Houda Benyamina On Divines And How To Integrate Social Issues Into Film

Emma Jones

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Image: Divines

Divines is the teenage girl buddy movie the world has been waiting for. Dounia and Maimounia, living in the banlieues of Paris, have their aspirations capped by the tower blocks around them. With swagger and a certain panache, they carry off supermarket stealing using a burka for cover, until Dounia’s aspiration for a champagne lifestyle – or any lifestyle away from hers – leads her to the door of a local gang leader, Rebecca.

Fortunately, when Divines was shown at Cannes a few months ago, the world scooped it up and embraced it, giving first-time director Houda Benyamina the Camera D’Or for an outstanding debut, and the whole cast a ten minute standing ovation. It was, the young lead actresses Oulaya Amamra and Deborah Lukumuena recall, “really very odd to be stopped and hugged by complete strangers, who were sobbing about us.”

But don’t think Divines, despite its grim background, is a complete tragedy. The characters – small, angry Dounia and larger, dry-witted Maimounia – were modelled on Laurel and Hardy. Their often comic friendship is the core of the film, the real gold underneath the characters’ relentless quest for bling. And it’s no wonder that their creator Houda understands them so well, having come close to living that life.

“Life is a battle of the soul. Dounia is battling for hers. Like me, growing up, I was always on the fringes of society, I was rejected from the school system, but then I had the chance to discover art. And that gave me opportunity.”

“Life is a battle,” she announces, a formidable ball of energy herself not dissimilar to Dounia. “Or perhaps it’s truer to say that life is a battle of the soul. Dounia is battling for hers. Like me, growing up, I was always on the fringes of society, I was rejected from the school system, but then I had the chance to discover art. And that gave me opportunity.”

Born to French-Arab immigrant parents, she recalls the riots in the banlieues in 2005, when for weeks angry youths burned cars and rioted. She was twenty five and in acting school – “which saved my life,” she points out, several times. “I could have joined in, but I didn’t.”

That upbringing has made Houda Benyamina a self-taught film director with a desire to make films, she says, that talk about social justice.

“The problem in the banlieues isn’t money or drugs. Beliefs and a lack of self-esteem and anger drive my characters. These young people try and overcome the anger and humiliation they live though, but the only tools they have to come out of it is what society offers.

“I think now as well there is a real political will to keep people where they are. I am really questioning how we can overcome this – I mean, why do the poor stay poor?”

As well as filming within the banlieues, she selected most of her cast, including Deborah, from a non-profit acting community group she works with in Paris. Dounia was harder – because it was Houda’s own younger sister, Oulaya, begging for the role.

“Technically she was perfect, because she had been trained to act by me, but she was completely wrong for it – she went to a nice Catholic school, she did swimming and ballet,” she relates, shaking her head.

“So I changed myself,” adds Oulaya. “I got myself expelled from school, changed my entire look, and took up boxing and fighting. I was desperate for this part and eventually, after months, I convinced her I could do it.”

The ‘masculinization’ of women in ghettos has already been documented in a previous Cannes winner, Bande des Filles (Girlhood). Certainly there’s pleasure in the moment in Divines when the all-powerful Rebecca taps her male totty on the tush as she rolls him out of the door, but Houda argues against it being powerful role reversal.

“Grace and beauty can be incarnated in a man, and women can be as tough and as violent as a man,” she explains, adding the character of Rebecca “is based on a real woman. I haven’t dealt drugs myself but I paint reality as I see it.

“I find it surprising that people are surprised by these female characters,” she shrugs, “but bear in mind stories, and history, have mostly been told by men. They give us stereotypes that aren’t reflected in reality.”

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Image: Houda Benyamina

“I find it surprising that people are surprised by these female characters,” she shrugs, “but bear in mind stories, and history, have mostly been told by men. They give us stereotypes that aren’t reflected in reality.”

In return, Divines gives us the phrase “you’ve got clit”, which the director adopted after refusing to accept being told “that I have balls,” she snorts.  Since the film has been bought by Netflix worldwide, those words alone could pass into popular vocabulary. But to reduce the film to a catchphrase would do it injustice –as the girls glide along in their imaginary sports car, repeating Little Wayne’s adage ‘Money, money, money!’ Divines is never more sublime or more spiritual – which is what the director intended.

“I basically want to achieve things and to give everyone else a chance to succeed with me. I wanted to give these young people a chance at life. I had something to say – I feel very strongly that injustice and spirituality will be at the heart of every film I make.”

Divines will be released worldwide on Netflix (excluding France) on November 18, 2016

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