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"A physical style of film, full of contrasts"

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Houda Benyamina • Director

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- Cineuropa met with French director Houda Benyamina on the occasion of the French release of her film Divines, which won the Caméra d’or at Cannes

Houda Benyamina • Director

Houda Benyamina’s debut feature film, Divines [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
interview: Houda Benyamina
film profile
]
, which was screened in Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, had the impact of a grand finale. Its vitality, rebellious spirit, magnificent characters – funny yet moving – and the captivating direction, won over the audience at Cannes, where it also took home the Caméra d’or. Cineuropa caught up with the director on the occasion of the French release of the film, to explore its complexities and the way it plays with tension. 

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Cineuropa: Divines is a project that’s been long in the making. Are there any bits that were added or taken out between the idea and the final result?
Houda Benyamina: The relationship with dance, the whole theme of the sacred and dance epitomised by the character of Djigui developed in a way that I didn’t expect to begin with.

The film as a whole has an astonishing sense of physicality to it. Physical tension plays a key role does it not, albeit in different forms.
It’s clear that I like a very physical kind of film: I don’t think you can get into a character’s head just going on what they say, but on what they do, so you have to portray them with physical actions. It’s the hardest thing to do. In working with the actors, I stick closely to the methods of Stanislavski and the Actors’ Studio, a method which demands a very physical effort from the actors. I also talked extensively with the director of photography about the movement of the film: I wanted to use the camera to convey meaning through movement. It’s a sensual tension, on the one hand, which also seeks to express struggle.

My character is in constant struggle with herself and we had to convey this tension in a way that can be filmed, without just relying on big close-up shots of the characters: I wanted the entire body, at times oppressed and burly like that of Maimouna, and at times energetic like that of Dounia (in this way they form a sort of Laurel and Hardy duo), to express the complexity of the themes I try to broach in this film.

To amplify this tension, and clearly show Dounia’s journey – as it feels like she’s aged several years by the end of the film –, I also insisted on filming in chronological order and in a certain environment. When I film, I’m always on location before everyone else, getting everything ready so that when the team arrives, everyone is completely focused right from the get go, as if in prayer, and the camera rolls from the beginning to the end. The tension we can feel in the film is an inherent part of the way I create, as soon as I start filming.

The places where this dynamic unfolds are also quite interesting: they’re often shady places – backstage, in passageways and other hidden walkways.
Indeed I took a great deal of care to find my locations. I gave the person who was location-scouting with me a comprehensive folder of images as a guide because I wanted to create a film of contrasts: between light and dark, high and low. This duality inhabits the entire film, and when it came to the sets, it was important to me that we play with hidden elements and shadows, and to establish links between the passageways, the cellar, and the mosque, which is right at the bottom at the end of a tunnel.

The morphology of the sets matches up with another key element of the film: the perspective of Dounia, the heroine, who sometimes shows great wisdom, and sometimes allows herself to be dominated.
For her it’s also an emotional education so she’s highly sensitive, and her view of Djigui reveals conflicts within herself: her ambitions and the need for control on the one hand, and her sensitivity to beauty and the letting go that this entails on the other. There are a lot of key aspects to this film, which we had to somehow mix together, but in the end that’s what the whole film is about: this choice. 

And what direction do you see yourself heading in after this first film?
I already have a project in mind. It runs along the same sort of lines, but instead of a story of friendship, it’s a great love story, set in the context of a detective story. I know I’m going to keep the same producers, but as far as everything else is concerned, I’m taking things step by step, carefully and doing things properly, surrounding myself with demanding people who won’t make things easy for me as I prepare to broach other issues.

(Translated from French)

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