Following the historic win of South Korean drama Parasite at the ninety-second Academy Awards, now more than ever mainstream Western audiences are opening to the world of non-English cinema. The Oscars victory could not arrive at a more opportune moment; in our age of globalisation, where the facets of identity and individual cultural capital are consistently found at the forefront of social and political discourse, it has become clear that societal commitments to diversity must also be honoured through valuing narratives of diverse origin.
Therefore, for those embarking into non-English films and unsure where to begin, French screenwriter and director Céline Sciamma’s 2014 feature Girlhood would be my first point of call. In a one hour and 51 minute run-time the feature immerses the audience in the lived experience of Marieme, a sixteen year old from the outskirts of Paris who rejects the prospect of vocational school, befriending a group of girls (hence the French title Bande de Filles) and embracing their activities, legal or otherwise.
Set among an African-French community in an impoverished neighbourhood, it is a coming-of-age film of constant navigation; Marieme perpetually manoeuvres her economic realities and troubled home life as well as racial microaggressions or the rules of engagement in an all-out fist-fight. She is in constant transformation, to the degree that the protagonist of the final shot is a palimpsest of her opening state. A hallmark of this genre, Girlhood charts the phase-like changes to Marieme’s appearance as she joins the gang – she swaps her braided updo for long tresses, adopts the nickname Vic worn on a metallic chain. Through this protean characterisation and the film’s three act structure, Sciamma artfully maintains a theme of fluidity, which paints Girlhood as a statement on how class, race, gender and gender expression intersect to form how a human being asserts their humanity.
The beauty of Girlhood lies in its open framing, allowing the rich actor performances (from talent sourced via street-casting) and complex desires of the characters to paint the screen. The film’s famous musical sequence to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” is testament to this fact: the carefree, impassioned singing of the four girls, performed at points directly to camera, struck me profoundly as someone less accustomed to seeing cinematic portrayals of black female joy. The shots taking place in the blue lights of a rented hotel room, watching the sequence feels like a salve; here the characters have found their space and time to exist entirely under their own terms. For a French film, the diversion to an English language pop song came out of the blue (no pun intended) capturing briefly a universality in the youth experience being shown–after all, what’s more unifying than Rihanna?
It might, however, be purely wishful projecting to see Girlhood as an exploration of black female identity and friendship done comprehensively. 41-year-old director Sciamma sees the feature as a documentation of youth on the fringes–in this case both geographically in the banlieues of Paris and culturally through the severe lack of young, black female representation in French cinema, resulting in at some points a sweeping glance at this identity, as the very act of presenting it takes the focus. A sequence where Marieme is followed around a shop, suspected by a clerk of shoplifting, causing her to quip an angered rebuke, has little-to-no resonance in the film or character’s psyche going forward. Having read about the concerningly high degree of racial discrimination in France and the ghettoisation of African-French groups into the suburban projects, it felt incomplete to see this brushed aside. In these moments it becomes all too apparent that what you are seeing has been written partly in consultation with and not directly by the people who have lived it.
Despite this shortcoming, Girlhood remains a powerful piece of cinema, elevating the coming-of-age genre. There’s something possessing about watching someone quest unremittingly for autonomy, finding solace in others who have been dealt a similar hand yet maintain their own individual drives throughout. It’s a non-English film which draws you entirely into its realm; the differences between the experience on screen and those of the audience are engrossed by the grand scope of the CinemaScope images, absorbed entirely into Sciamma’s kaleidoscopic vision. By no means will watching Bande de Filles transfer precisely the intricate realities of being a working-class French, black girl, and in watching it there is little sense that this is the film’s intent. However watching as someone who is fascinated by the way we construct our identities, how cultures perceive and reproduce concepts such as race and gender, and ultimately someone who is both black and a woman “coming of age,” this film impacted me with its fluid, intersectional sentiment. Like most great films it put powerful feelings into words–even if those words were not in my native tongue.