Franco-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche demonstrates, that beyond Saartjie Baartman's history, racism is more than ever a part of everyday life.
Jeune Afrique: How did you get the idea for this film?
Abdellatif Kechiche: I discovered the character by chance a while ago. In particular, when I was working on my film L’Esquive, I read an essay on Diderot by Elisabeth de Fontenay, referring to the horrendous fate of Saartjie Baartman, calling upon her readers to seize her remains still on public display and bury them in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery. The idea of making a film came later in 2000 when I heard about the case, which provoked a debate in the National Assembly in Paris, that in 1994 Mandela had addressed François Mitterrand demanding the return of her body to South Africa.
Until now, you have been more interested in contemporary histories, related mostly to North African emigration to France and which directly affect you. What brought about your interest in Saartjie Baartman?
It was the extraordinary thing about her fate that first caught my attention. Everything this woman had lived--exhibited like a savage--seemed incredible. And it was equally amazing that this story has actually lasted for two hundred years. I did not ask myself whether this was related to my own journey, my own origins. Moreover, what impressed me most is that moment just after the death of Saartjie Baartman, where a man, a prominent scientist, anatomist Cuvier, tore away her organs, including her genitals, which she had refused to show him when still alive, in order to examine them and put them in jars for preservation. I saw an act of revenge and barbaric rape, perhaps the most barbaric in History. That it happened post-mortem does not change anything. I do not blame Cuvier as a person for being barbaric, but I wondered how a man could commit such an act.
Despite its historical aspect, does Vénus noire speak as much about today's realities as your previous films?
Sadly, racism is more than ever part of our daily lives in France. It has reached a very alarming level. More than it was ten or fifteen years ago. And most importantly, and this is new since the early 2000s, it is present in political discourse in a way reminiscent of Cuvier, with arguments that are similar. Resulting sometimes in action, as demonstrated recently by the expulsion of the Roma. A terrible shock for me; I never imagined that in France we would see such extremes, to reject people, to prevent them from breathing the same air as we do, only because they do not live as we would want them to, and what is more, with a large percentage of the public finding it legitimate.
Is the film's purpose to fight against this?
I think it is unhealthy to hide, to repress one's own history. And, with respect to that of Saartjie Baartman, one may wonder about the total neglect for so long of such a prominent and symbolic figure. For me, her history has at least as much interest as that of--though in a vague way--Joan of Arc, or even Napoleon. It is also important to the country's heritage. The first time that I saw her face, while looking at enlarged photos of the cast of her body, I saw a living face. Expressing all the pain of humanity, but also the compassion we may feel for humanity. This forced me to question myself on the finitude of existence, the nature of humanity, the mystery of life, of the soul. And that questioning continues.
You have fallen in love with this character?
The word is perhaps not the best one, but I would say yes. I was struck by her demeanor, by her mystery, by her physique even. I immediately wanted to hold her tight in my arms, in a spirit of brotherhood. Never ceasing to wonder if there was any meaning in all this suffering. Physical suffering, no doubt, but also that which is caused by loneliness and, above all, the gaze of the other focused upon her. Saartjie Baartman is like those movie stars that are worshipped but who often live unhappily. What comes out of her body is bright. And she still shines like the glitter in the sky of the stars that have died long ago. It's that image that I keep of her and that I want others to see.
This is your first costume drama. Was the historical reconstitution necessary?
No, I did not privilege the historical aspect, the expensive sets. Even though it was important, of course, to keep things realistic. I focused primarily on shooting faces, on close-ups. Moreover, we do not know the whole story of Saartjie Baartman, or her psychology. I had to speculate, similar to a police investigation. The show she played in (twenty times a day, ten hours straight!) or the trial in England, brought about by a company that wanted to defend her dignity, are well documented, as what happened (and what that she refused to do) during the three days she spent with the scientists accompanying Cuvier. From these elements, I wanted the viewer to wonder--as I did--not to have the story already digested in order to comfortably watch it. It would have been disrespectful to attribute feelings or acts to Saartjie Baartman that are in fact unknown. So I conserved as much as possible the mystery around her. In order not to betray her, in order not to add a rape to all that she suffered.
Your film is about the gaze: that of Europe onto Africans, but also that of the spectators of Vénus noire on the life of Saartjie Baartman. Which of these gazes were more important to you?
A film about the gaze? Definitely. What interested me, above all, is the oppression of the eye. It is an organ, so to speak, which has the power to condition someone's life. Of the one who is watched, but also of the beholder. There is the gaze that imprisons, that paralyzes, that loves. And the collective gaze, that of the spectators watching in the same direction. It is exciting to explore that.
Most of the time in the film, what is shown is the gaze of those who see the spectacles but are not fooled by it. Those who do not actually watch this woman, such as Cuvier, are the ones with a political view, because they need this character regarded as the missing link between humans and monkeys, to serve their racist theories. This is obviously the worst of gazes. As it is the one that gave its tragic dimension to the fate of Saartjie Baartman.
Your film forces the audience watching this disturbing spectacle in the position of voyeur during sequences that last a long time, making them more than uncomfortable. Was that your intention?
I did not want to make a nice film, proposing a melodrama that would require identification with the character. Usually, one tries to seduce the viewer, consciously or not. To give him/her pleasure, to entertain. The story of this character does not lend itself to that. To treat it that way would have been indecent. So I preferred rather to disturb the viewer. Resisting as much as possible the temptation of seduction. The viewer’s unease is mine as well. And if there is voyeurism, it is caused by a character who also has an erotic dimension, which I did not want to hide. Even in its degradation, the character retains a beauty and sensuality that I wanted to show.
You made a disturbing film. But perhaps also very "politically correct"...
That does not shock me to hear that. And if the film is politically correct, that’s fine. But I do not think so. I think to the contrary that it questions political correctness. It requires the viewer, for instance, who, like almost everyone believes they cannot be racist, in watching the movie, to question this certainty.