The purpose of the African Women in Cinema Blog is to provide a space to discuss diverse topics relating to African women in cinema--filmmakers, actors, producers, and all film professionals. The blog is a public forum of the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema.

Le Blog sur les femmes africaines dans le cinéma est un espace pour l'échange d'informations concernant les réalisatrices, comédiennes, productrices, critiques et toutes professionnelles dans ce domaine. Ceci sert de forum public du Centre pour l'étude et la recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinémas.

07 November 2010

Yahima Torres talks about her role as Sarah Baartman in the film by Abdellatif Kechiche - Interview by Pamela Messi

Photo: Unifrance
Interview by Pamela Messi from Il était une fois le cinéma webzine. Photo: Unifrance

French to English translation by Beti Ellerson

Energetic, fiery, confident... Cuban actress Yahima Torres, the revelation of Vénus noire is light years away from the withdrawn woman-object discovered in the film by Abdellatif Kechiche. A meeting with a newcomer who has found her calling.

Your meeting with Abdel Kechiche in a Parisian cafe: myth or reality?

It's true! I was walking down the street in Belleville, where I live, and he approached me. In fact, it was his assistant who called out to me and spoke to me because Abdul is not the type to approach a girl on the street as the director looking for someone to play in his film. At the time, he was preparing The Secret of the Grain, but he already had in mind the story of Sarah Baartman. He said he was seized by my presence ... I had left Havana shortly before, and I was teaching Spanish until I found something better. Then we lost contact with each other. Then we crossed paths again by chance in the same place in 2008. He had begun the casting of Vénus noire but had not found anyone for the role of Sarah...

You seem very outgoing, the opposite of your character who is almost mute...

Obviously I'm outgoing I'm Cuban! During the nine months before filming, I gained 13 kilos (28.6 lbs). I took courses in Afrikaans, theater, dance, singing and violin. I learned to hide my Cuban accent and to control my breathing through the stomach, in order to give Sarah a deeper voice and to be able to handle the very strenuous dance scenes... And in the end, I shaved my head. I never worried about the physical transformation: for such a role, I was ready for anything.

Sarah is constantly humiliated by her "boss" and by the public ... How did you deal with these scenes? Wasn’t it a bit violent for a first role?

I managed because of Abdel who was very protective throughout the shooting. Without him, I would have felt embarrassed during these terrible scenes where Sarah is being touched by strangers. But he made sure that I did not feel uncomfortable, by choosing actors and a crew who always supported me. But I admit that it was a very tough film shoot. Afterwards, I felt completely drained. Fortunately, I had anticipated this and had already made a reservation for a flight to Cuba, in order to be with my family and to take in everything that had happened.

At the press conference in Venice, Abdellatif Kechiche clearly emphasized the political dimension of his film, drawing a parallel between his film, a story of class, contempt and prejudice, and the eviction of the Roma in France. What are your reflections on this?

I prefer to concentrate on the artistic dimension of the film, although I am happy that he brought a humanist message, reminding the world what not to do. For me, Sarah is above all a gifted and generous artist, a modern woman who left Africa for Europe alone, at a time when this was not done and then to experience the worst pain for a woman, the lost of her children. I respect her very much. I know very well what it is like to leave one’s country in the hope of improving one’s life, even though in my case, I had the good fortune to be well-received by France.

Will we see you again on the big screen?

I hope so! I do not have an agent yet but a few people seem interested. I do not know yet what kind of role I want. On the one hand, I want to do something totally different from this one. After playing a character so powerful, it's hard to move on to something else... I think I always wanted to do this kind of work but I had not admitted it to myself. When I was very young I was already singing and dancing all the time. Thanks to Abdel, I found my calling.

Also see: Vénus noire by Abdellatif Kechiche