With Girlhood, filmmaker Céline Sciamma has brought to the screen the delicate, joyful, beautiful coming of age story of Marieme (Karidja Toure), a black French teen girl, who is fed up with her abusive home life. She turns to a group of new friends for comfort, strength and finding her voice. It's a film that encapsulates the importance of female friendships and the strength that bond can bring.
Sciamma is no stranger to the coming of age film. Water Lilies, her 2006 debut, follows the sexual awakening of three 15-year-old friends over the course of a summer. The follow up, 2001's Tomboy, further explores her interest in youth and epiphanies, this time looking at Laure, a ten-year-old who, after moving to a new town with her family, begins introducing herself as a boy named Mikäel. Sciamma's films effortlessly combine beauty, lyricism and a naturalistic storytelling in her direction and narratives. They ache with the care she takes to her craft and the importance of honestly telling the stories of her characters.
I spoke with Sciamma about Girlhood, representations of race, costuming and Queen Rihanna.
Jezebel: What was your inspiration for writing and directing Girlhood?
Celine Sciamma: Well, it's been a journey from film to film. It's my third coming of age story. It's my third movie. When I started telling another coming of age story, this time I wanted to talk about friendship and anger and make the movie more contemporary than the previous one and make it more temporal, so you could tell when it was set. I also wanted a mix between telling a strong tale with a strong female character in the center and to make it kind of classical, the eternal struggle of frustration for a young girl. It is always the same rules—she has to face her family and the place she lives and to bring into that fiction a very contemporary character. A new face for a different youth—that was the moment behind the project.
The film feels very universal with its themes of friendship, love and coming of age. The way that you handled race and class was notable—the scene with the white shop girl who follows Marieme around the store thinking she's going to steal something was particularly powerful.
How important to you was it to make sure Marieme's story was portrayed in an honest light—one that acknowledged race and class, avoided "poverty porn" and felt that it truthfully told her story?
I really tried not to think of it as a character and world that I should study and understand. It's not another world. It's not something exotic that should feel far away. I really tried to make it intimate and to rely on the feeling of the character and to show that her journey is emblematic. I tried to make it specific and sociologically anchored. That's a good way to tell the truth, to put it in fiction. Find the right balance between a strong narrative and being accurate in the details.
It's a bit of a paradox because it's not about what you tell, but about how you tell it and how you direct it. The movie tries to psych the statistical assignation of this kind of character, and this kind of setting, actually gets. It's an art-house independent, low-budget movie—that would mean shaky camera and such. I think the fact that it's colorful, that it's comedy, that it's emotional, that it's epic—the program is not just to tell it differently but to tell it right.
I didn't try to be far away, I tried to keep with the theme of a young girl and that eternal feeling. I think what is at stake in not just the French suburb, but everywhere. It's the same rules in every girl's life, but they are very near. We are all living in a patriarchal society with these rules as girls and we feel it more or less. We pretend it doesn't exist anymore, but it always does. The theme of the film and the fiction makes that feel more strongly.
Marieme's life is defined by her relationships with other women like her friends, her sister, and the woman she lives with later in the film. Was that a purposeful choice, that her life is defined by these women and the three parts they represent in the film?
Yeah, I really wanted to talk about sorority and the group. The group can often be fine with uniformity and that influence. The group can help you get a voice and find out who you are. The friendship between women was something that I wanted to depict and to unfold. It's about empowerment and feeling stronger together, but it's also about tenderness and becoming a woman but also portraying childhood. They can look like divas and then a moment after are children jumping on beds. I wanted to show all this contrast. I wanted the movie to be built around that friendship but also convey that feeling and build empathy for the friendship others have for the character.
You just mentioned the idea of the friendship group, and speaking to that, the costuming really stood out. Specifically, when they are on the train and you see how all the other groups echo the way Marieme and Lady are dressed. What they wear mimics each other in their prescribed roles in the group.
Yes, I'm the costume designer for my films. The narrative relies a lot on the costumes. She tries out identities as she tries different costumes. It's like a superhero journey—she learns what power the costume gives her.
It's all so interesting—from the group costuming, to Marieme's own changes in the first part of the film when she is shy and reserved, to when she starts dressing more like Lady and then her drastic costume shift towards the end of the film.
The different costumes tell about the different identities. The movies is built around the costume changes. There is a blackout in the film. The 12 seconds of black screen is for the audience to have an appetite for the new outfits for the character. The film really relies on that. During the process of building the characters and building my relationship with my actresses, the costumes were very important, and that is why I do it myself. It's a way to begin looking at my cast and start to build a relationship and building the character through. When I rehearsed before the shooting, Karidja [Touré, who plays Marieme] would try on different outfits and she would find the right walk with the right attitude and it would help her perform and think about the different identities of her character.
One scene that I love so much was when they lip sync Rihanna's "Diamonds" in the hotel room. That scene really encapsulates the beauty and importance of the film—it's so joyful and illuminates their friendship. Could you talk about the inspiration for that scene? Was the song always supposed to be "Diamonds?"
The scene was in the first draft of the script, and it was Rihanna's "Diamonds" when I was writing it. I fell in love with the song and I thought it would be perfect for the scene. The lyrics in the mouths of my characters resonate very differently. It is about friendship, empowerment and how beautiful we can be together. That scene is really important to me and it is a turning point in the film and for the audience. After that scene, they love the character and are a part of the team. I wanted to put the whole song in the film, not just clips, because it's so much stronger like this. It is about how a friendship is born and to look at the birth of a friendship through the choreography. It's about Marieme watching the others being together with this beautiful energy and being synchronized and wanting to get there. Going from spectator to a partner and being in the center of the group and suddenly getting a voice because they are together. It's a strong narrative moment.
It was difficult to actually get Rihanna's song, but we decided to be brave and try. We called the record company and it was quite easy to get a deal within our budget... but when we went to the editing room, we realized we didn't have the rights because we needed Rihanna's consent. So, that was tragic and I thought we might not get it. We sent the scene to Rihanna and her management and the scene won. They told me the scene is beautiful and we are going to make an exception because we don't usually give it away without a ton of money. They didn't give it for free obviously, but the scene won which means a lot.
Do you think Rihanna's seen the film?
Well, she has a screener. I hope she will see it. The actresses are just waiting for it. Spying on Twitter to see if she talks about it.
Marieme finding her own power is so important in the film. One scene in particular that shows that is when she decides that she wants to have sex with her boyfriend. You see it from her point of view and gazing upon him in a way that owned her sexuality, which you don't often see teen girls having the opportunity to do.
It's all a matter of representation. Obviously, girls like boys and they look at them and want them. In fiction, we can be shy with that—actually showing a woman wanting something. It's always been the opposite. I didn't inverse it as a figment, I was trying to be true to my character's urge. Of course, I was aware that I was doing the opposite of the way it's expected. We are always in a gaze and sticking to a point of view. I felt that scene had to be like that too. Explaining the dynamic of what she wants. The fact that you see for once the bottom of a guy instead of the bottom of a girl is something I wanted to do. Plus, it's a beautiful ass.
It is a very nice ass, that's for sure. All of your work centers on coming of age stories of teen girls. Why do you think you are attracted to these stories?
The thing I will say is that Girlhood is the last one—the last coming of age story. People are talking about the three films like a trilogy. I didn't come up with that idea, it wasn't a plan to make a trilogy, but I think it is now.
I was 26 when I made my first film and I wanted to talk about youth. Also, it's a way to stay free when you are a new director. Stay in control and independent. You don't rely on the system and you aren't accountable, which gives you the time to figure out what kind of director you want to be. I think I will try something new for the next one—still with a strong female character in the center. Still talking about identity, I think. Still about the margin. But, in a very different way. I want to work with new actors and actresses. Maybe do a horror movie.
Kerensa Cadenas is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She's written for Women and Hollywood, The Week, The Hairpin and Bitch media. Follow her for tweets about ladies doing cool shit, weeping during TV shows and eating weird snacks.
Girlhood is now showing in the US in limited release.
Image via Hold up Films & Lilies Films.