In “Ouvrir la Voix: A Radically Frank Documentary about the Experience of Black Women in France,” Richard Brody (The New Yorker) explores Amandine Gay’s documentary film Ouvrir la voix. In Brody’s words, the film “confronts a political and historical paradox: the illusion of color blindness that’s central to the French national self-image.” Here are excerpts:
[. . .] Morin’s tweet about France’s soccer-stoked fraternity reminded me of a more recent film that addresses the country’s struggle toward acknowledging its multiculturalism through a vision of sorority: Amandine Gay’s documentary “Ouvrir la Voix.” (The title, which means “opening the voice,” is also a homonym for ouvrir la voie, “opening the path.”) It came out in France last October but hasn’t yet been released here, and it deserves to be seen.
“Ouvrir la Voix” is as radically frank in style as in substance: nearly all of its two-hour running time is filled with interviews, done in extreme closeup, with twenty-four black French women whose remarks Gay organizes thematically into sixteen chapters. Some were born in France, some migrated to France; some are Muslim, some are Christian, one is Jewish; they are of diverse sexual orientation as well. Though the movie is mainly closeups, it provides, in its brief span, the sense of a distant journey that ranges far through an unseen France and deeply into the lives of people who live there, albeit in the margins of official culture. The film is not an encyclopedic history or a thumbnail overview of France’s current-day social conflicts; it’s a film of experience and of reflection, and its first-person narratives and anecdotes are matched by vigorous and incisive discussions of ideas, observations of a diagnostic and analytical bent.
In “Ouvrir la Voix,” some women discuss the casual racism that inflected their lives since childhood, both personal and official—schoolyard taunts, school administrators’ indifference and even contempt, demeaning advertisements, the intrusive attention of police—and also the plethora of stereotypes and clichés about black people that black people in France have themselves internalized. Many of the participants speak of their struggles against political and practical inequities as a movement of “Afrofeminism,” because their experience of feminism as black women proved different from—and was resisted by—the white women who dominate mainstream French feminist movements.
Above all, the movie confronts a political and historical paradox that exerts its distorting force in French laws and mores: the illusion of color blindness that’s central to the French national self-image. For instance, France keeps no official statistics on the subject of race or religion, in order not to enshrine the concepts in law. One speaker says that she used to agree with the idea, but then realized that the lack of statistics made large-scale discrimination very difficult to prove—France can rely on statistical analyses regarding gender but not about race. Just this month, France’s National Assembly voted unanimously to eliminate the word “race” from the Constitution, in order to invalidate the legal affirmation of race as a biological concept (there is only one “human race”).
But the problem, as several women in “Ouvrir la Voix” say, is that, even if the term is scientifically invalid, it’s experientially and socially accurate. As one woman says, “The word ‘race’ has to be spoken, because it exists, it’s materialized in our lives, in our bodies, in our perceptions of our bodies, in our relations with people, so I think it’s hypocrisy to ban it from the Constitution . . . Race is truly a reality.” Another adds, “The word ‘race’ describes a social reality”; yet another says, “We don’t name things because that way we don’t have to struggle with them. . . Saying that race doesn’t exist in France means not wanting to tackle racial problems.” The word “race,” one participant adds, is a crucial tool “to discuss our oppression clearly and concretely.”
[. . .] The underlying connection between these women’s observations is the very idea of visibility. The fear of French authority causes French immigrants to keep a low public profile, to avoid speaking out or organizing politically, and these inhibitions have been passed down to the younger generations, as many of the film’s participants say. It’s significant that several of the film’s participants are performing artists, and most of the film’s forays beyond the closeup interviews involve stage performances and rehearsals. Black French men were on the world stage during the World Cup, as they have been every four years for several decades; black French women aren’t on that stage—and, for that matter, they haven’t been conspicuous on the French cinematic scene, either. One actress interviewed acknowledges that the range of roles for black women is narrow and stereotypical; “I feel like I can’t refuse roles that I’m offered, because I either change jobs or direct my own films,” she says. That is exactly what Gay has done with “Ouvrir la Voix.” It is both a vital film in itself and a virtual kit for the inspiration of other filmmakers; it’s an opening of voices and of paths.
[See trailer (and image above) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOmprPPISrk.]