An open look at the victims of oppression
by Camillo de Marco
- Interview with the director of Black Venus, which sparked controversy at the Venice Film Festival for its strong themes and raw and disturbing images
How did you discover Sarah Baartman, the Black Venus?
Abdellatif Kechiche: I came across her various times, beginning in 2002, when South Africa requested her remains from France. I had also read a text by Diderot on her. She immediately intrigued me because she’s a mysterious figure. I didn’t take a psychological approach in depicting her; the images alone reveal many more nuances of human nature. She was a woman constantly violated by everyone: looking at her, people only saw a caricature.
Why did you decide to tell this story?
I think it’s a contemporary story. Sarah’s story ended only recently, her body was on display until the end of the 20th century. Faced with the talk from today’s French politicians, I thought it necessary to remember a past that isn’t all that far away, nor very glorious.
The topicality of Black Venus [+see also:
interview: Abdellatif Kechiche
film profile] makes it a decidedly political film.
Certainly, also because we have unfortunately once again heard talk about how the races are unequal from current politicians. They use pseudo-scientific discourse to sustain the return of fascism in Europe. The ideas of Cuvier – the scientist who studied Sarah’s body and compared it to that of a primate’s and who in 1817 published the results of his research – had catastrophic consequences in terms of colonialism and racial slavery. Through its president [Nicolas] Sarkozy, France today expresses disdain for the Rom, to the point of expelling them. This is a disaster, which is another reason why my film is so topical.
Sarah’s case augments discrimination because there is sexism in addition to racism.
It’s true that men have oppressed women greatly, but a black woman with a “different” body sums up all the reasons for oppression. The film contains both themes, unfortunately still present in contemporary society. Male domination over women and over peoples is still happening. From the very beginning, Sarah evoked in me feelings of affection and tenderness: seeing her portraits and images of her body allowed me almost to communicate with her, also because I’m a cineaste and I feed off of images.
Wasn’t there a risk of provoking morbid voyeurism?
I wanted to examine the effect of the gaze. The difference between the individual and collective gaze. What we see when we’re in a group, and what is instead our point of view when we’re alone. And in the film I show fascinating, tender, shamed, cheerful, brutish gazes. We cannot change others’ ways of looking at things, but we can understand what they think. How to change a gaze is the theme of all my films. We are continuously pressed by newspapers, TV and politicians to direct our gaze in a certain way, which is why it’s necessary to examine our own gazes in-depth. It is a continuous battle for which I have no answers.
How does Black Venus relate to films such as Pasolini’s Salò and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man?
I have boundless admiration for Pasolini, I feel like his heir. But I don’t see any possible connections to The Elephant Man except for the fact that both films speak about exhibiting bodies. And while I acknowledge that it’s a great film, I find its condescension towards the working classes disturbing.
How did you protect the young actress, Yahima Torres, from the film’s violence?
Everything happened naturally, the actors protected her, they worked with a group spirit, as always in my films, expressing their doubts and questions as well.