Representation and Girlhood

French director Celine Sciamma’s latest movie, Girlhood opened on Jan 30 to rave reviews and has made its way to select theatres in Toronto. The film is being heralded for showing a true and nuanced depiction of life for young women of colour in the poor banlieue suburbs of France.

All the acclaim and accolades received prove, that at least in the film world, you don’t have to walk a mile in someone’s shoes to truly understand them.

The film centers on Marieme, a young black woman and her integration into a new circle of female friends. Her fictional story, spearheaded by Sciamma, has gained critical attention for being both refreshing and more accurate, a grittier portrayal.

Yet, we must remember that this is still a fictional story.

Fictional representation does not directly translate into accurate representation. Behind every story is the storyteller, the master of the plot, the person who is driving the narrative and building the world with which it surrounds.

It’s baffling that critics and films goers alike believe a two-hour cinematic experience equates to a comprehensive understanding of a life, especially when told through a lens of an extremely privileged individual.

Sciamma is a white, financially stable women who grew up far away from the life she is attempting to depict. Shot for shot, every aspect of this film is filtered through her personal ideas of blackness and femininity.

Her glorification of young black women for their natural rhythm and ‘sassy’ attitudes is only exacerbated by her use of clichéd and stereotypical plot devices. On the whole, the reality Sciamma is portraying is not universal but very much her own.

Now, this would be a different story if Sciamma presented the film as her fictitious fantasy but throughout countless interviews and press junkets she has emphasized her unrelenting desire to show a different, truer depiction of banlieue life, a depiction that doesn’t revolve around violence, drugs and gangs, but around community and the bonds that tie people together.

Since French black culture remains a mystery to most of the world. The representations of French black people that are available shape the public consciousness. Girlhood is one of the most publicized films about this sub-culture, therefore it holds the power to reshape society’s understanding.

When depicting a group that is often underrepresented in the mainstream it is imperative to act with caution. Whatever the work expresses to the world will be ingested by the collective psyche and embedded into the narrative of that group.

It becomes the responsibility of anyone who welds this creative power to act thoughtfully and caringly. What they create has the power to positively and negatively change current ideas.

Girlhood is potentially harmful because it is hidden under the guise of being better, but in the end subscribing to the same notions and ideas that reaffirm biased truths. It lulls viewers with its innovative use of sync music and unstructured scenes. Yet cut through the superficial changes and there lies the same core messages of poverty, blackness and femininity.

Progress isn’t made by just showing different faces on the screen. True change happens when those faces are allowed to act in ways outside of societal expectations. There is more than one type of story within each sub-group. Without acknowledging that fact society is doomed to make the same mistakes and reward change where there is none.

But go see the film if you have a chance, it is still important to support representation that diverges from the norm, just make sure you watch it with a critical lens

For those who say the film what are your thoughts?

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