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Interview with Alice Diop about her film La Mort de Danton (Danton's Death)* by Olivier Barlet. Translated from French by Beti Ellerson for the African Women in Cinema Blog. A collaboration with Africultures
Born in France into a Senegalese family, Alice Diop studied the relationship between cinema and society before venturing into documentary filmmaking: La Tour du monde (The World’s Tower), a portrait of immigrant families, offers a different view of a neighborhood north of Paris where she grew up; Clichy pour l'exemple (Clichy as example) seeks to find the reasons for the rage that surfaced in the housing projects in 2005; Les Sénégalaises et la Sénégauloise (Senegalese women and the Sene-Gallic-ese woman) deals with the women in her Dakarois family; and the current film shows both the courageous journey and the doubts of Steve, a tall black man of a Seine St. Denis housing project, after three years of acting classes in Paris.
"Danton's Death" has been selected in many festivals and has won awards, notably the prix des bibliothèques (the library prize) at the prestigious Cinéma du reel. What do you attribute to its success?
In all modesty, I think it’s a bit of an overstatement to speak of success. But yes, I was delighted about the reception of the film, especially the award at the Cinéma du reel, which came very soon after the editing was completed. I think that many people identify with Steve’s journey, his thirst for independence, his desire to make a life for himself and to dare to imagine a possibility beyond the destiny assigned to him. I remember an older woman who came to me after a screening and said with tears in her eyes "Steve is me". I was extremely touched. She was white, she was from Picardy and she recognized in him her own complex of illegitimacy. I am very happy that this film can speak to everyone. That so many people could relate to Steve’s character was very important to me. I think this film can extend beyond the subject of discrimination against black actors in France and prejudices that affect young people from housing projects.
How did you meet Steve Tientcheu?
We grew up in the same housing project, the 3000, in Aulnay-sous-Bois, but then I left the neighborhood and only saw him again later at a wedding. I thought that he had conformed to what I imagined one would become growing up in the housing projects, but he said he was taking acting lessons at the Cours Simon. I was shocked: I realized that I was projecting the same prejudices on him that I was condemning in others! I asked him if I could attend a rehearsal, and while there I perceived a great violence in the place that was accorded him, the manner in which others viewed him. That is when I suggested to him to make a film.
"The Death of Danton" carries this title because you give Steve the opportunity to interpret, alone and in the street, the role that he dreams of but that he is denied on the stage because he is Black. Was this the main theme of the film?
It was I who asked Steve to interpret this scene, I pushed him to interpret the role of Danton. It was a way of saying "do not expect others to legitimise what you want to be."
As I said earlier, I think this film deals with more than questions about the place given to black actors in France. For me the reality is actually indicative of something much larger. The subject of my film is rather about how to escape from the confinement of the gaze of the Other, how to invent one’s own life and become the person of one’s choice, despite what others project on us, despite the place and role they assign to us. Of course with someone like Steve, a kind of a walking caricature of all the clichés that people can have about the "youth of housing projects", this question takes on a specific social and political dimension.
In the Cours Simon, Steve is alone because he elicits fear. Is it related to his living in a housing project or is it something else based on his personal characteristics? Could it be what the other students project onto him?
This film is the story of an exchange that did not happen. Most of the people in the Cours Simon have not been able to go beyond the preconceived image they had of him, because he comes from Department 93, because he is very physically imposing. In spite of himself, Steve embodies all the imagery that people have of the “scum of the housing projects”. They locked him into that role. As a defense mechanism, he in turn isolates himself. I think it is a pity because he made the effort to take the RER [Parisian inter-regional transportation] in order to get away from the confinement of the projects where he has stagnated for years, in an attempt to realize his dream of becoming an actor.
Young people like Steve are often held responsible for their social situation. When I started this film, the discourse on meritocracy was dominant. The famous guilt-inducing injunction "if we want to, we can!" was very popular. With this character, I had the opportunity to show it is not enough to want, one must also feel accepted! This is the case in a drama school but unfortunately also in many other places in French society, which is so compartmentalized.
Steve accepts the roles that he is given to play, though very stereotypical: the slave, the driver, the gangster, the activist. This is the range of roles dedicated to black men. What triggered his awareness and his decision to challenge it?
It happened during the third year. Just after he asked to play Danton and was denied, given the reason that Danton was not black. During the first two years he wanted more than anything to learn the trade. He was not aware that he was playing all the stereotypes of the black in the white imagination. I did not want to tell him, to influence his views on this experience, and since I had the opportunity to film throughout his three-year training, I hoped that he himself would become aware before the end of his apprenticeship.
Do you as a woman filmmaker also face this symbolic violence of prejudice?
Yes in some ways, though more muted I'd say, however not necessarily mal-intentioned. I have long felt that as a black filmmaker I am expected to only be interested in Africa or the housing projects. I refused to participate in a program where I was asked to discuss African cinema today. I did not feel that it was my legitimate place to talk about it. I have Senegalese origins, I go to Senegal as often as I can, but I live and work in France. I really feel strongly about not being trapped in any label. But for young filmmakers of immigrant origins like me it is sometimes difficult.
I claim the right to own any subject. If I have to talk about the housing projects in a film, it is not because I was born there but because I am connected to a story that I feel needs to be filmed. For me “Danton's Death” is not just a film about a black guy from the housing projects. What interested me is the idealistic aspect of this character.
You avoid the sociology of the housing projects, which is so prevalent on TV: Steve is rarely shown in the context of the environment in which he lives. Why this choice?
It really was a choice during the editing. I shot some scenes of him in his housing project with his friends. But during the editing we decided very quickly not to include them. They would not have provided the opportunity to go beyond the stereotypes and preconceived images of the housing projects. Steve’s friends are great; they welcomed me kindly and gave me the confidence to film them in their private lives. It was because of this trust that we decided with the editor Amrita David, not to include them. I did not have enough footage of them to really develop their characters. So to show them hanging out along the rail smoking joints did not interest us. We were not there to reinforce stereotypes but rather to dispel them!
Even so, Steve does not make any great pronouncements: he takes the abuse in silence and swallows his rage. Is this his personality or was it an editing choice?
During the editing we tried to translate the slow emergence of consciousness but also the difficulty he had in speaking to his drama teacher. It is not easy when you lack confidence and you feel socially illegitimate to confront "the oppressor", even though here it is more a kind of cultural and social domination.
The drama teacher is rather well intentioned but still a victim of his narrow-mindedness: do you see this as typical of our society?
I am sure that Steve’s teacher was not intentionally unkind to him. I just think he lacked a bit of imagination. To say that a black actor cannot play Danton because he is black, in my opinion is to deny the work that Peter Brook has been able to do or what Ariane Mnouchkine has brilliantly done. What happened to Steve in the Cours Simon is in fact a metaphor for what is happening everywhere in France, where discrimination against visible minorities is striking. Always that gaze! That gaze that imprisons, that it ascribes to a place, to a status, to a neighbourhood, to a profession!
The shooting lasted almost throughout Steve’s three years of training to the final play. How did you go about choosing the best moments?
We chose the strongest moments of his training. We tried to reflect both the emergence of his awareness, but also the effect that this symbolic violence had on him. He was very bitter in our first interview, sinking slowly into a depression, bent under the weight of all the oppression he endured. This is what happened in reality so we retained it in the film.
The film resonates as a call to cross social barriers and in doing so not be concerned with the gaze of others. Is this really possible or will Steve be an exception?
To put in context Steve’s outburst at the end of the film as he shouts in the street, "freedom, we do not claim it, we take it", I draw from this adage to assert that I no longer ask others to recognize me as a filmmaker, I have finally accepted myself as a filmmaker. It is up to us to work on our own complexes and allow ourselves the right to feel legitimate. I think we need to go beyond the posture of victim. Though I am not denying the difficulties, the many barriers to overcome for those who are not part of the dominant majority, it is necessary for us to do this work. This is the only way to combat prejudice: keep your head high. I think it could also help guard against suffering too much, because that can make you crazy!
Was Steve able to find roles after he completed his training?
Yes, he was spotted by Canal+ to play in the 2nd season of the series Braquo. Well, he plays a mobster, but I think he enjoyed it. Do not forget that his favorite actors are De Niro, Pacino, Gabin, Ventura—gangsters of great renown! But hey, Al Pacino also gets to play Tony Montana and Richard III. I hope this is the case for Steve. He has the talent, indeed!
*George Jacques Danton a leading figure of the French revolution and a great orator with an athletic build, died at the guillotine. His last words: "Do not forget to show my head to the people, it is well worth seeing".
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