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Review: Becoming A Black Woman


- Journalist Rachel M’Bon and director Juliana Fanjul open the floor to black women in Switzerland in a first step towards liberating silenced voices

Review: Becoming A Black Woman

Having harboured an interest in female characters who silently inhabit the margins of society, ever since her first feature film Muchachas [+see also:
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, the director of Mexican origin based in Geneva Juliana Fanjul practically fell into the project which Swiss journalist and communications expert Rachel M’Bon had been nurturing for some time, and which has culminated in Becoming A Black Woman, a film lending a voice to black women in Switzerland and imposing their image onto a visual landscape (think advertising, Swiss political or media personalities etc.) which tends to exclude them. It’s an undoubtedly ambitious and complex project which forced Juliana Fanjul to question her own legitimacy as a spokesperson for a reality she personally hasn’t experienced, and the need to do so in order to fill the current void in the Swiss film industry (and no doubt elsewhere).

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Devised from the outset as an ensemble portrait of a multifaceted Switzerland, and presented within the Creative Documentaries Competition at Geneva’s FIFDH, Becoming A Black Woman is ultimately steered by director-protagonist Rachel M’Bon who questions a group of Swiss women of African origin over their relationship with otherness. Discussions turn into personal reflections, those of the director revolve around her own life and her continual, exhausting attempts to blend into the background, right up until the final outcome: the liberation of a type of “difference” which, in her case, is linked to her Congolese and Swiss origins but which might just as easily find expression through other (wonderful) forms of  “divergences from the norm”, such as homosexuality, transidentity, or physical or mental disability.

There are six protagonists in this film: Tallulah Bar, a bank manager who admits that as a child, she dreamed of waking up one day with white skin and who continually wrestles with her own prejudices over how she looks; Brigitte Lembwadio, a lawyer who reflects upon the walls she has built up while expressing her own identity (“if I, the first black woman in Switzerland to be admitted to the bar don’t dare to free myself, who else will?”, she asks the director); Carmel Frohlicher, a psychologist who defends the importance of a multicultural  Switzerland; Armelle Saunier, another bank manager who is worried about her children and the stigmatisation they might suffer at school; Paula Charles, a former erotic go-go dancer and writer; and seventeen-year-old student Khalissa Akadi who is trying to find her way as a mixed race Swiss woman.

Becoming A Black Woman does raise the crucial question of the visibility (or rather the invisibility) of black people in the Swiss cultural and media landscape, but the movie would have gained potency had it rid itself of binarism between whites and non-whites, two categories which are incredibly complex in themselves (as emphasised by the director herself) and hard to explore as “monolithic” groups. The question of ethnic origin brings a multitude of additional questions along with it, relating to social condition, sexual orientation, gender issues etc., which would have been interesting to explore or at least place greater emphasis on. Like many countries, Switzerland definitely suffers from a chronic lack of figures representing “minority” figures who are central to the nation’s greatness, but the problem has far wider-reaching implications, both thematically and geographically speaking.

Rachel M’Bon’s anger and frustration, palpable emotions which ultimately led her to reject her own identity, are the driving force of this film which is a first, crucial step towards liberating voices silenced for too long.

Becoming A Black Woman is produced by Akka Films (who are also handling international sales) alongside RTS Radio Télévision Suisse.

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(Translated from Italian)

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