Houda – or Uda – Benyamina has a lot to say about French society and it's forgotten youth. Earlier this year she attracted the spotlight with her win at Cannes Film Festival for the prestigious Caméra D’Or – and since then journalists have had a tendency to define her winning film Divines as a film about “banlieues” – the Paris suburbs.
At the suggestion of this Uda smiles, irritated. Actually Divines is not necessarily about the French suburbs but more specifically about a small group of young people living there. French cinema historically has depicted the suburbs in monochrome, think Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine or Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour, but Divines emphasises their beautiful paradoxes, dancing bodies, bright tones play against the palpable dingy smell of protagonist Dounia’s tiny apartment.
Between concrete towers, fifteen-year-old Dounia, played by Oulaya Amamra, drops out of school and meets Rebecca, a local drug dealer, before meeting the one who will show her the way out – Djigui, a passionate dancer. Benyamina projects the different life dilemmas and tackles social determinism through her casts various story arcs.
Your films celebrate the internal strength of women. Would you define yourself as a feminist director?
Yes and no. My characters always have “something to fight for”, in Dounia’s own words. However I would not say my films only deal with feminism. I’ve always been attracted to the misfits, those who are left behind and grow on the fringe of society. That’s why I decided to launch 1000 Visages, an organisation that helps suburban kids who want to become directors but don’t have the opportunity to fulfil their dreams. As a woman and as an artist, my aim is to denounce injustice and fight for more equality. And to be honest, I am a bit of an obsessive… I guess my films reflect my own life and experience.
What is your obsession about?
The obsession of fight. People all fight in their own way, it goes beyond feminist or class issues. Fight has no gender or class.
So your art is political?
Definitely. I always say I put politics in my art and art in my commitments. For me, cinema is a political tool. I made films to escape from a tough environment.
Is there a spiritual element too?
Politics and spirituality always come together in my art: politics as a general issue, spirituality as an individual one. I’m political in the way I direct and I think cinema has the power to condemn injustice and suggest new horizons. Art can be a form of religion, it is something tangible in Divines, particularly with the character of Djigui, for whom art is all about spirituality.
Djigui, played by Kevin Mischel, is an incredible dancer. You chose to film the strength and sensuality of bodies through his character. What is your own connection with dance?
Divines was a way for me to exorcise a lot of anger that had been there for years. Part of the process was to forget myself through the act of directing. Djigui is the only character who makes his way out – through dance. Art is the only way for him to escape from reality, to cure his rage. I chose to work with the choreographer Nicolas Paul, together, we focused on the spiritual side of dance – the characters are fighting, boxing and dancing all the time in order to feel, to exist. I’m an instinctive person. Sometimes, the way we move says more about us than the way we talk. Dance is about instinct, feeling, and sensation. My stories are told through bodies rather than words. Divines is not a movie about ‘suburbs’. It’s about the people who live there, about their feelings.
Violence is embodied by female characters while sensuality and gentleness are embodied by Djigui, a male dancer. Did you consciously challenge the boundaries between genders?
Neither violence nor sensuality are the prerogatives of gender – sensibility has none. Society evolves and so does French cinema in a way, even if the debate on gender is a new subject that directors have to deal with. However, I’m pretty sure more and more French directors will challenge boundaries between masculinity and femininity in the future. They have to if they want to stay relevant.
Rebecca, the drug-dealer is kind of a role model for Dounia. Who were your role models?
Powerful women such as the great singer Maria Callas or Djamila Bouhired, a resistance fighter during Algerian war, have always inspired me. Both in their own way, helped me to achieve my goals as an artist and as a woman. They taught me to be proud of what I do and what I am through their songs or through their acts.
You often refer to Salo director Pier Paolo Pasolini and Ferdinand Céline as authors who gave you the strength to direct films – both have a tendency to be cynical towards life, but there is a joy and humour to your work.
I come from a rough yet joyful, colourful environment. I was taught to step back and look at myself with forgiveness and laugh about my own condition. In my movies, my characters always have the ability to look at their own story with distance. A lot of French directors made films about the ‘banlieues’ through a very sociologist approach. I can’t judge them, but I can’t help feeling that French directors such as Abdellatif Kechiche (L'esquive) or Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) have over-dramatised a reality they don’t really know much about. I feel way closer to directors like Bertrand Blier who directed Going Places. He never judges his characters. That’s what I want people to feel while watching Divines.
In French divines also means sacred. What is your own definition of spirituality?
Spirituality drives us all. It can be anything – religion, Sufism, dance, sculpture, music, drama, cinema, love – anything that can make you feel more beautiful and happier than the day before. In Divines it takes the form of a friendship or a love story. Spirituality is something you can feel in the air, it's everywhere and in everything – it has no shape and can be ceased, in many ways, whoever you are or wherever you come from.