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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Houda Benyamina tells a visceral and personal story with Divines at Cannes

Set on a housing estate on the edge of Paris, the film features a tour-de-force performance from newcomer Oulaya Amamra, whose character is based on the director's own experiences.

Divines is one of the best young-adult films to come out of France in recent years.

Set on a housing estate on the edge of Paris, the film features a tour-de-force performance from newcomer Oulaya Amamra, who plays Dounia, a teenager hungry to get ahead in life.

It touches upon many of the traditional themes of young-adult films about second-generation kids – including drugs and religion – but turns convention on its head to deliver a fun tale about friendship and opportunity, with some great dancing thrown in for good measure.

In a rave review, Variety described the film as a “funny, often suspenseful and always emotionally involving drama”.

It was made by first-time director Houda Benyamina, who originally presented the script at the Dubai Film Connection in 2013. Three years later, the film had its debut in the Directors’ Fortnight section at Cannes.

We spoke to her about the film and its inspiration.

Where did the idea for Divines originate?

It came after the trouble of 2005 in Paris [when protests and riots broke out in the French capital and other cities]. I always wondered why there was such an ire? A bit like the Arab Spring – why did the youth feel humiliated? Then there was a documentary that I saw, which showed little girls dancing African dances in front of the police, and I thought, I could have been one of those girls.

In what way?

At school I was very violent. I had bad grades. I thought that cinema is a useful way to ask questions in society. I wanted to highlight all these characters who are at the edge of society and I wanted to talk about these poor people.

Are these people being ignored?

In France, we are supposed to be the country of human rights. We are giving lessons to everybody else, whereas there is a lot of misery and poverty in France. I wanted to have a political background [to the film], but only as a background.

What was your main focus? The friendship? The dancing? The crime?

I wanted to have a story of two best friends. Dounia is ready to do anything for her best friend, Maimouna. She has a need and recognition for power. It’s not just men who need power – it’s women as well. It has been said that Divines is a feminist film – I would say it’s a humanist film. It’s a bit like an inner tragedy. It’s a bit operatic – these are warrior women. It’s about that girl who wants to get to the top.

Is Dounia based on yourself?

Yes, but there is a bit of myself in all the characters. Dounia is a character who resembles me when I was 14 to 16 years old. I was humiliated, I was left at the side of society. I had a standing ovation at the screening in Cannes and I was touched, because I felt all these people standing in front of me, when everyone had turned their backs on me at school. I also resembled Rebecca in my contradictions, in my needs.

How did you discover Oulaya Amamra, who is incredible as Dounia?

She is my little sister. She was my first pupil in my theatre workshops when I was running that in Cannes. I was very tough on her because she was my sister, I didn’t want her to have special attention. But she is wonderful and I think that she is an actress just as good as Robert De Niro and people like that.

They say that you should not work with children or animals …

What is difficult is to preserve them and treat them humanly, because I was trying to get things that were deep within them.

How did you discover film?

I found cinema thanks to a supervisor at school. I was very violent. Once, I gave him a haircut and he wanted to pay me. I refused, so he gave me Medea – the version directed by Pasolini, with Maria Callas – and that really changed my life. Because when I discovered Pasolini’s cinema, I realised that cinema is the most complete form of art – it’s reconciliation between painting, music and theatre and I wanted to do what Pasolini was doing.

Is your film is driven by a sense of injustice?

That anger, my anger, I have to use it. When I lose that feeling of injustice and unfairness, I can stop doing my job. Everything has to rise from that feeling of injustice. Just like with my characters.

artslife@thenational.ae