It is often said that cinema is the central art of society, and a representation of its people in different socio-economic and political contexts. It is therefore no surprise that this medium has been a vital force to reckon with in depicting societal changes, preoccupations and fears.
On the world stage, French cinema has undoubtedly made international impact, especially for the innovative New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) of the 1950s and 60s, through to the dominant trend of heritage films (cinéma du patrimoine) and the cinéma du look of the 1980s and early 90s. While the cinéma du look was preoccupied with a slick visual style and avoided overt political ideologies, the cinéma du patrimoine was altogether more nostalgic in approach through its representation of France's past as a former colonial head.
Fast forward to 1995 and La Haine, a film for which I'm fast becoming a broken record which persistently calls out 'watch this, watch this!'. Much has been written on this film which showed an awareness of the tensions that existed in the suburbs (banlieues) of contemporary France through its narrative of youth dissaffection and restlessness. Given that the banlieues house a large number of France's marginalised ethnic minorites, the film was propelled forward with its trio of black-blanc-beur youths as the principal characters who draw attention to pertinent issues, critically bringing matters such as ethnicity, identity and belonging, and police brutality into prominence.
Though banlieue translates to 'outskirts' in the English language, its connotations in France often veers toward the negative. I should know. Several personal experiences from my time in France saw to that. In late 2008, fresh-faced and newly arrived in Paris for a year abroad, my laughably anglicized French gave me away as an English-speaker. In chic areas and bars around Paris, the fact that I was originally studying in London was often met with varying degrees of fascination, friendliness and curiosity...until I was asked where I lived in Paris.
'Saint Denis,' I'd say innocently, obliviously.
Faces fell, shock was expressed, exclamations were made that I didn't have the mannerisms of a girl from the banlieue, and, once, someone went so far as to pat me on the back for being 'brave enough to live there.' It was also the first time I didn't get a job simply because I lived in an 'undesirable' area. Granted, it was only meant to be an informal favour for a friend who was going on holiday and needed someone to cover her au pair duties to a French family. But, after speaking to the mother in question to finalise details of my takeover in my friend's absence, you can imagine my shock when, upon being told I lived in Saint Denis, she hastily rang off, and asked me to forget it all.
You see, Saint Denis and other banlieues have been infamous in France for crime and lawlessness, and thus, the dominant coverage from the media on these areas centers on negativity. But I am at pains to stress that while I lived there - and in the times I have been back - it wasn't the battlefield it was made out to be. In fact, much of the impressions I had of the place was initially formed from other people's reaction to my living there. And if I hadn't experienced another side of it myself - the positive side - I might have been led to believe that I was living in the 'hoodiest' hood there ever was, for which I would have a constant need of a flak jacket to go about the simplest activities. You must understand that I am not for one second rubbishing reports of violence, or glossing over the real issues of over-population, high rate of unemployment, juvenile delinquency and such in some of the banlieues of France, but perhaps for the first time ever, I felt the sting of damaging, myopic stereotyping that ruthlessly dismisses people for flimsy reasons where it shouldn't.
There is a tendency to paint Paris in rosy hues; it is all romantic boulevards and trendy brasseries, historical buildings and cultural offerings, endless curiosities and fascinating discoveries...and yes I did all that and got the t-shirt. But Paris is more than its 20 arrondissments. It is, for me, the city and its surrounding banlieues,warts and all. Yes, I went to parties in the posh district of Passy, but I also went to neighbourhood freestyle rap competitions in a banlieue in Zone 4 (no drive-by shooting happened, whodathunkit?); yes, I ate in lovely brasseries which were a stone's throw from some of the city's iconic buildings, but I also trekked up a hilly streets in Saint Denis after 8pm to buy waakye; yes, I bought a nice dress from a shop on Champs Elysées, but my favourite dress came from a chance find in Sarcelles.
And so when I watch films like La Haine, largely a negative portrayal of life in the banlieue, a part of me is still reminded that there is another side to that life whose existence I mustn't close myself to. Because I lived it and saw it.
Of course French cinema has produced other notable films since La Haine. Amélie, The Class (Entre les murs), Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, and naturally, The Artist, come readily to mind, and until 24 March 2012 UniFrance Films in collaboration with the Institut Français and a host of other bodies is offering a smooch and cheeky Rendez-vous with French Cinema which promises to bring a new slew of films that will be talked about, and should not be missed if you are a French cinephile in London.
From one of the girls of the 'hood, I say try and see at least one if you're in these parts, blud.
Rendez-vous with French Cinema. Until 24 March 2012