have the burden of being in charge, of being powerful, and there’s a lot of pressure on them.”
Karidja’s own background is different and she didn’t grow up in a banlieue. She has a loving and supportive family and was never involved in any gang fights. But nonetheless, she says she can relate to a lot of the things that happen to her character Vic.
“At the beginning of the film, when she is going to school and her teacher doesn’t want her to continue high school, that is something that happened in my life.” Karidja explains.
“This happened to me and people I know, so I was very happy when I saw this scene in Céline’s script, to show to the world that this discrimination exists.” Karidja did go on to do her ‘bac’, and is now studying towards a further education qualification.
She also mentions a scene in which the girls browse through a clothes store and are instantly shadowed by a shop assistant. “It’s something that’s happened really, really often in my life. Sometimes it can really hurt.”
“I would love to work with Lupita Nyong’o.”
“I would love to work with Lupita Nyong’o, because I really admire her as a woman.”
Looking at Karijda’s natural, composed confidence, it doesn’t seem unlikely that she will get the chance. She tells me that she is here, for the love of acting rather than for any grandiose dreams of glamour and fame. And while she does hope to be in a Hollywood film one day, she quickly asserts that it’s also important to keep making films in France, that she would love to be part of a shift in French cinema, “because we have to continue to open the minds of the directors, proving that they can cast black girls in films.”
In the American film industry, this change has started to happen and is slowly gaining momentum. Karidja is optimistic about a similar change in France. When I ask Céline about the need for change in this regard in French cinema, she responded: “It has to. It really has to, otherwise we are in a very sick society”.
Girlhood is on general release from May 8th.