Director Houda Benyamina on ‘Divines’
In French director Houda Benyamina’s feature-length debut Divines, Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) are schoolfriends who turn to a life of crime in a bid to escape the banlieues. With their physical comedy and contrasting little-and-large builds, Dounia and Maimouna have been described by Benyamina as her very own Laurel and Hardy. But an even more accurate comparison might be Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets (1973), both in the way their respective straight man and comic relief relationship plays out, and in the pathos and melodrama at the core of their friendship.
The self-schooled director, who was previously an acting coach at the workshop she founded in 2006 (1000 Visages), received the Camera d’Or for best first feature at Cannes this year. Inspired by the restless energy that fuelled the Paris riots in 2005 and touched by a documentary she once saw that featured two female prison inmates dancing in front of the police, Benyamina decided to channel the disillusionment and dissent of the city’s underclass into a restless story of personal protest. An often gritty urban drama, Divines may invite comparison with recent banlieue-set films like Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014) or Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995), but Benyamina’s film, with its tough-talking heroines and fiery climax, is unabashedly populist in tone.
You’ve said Laurel and Hardy inspired the characters. Were there any other influences?
When I was a child my best friend looked physically a bit like Maimouna’s character. We often messed about and found ourselves in quite funny burlesque situations, so I wanted to recreate that.
Does that mean you were like Dounia when you were younger?
When I was younger – I mean, I still do – I felt like a bit of an outsider, which fed into feelings of injustice, of rebellion, of wanting to assert myself. The need for recognition and acceptance is where I recognise myself in Dounia’s character. Dounia doesn’t want to just exist in the world; she wants to be looked at. She’s also a character who looks at men.
Was the female gaze something you actively tried to explore?
That’s exactly something I wanted to show. Grace and sensuality are things that men have as much as women – and women can express desire and sexuality in the same way men can.
How did you come up with the scene that sees the girls drive an imaginary Ferrari?
The way I develop a story is an ongoing back and forth between script and performance. For the Ferrari scene and the scene where they all shout, ‘Money money money’ – that’s all inspired by my little brother, who told me a dream he had. It made me think that that’s what young people these days dream about. I love Ken Loach, but I didn’t really want to go for social realism. I wanted to inject a bit of magic.
How did you find the two lead actresses and build the chemistry between them?
Oulaya [Amamra] is actually my little sister. I didn’t really want her to play this part because I didn’t feel she was right for the role because she had a very different upbringing to me. We put her in a private Catholic school and she did ballet… She’s very feminine, very sensitive and she didn’t have this tough exterior that Dounia should have. But she really proved herself; she took up boxing, she became quite insolent, she was expelled from her school! She increasingly embodied Dounia’s character. Also, I trained her as an actress when she was young – I used to teach theatre, so [I knew] she was technically skilled.
The actors were immersed in the universe that they were made to act in. They slept in a Roma camp, they took up boxing and I made them spend a lot of time together, playing with mobile phones and filming each other, so they developed this natural friendship in the end.
Why did you choose to include mobile phone footage in the opening credits?
The phones embody how young people communicate today; the way they use Snapchat stories to document and stage their own lives – they’re actors in their own lives. I liked using this device to show the way she falls in act three – aesthetically it was the right thing to do.
From Dounia’s Taxi Driver imitation to the scene where her body is covered in cash, there are several nods to Scorsese. What were some of your other cinematic reference points?
My references are from across the world and across the board. Some of my inspiration comes from filmmakers like Ettore Scola, [Pier Paolo] Pasolini, [Jean-Pierre] Melville, and you’re right about the references to Scorsese. His particular interest in the power of money and the power of the sacred [is something] I really identify with.
This film is being distributed through Netflix. Do you think it’s still important to show films in the cinema?
When I first heard the Netflix offer I thought, ‘Right, my film’s not going to be screened in cinemas,’ and for me that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. But then I realised what it actually meant to have a film in cinemas, in the jungle that is the world of cinema distribution, where if you don’t have enough entries, enough seats booked, they close you down after two weeks. What the Netflix deal has allowed is for this film to be distributed in 130 countries to 83 million people, and no distributor would’ve been able to do that. I’m not a snob; I really want the film to be seen. And what Netflix has allowed is a real democratisation of film. It’s made it accessible, especially to young people who only really watch their films on tablets or on their phones. And also cinema tends to be quite expensive – I feel it gives people the opportunity to see these films.
Interview by Simran Hans, Sight & Sound, December 2016
Director: Houda Benyamina
Production Company: Easy Tiger
Executive Producer: Funa Maduka
Producer: Marc-Benoît Créancier
Casting: Pierre-François Créancier, Sandra Durando
Screenplay: Houda Benyamina, Romain Compingt, Malik Rumeau
Director of Photography: Julien Poupard
Editors: Loïc Lallemand, Vincent Tricon
Art Director: Marion Burger
Costume Designer: Alice Cambournac
Music Supervisor: Martin Caraux
Oulaya Amamra (Dounia)
Déborah Lukumuena (Maimouna)
Kevin Mishel (Djigui)
Jisca Kalvanda (Rebecca)
Yasin Houicha (Samir)
Majdouline Idriss (Myriam)
Bass Dhem (Mr Camara)
Mounir Margoum (Cassandra)
Farid Larbi (Reda)
Mariama Soumaré (Mrs Camara)
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