Entertainment & Arts

Could Girlhood change the face of modern French cinema?

Karidja Toure with Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh and Marietou Toure in Girlhood Image copyright StudioCanal
Image caption Girlhood tells of a Parisian teenager who befriends three other young girls

The director and lead actress of a film about female teenagers that has been an award-winning hit across the Channel say they hope it will pave the way for more French films about young black women.

From the moment it premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival, Bande de Filles, or Girlhood, was a homegrown hit.

The film - "a work of cinematic art" according to The Guardian - made more than £1m (1,346 euros) at the French box office, was nominated for four prestigious Cesar awards and secured an international film release.

Girlhood is the story of a black teenager, Marieme, who lives in the vast banlieues, or suburbs, of Paris. With a dead-end future in front of her, she forms a relationship with a group of other young girls.

None of its leads, including Parisienne Karidja Toure who plays Marieme, had ever acted before - a consequence, says director Celine Sciamma, of her not being able to find enough professional black actresses for the roles.

"We were looking for four months," she recalls, "with a casting director and two assistants. We basically went everywhere.

"We went to agencies, but there were very few black girls. And then we went in to theatre classes and high schools, but we met most of our cast randomly on the street.

Image copyright StudioCanal
Image caption Karidja Toure had never acted before landing the lead role of Marieme

"We had to invent a group, with its alchemy and energy. But we also needed girls with wit, who were able to improvise, because some of the scenes required it.

"All the girls are non-professionals, whereas all the boys had already been on screen. That says something about the representation of black women in cinema."

Toure, 21, was asked to audition as she sat outside a restaurant in Paris's 14th arrondissement. "At first I thought the casting process was a little strange," she admits.

"But there aren't many black actresses in Paris, so they had to do it that way. You know, black teenagers in Paris, boys and girls, don't watch French movies.

"When you watch French films, you don't see many black characters. So we boycott them, and watch American movies instead.

"During the casting there were around 300 girls, who all have dreams about being actresses. But I guess we don't really believe we can do it, because we don't see many others doing it."

Like Richard Linklater's Oscar-winning Boyhood, Girlhood is a coming-of-age movie. The circumstances, though, are vastly different.

Sciamma grew up in the Paris suburbs herself and says she was writing "from the things I know - that there are people who have such energy, but they are not given a vision of who they should be."

Image copyright StudioCanal
Image caption Girlhood was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival last May

Told by her teacher to stop studying and get a job, Marieme plays truant with her new group of friends and becomes a gang fighter. Soon, footage of her beating up other girls is filmed and put on to social media.

"It's very true to life," says Toure. "If you know the suburbs, you know you have the same gangs, the same fights - every French teenager can relate to it.

"Even when I read the script, there were similarities to my life. I've been followed in stores by shop security guards who are told to do it just because I am black.

"My own teacher told me not to bother continuing to study, but to go and get a job."

"I wanted to make a contemporary film," explains Sciamma, "and this is an important part of contemporary culture in France.

"The situation is defined by our history with France's former colonies, France's urban policies, even France's architectural choices with the housing estates that make up the banlieues.

"It's a very French setting with an universal plot, which is why I think it's being seen by an international audience."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Celine Sciamma previously directed Water Lilies (2007) and Tomboy (2011)

Girlhood earned Sciamma a Cesar nomination for best director, while Toure was nominated as most promising actress.

"I was only the second black actress to be nominated for a Cesar in France," she points out. "I think this has to have an impact on the film industry."

"Girlhood is statistically and symbolically a step," Sciamma goes on. "It can change something because it did well at the box office. It shows that there is an audience and an interest for black characters.

"The film allowed the faces of four young black women to be everywhere in the street of Paris, on billboards, in the subway. I hope it means more stories are on the way."

Toure has gone back to study but hopes to continue acting. "Lupita Nyong'o is my inspiration," she says. "I think perhaps her breakthrough in 12 Years a Slave was the British having their own Girlhood moment.

"I love her performances, but most of all she's a very dark black woman and she's proud of her colour. That's what I want."

Girlhood is out in the UK and Ireland on 8 May.

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