Houda Benyamina is a force to be reckoned with, impassioned, outraged, and determined to fuck things up.
This would be clear enough from the director’s masterful 2011 short The Road To Paradise and her electric (Cannes d’Or-winning, Golden Globe-nominated) 2016 feature Divines, but Benyamina has wasted no time affirming it every chance she gets. A sampling (which does not even include her Cannes acceptance speech, in which she took to the stage shouting, “Les femmes! Les femmes!” and added, “I didn’t stop saying, ‘I don’t give a fuck about Cannes’ to my producer since the beginning.”):
Cinema is white, bourgeois and racist. That’s clear.” (The Guardian)
“The outsider needs to speak the language of the ruler, of the prison guard, and this is what everyone resented or found controversial in Cannes: that I didn’t speak this language. I don’t want to speak this language! I know how to speak it very well but I chose not to. I can’t be anything but natural.” (again)
The need for power and recognistion is not just reserved for men. No one ever asks male directors why they only cast male characters. Reality is changing. We can say, “You have to put your clitoris on the table” the same way you say, “You put your balls on the table.” (Cannes Q&A)
Both the short and the feature focus, at least obliquely, on life in Paris’ Roma camps, where danger from the state looms over everyday interactions and shoulders up against individual tenderness and longings to escape. The Road To Paradise is the more conventional of the two, a Dardennes-inflected piece of tragic social realism on the margins of French society. (Just don’t call it a banlieue film: “I don’t like that label. If a middle-class man had wanted to make such a film – no problem.”)
Benyamina’s empathy and outrage are palpable, charting a Roma family’s attempts to navigate a hostile French culture seen alternately through the eyes of mother, Leila (Majdouline Idrissi), and daughter Sarah (Sanna Marouk).
An absent father, already in England and progressively distant from the family he’s left behind in the slums, is less than no help, but Leila, Sarah, and youngest child Bilal are also ensconced in a wider social and family circle that provides some amount of support. Not nearly enough, as Leila works a degrading gig and the family begs Euros on the street, but Benyamina includes plenty of warm moments amid the dire poverty to demonstrate the ways people get by.
It’s a humane, ultimately heartbreaking vision of impossible odds, its ending even hinting at the possibility of a new day, however painful. But Benyamina’s film doesn’t roll out like a polemic: mean-spirited schoolkids co-exist alongside one little boy with a doomed crush, impassive immigration forces with a protective principal. (A scene in which that principal is introduced, seemingly angry at the children, and is then revealed to be acting out of deep compassion is striking, and all-too-relevant in the U.S. at the moment.)
If The Road To Paradise fits more or less solidly in the spiritual existentialist tradition of French social realism, Divines marks a decisive split. A sort of Girlhood-by-way-of-Goodfellas explosion of energy, Benyamina’s debut feature is relentless inventive, and as restless as the young women whose stories structure its narrative. In fact, it might have too much energy for its own good, but it’s a remarkable, and remarkably furious, film.
Dounia (an unforgettable Oulaya Amamra, Benyamina’s younger sister) is another child of the encampments, a poorest-of-the-poor young woman simultaneously street-tough and vulnerable. Along with her best friend Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena, just as good), she dreams of the kind of success and wealth the two see reflected in YouTube videos and Lil Wayne songs; in the gritty margins of the shadow economy, the closest they can get to that is ingratiating themselves with local dealer Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda). Benyamina calls the two her De Niro and Keitel, but Dounia’s closet parallel is actually Henry Hill. Ever since she could remember, she wanted to be a gangster.
Divines is at its best in its first half, when the adorable naturalism of the Dounia and Maimouna’s relationship constantly butts up against the constraints on their lives. They attend a vocational school, which Dounia promptly quits with a furious tirade. Why, she asks her hapless instructor, should she study to graduate from poverty to check-by-check obsequiousness, smiling pretty for the very people who keep her down? And anyway, she pointedly tells her to her face, “what the fuck did you ever achieve?”
Divines is, in part, Benyamina’s response to the 2005 riots, which apparently affected her deeply and to which she profoundly related. (The riots also led her to found 1000 Visages, “an association that scouts and nurtures young talent from social minorities. ‘I founded the association because I found cinema white, bourgeois, and misogynistic. Even when you graduate from one of the grandes écoles, it’s complicated imposing yourself without a network, especially if you’re black, Arab, and a woman on top of it all.”) A sense of that upward mobility is a lie foisted on vulnerable populations by comfortable elites, that you’re on your own if you want to “make it,” underwrites nearly every moment of Divines‘ running time.
But this threatens to reduce the film to simple protest, which shortchanges its formal playfulness and nuanced takes on race, gender, religious, and class identities. There is also a coming-of-age love story buried in here, and a fixation on dance as a kind of unmediated truth. Dounia is a fully realized character in flux, and, like Girlhood‘s Marieme, becoming who she’ll be.
Whether you prefer the first or last half of the movie may be a matter of individual taste, as Scorsese overtakes Schiamma and things spin violently out of control. The final moments seem at odds with much of what’s come before, and I found myself wishing we could go back to the fraught longing that preceded the explosions. There’s so much going on in Benyamina’s telling, and so much passion, that it runs the risk of devouring itself.
But that’s for the viewer to judge. In an age in which too many films have too little to say, faulting Houda Benyamina for her films’ passion seems absurd. Both The Road To Paradise and Divines are remarkable films from an emerging voice in new French cinema.