Jess Commons | Deputy Editor | Wednesday, 6 May 2015

\\\'It\\\'s Hard To Be Followed Just Because We Are Black\\\' Meet The Girl Behind New Film Girlhood

'It's Hard To Be Followed Just Because We Are Black' Meet The Girl Behind New Film Girlhood

The Debrief: The star and director of the coming of age film that everyone's talking about chat to The Debrief

Not sure what to do this weekend? If you find yourself anywhere near a cinema, make sure you get yourself down there sharpish to take in Girlhood, the French coming-of-age film that’s got everybody talking.

The film’s star is Marieme, a quiet, studious 16-year-old with a difficult home life from a Paris banlieue (suburb). One day, after a shitty encounter with a less-than-helpful teacher at school, Marieme falls in with a wayward group of girls headed up by the fearsome ‘Lady’ who, between them, set into motion the events that take Marieme (renamed ‘Vic’ by Lady) from girlhood to womanhood.

‘My character is a normal teenager who doesn’t know what to do with her life,’ Karidja Touré, the 21-year-old actress who plays Vic, told us when we caught up with her last week. ‘When she meets the girls she really starts to find her new life and finds herself and her identity.’

Karidja is SO beautiful. Tall, with long, long hair and a childish awkwardness, she claims not to be very good at English before answering all of my questions in a near-perfect tongue that puts my pitiful French vocabulary to shame.

‘I saw a lot of girls,’ says Céline Sciamma, the film’s director. ‘Karidja was, I felt, my only choice. I was so lucky to find her.’

Alongside Karidja though, are the rest of the gang. Assa Sylla plays Lady and Lindsay Karamoh and Marietou Toure (the other two members of the ‘gang’) make the perfect addition to Karidja’s performance. They seem to form a friendship that’s so strong, it’s hard to believe it’s been manufactured for the screen.

‘To make a group with strong individualities but with this chemistry between them? It was challenging!’ Céline admits.

The friendships in the film are those super-intense kinds that, unless you’ve been a teenage girl, probably make no sense at all. There’s a scene where all four of the girls get dressed up and dance to Rihanna’s Diamonds, which takes the girls from being deprived teenagers to being any girl (including yourself) that’s ever danced along to a pop song with their friends.

‘It was really natural because we were always putting on music and singing and dancing. I think everyone can relate to this. We all have a group of girls or best friend with who we can say everything we want, share our life with, have fun singing, going crazy… It was my perfect part,’ says Karidja.

While the central female friendships are heartening, the backdrop that the film’s set against is anything but. Girlhood finds its home in the low-income banlieues on the outskirts of Paris (there are plenty of affluent ones too) that are populated with HLM, France’s social housing.

‘These projects that were built in the 1950s and 1960s and were meant to be a kind of utopia. Sadly, they became, not ghettos, but deprived areas,’ says Céline.

Karidja herself isn’t from the banlieues but it wasn’t hard for her to get into the mindset of Marieme and her friends. Marieme lives in a small apartment with her abusive older brother and two younger sisters. Her mum, who works unsocial hours as a cleaner, is rarely around.

Fighting, gangs, racism and drug dealing is an everyday occurrence right on her doorstep. ‘I have some cousins and some friends who live in the banlieues and we know what’s happening there,’ says Karidja. ‘Maybe white people don’t know but when you are black you know.’

There’s a scene in the film where the girls head into a shop and are followed around by the white shop assistant, something that Karidja says happens all too often in her daily life. ‘Maybe even two weeks ago, I was in a shop and the security started to follow us. I don’t really care but my friends were very hurt, it’s hard to be followed round the shop just because we are black. I was happy that Céline put that in her film so everybody will know about it.’

The film is the first French film to feature female black leads, something that was really important to Karidja. ‘For a girl my age, there is nobody, really nobody. It was very exciting to take the Metro and to see a poster with four black people on it. For Céline it was a way to open the way, to show that if you are black or white you can act – it’s the talent, it’s not the colour of the skin.’

Céline agrees that the film industry is behind in the representation of black people. ‘I think it is systemic; it has to do with the fact that black writers, black screenwriters, black directors are not allowed to tell their own story. It’s systemic racism that only allows room for certain people to speak up.’

Karidja’s hoping the film makes way for improvement. ‘I think it will help. I remember when I was little my teacher didn’t want me to pursue my studies and when I found out I’d get to do that same scene in the film, I was really happy and I was like, “I hope that teacher will see this film”. It’s real and we have to change it.’

To help engage audiences who have very different life experiences than Marieme and her friends, Céline rid the film of nearly all the adult characters. ‘I really want the audience to identify with a 16-year-old black girl and when there’s adults in the room, you’re going to go for the one that looks like you and I like the fact that you’re captive to Marieme’s mind and you have to stick with it. Also, no adults because they’re boring!’

So, what’s Karidja’s life been like since the film came out in France? ‘Watching it for the first time I was looking at myself like, “Oh my God, I’m so ugly, why am I doing this face? Why am I walking like that!?” And the second time we were all talking about each other: “Oh my God have you seen your face?!”’

Now, with billboards of her face all over Paris (‘I am always taking pictures of myself! My friends are always sending me pictures of myself!’) is there more acting on the horizon for Karidja? ‘I’d love to! I did some castings but I’lll have to wait and see what happens’. If you’ve seen the film, you know she won’t be waiting long.

The only thing she won’t be able to do, is take part in the now finished Harry Potter films. ‘It was my dream! I was in love with Harry Potter and I was very, very sad when it stopped.’

She says, ‘I love Hermione and Harry and Ron… I mean they are like our girl gang from the film. I mean they are only three and they are mixed but it’s the same thing, everyone can understand friendship.’

Girlhood is in cinemas 8 May. 

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Tags: Film