A talk with Amandine Gay
The double challenge to be a woman and to be black
Amandine Gay, the director of the cinema manifesto "Ouvrir la voix / Speak up, make your way", wants to let young African women in France and Belgium speak. Her self-produced documentary premiered in Paris in October 2017 and is now touring after a successful start in France and other countries, accompanied by its tireless director who describes herself as "African-born, black, anonymous, cisgender, afro-feminist, pansexual, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-heteronormative, agnostic, Afro-punk, pro-choice (abortion, headscarf, sex work) and body positivity supporter" and has become a mouthpiece for a whole generation of Afro-Europeans who want to finally clear away stereotypes.
Since when have you expressed an Afro-feminist attitude?
Amandine Gay: In my childhood, the only black actress I could see in a movie was Whoopi Goldberg in Jumpin' Jack Flash. In this comedy, she plays a bank clerk who helps a secret agent. I saw the film several times back then, I found it funny and liked the energy of the leading actress. In French television of the 1980s, there was no black woman in a leading role except Firmine Richard in Mama, There’s A Man In Your Bed, where she plays a charwoman and sole breadwinner of her family, thus a stereotypical role of a black woman. So I have been dealing with the position of black women in our society for a long time.Has this outlook raised your desire to shoot movies?
Yes, but not exclusively. During my political science studies, I watched many films and volunteered at the États généraux du film documentaire festival in Lussas for several years. I worked at the front desk, at the bar, warmed up food, etc., and above all I saw a lot of movies for free. After that I went to Australia for a year and studied Cinema there for one semester and attended a course on short film production. Because everyone wanted to be director, I ended up in production. I learned how to organize a shoot, which later became very useful for me. Actually, I've always been in the artistic field, but like many women I hesitated for a long time before I started my own project.
You also wanted to become actress...
After studying politics, I enrolled at the Paris drama school Conservatoire d'art dramatique to become an actress. Soon after, however, I didn’t want to continue because I was only offered stereotypical roles of immigrant or suburban women. A friend of mine, who is a casting director, told me "If you want other roles, you have to write them yourself." So I wrote short scripts that passed the Bechdel test (two women by name who talk to each other; talking about something other than a man, editor's note) about five girlfriends, including a black, lesbian sommelier. The production companies found this figure unrealistic and wanted to change it. So I thought about what I could do with my own resources, free and independent, and came up with a documentary.
You have produced "Ouvrir la voix" all by yourself. How did you master this challenge?
Our team was very small. I worked with my partner, who is a photographer and videographer, and a friend of mine, a camerawoman, who filmed a third of the interviews. So I was able to make the film completely autonomously, from screenplay to editing. After two years of exclusively taking care of the movie, with no pay and no other day job, I didn’t want to transfer the rights to a production company. So we started our own production and rental company Bras de fer and started a crowdfunding campaign for post-production. After a month we had the 12,000 € we needed and finally reached 17,414 €, which far exceeded my expectations!
How did you get to know and choose the 24 young women for your film?
There are three groups of women in the film: First, women whom I met during my time as an actress, and when it’s their turn, you can relax. The second group are friends of mine, with whom I had previously worked with on the questions, and thirdly, many that had contacted me through social networks. When I published my call on Twitter and Facebook, I hoped to reach ten people within six months, but after a week, I had already received over sixty emails. People wrote me from Guadeloupe, French Guiana and La Réunion. For financial and logistical reasons, however, I limited my research to the metropolitan area of Paris and Belgium. I ran 45 pre-interviews, and 24 interviews of these 45 women finally got into the movie.
What are the interviews about?
They point to the double difficulty of being a woman and black, often a precarious situation. The term intersectionality is essential to understand how the different types of discrimination we deal with are interrelated. Every woman talks about her personal experience, and the frequency of similar experiences shows that this is not an individual problem, but a daily confrontation with systemic racism.
What aesthetic choices did you make in documenting these women’s words?
I wanted to push the genre of the interview film to an extreme, with a fixed camera, very close to the subject and without distraction, as this genre has been very corrupted by television. No distractions through cutaway edits, music, effects. During the interviews the spoken word is the center of attention, the focus is on the women, and we are only interested in what they have to say. The lighting of their faces in close-up also shows that black skin can be wonderfully lit, in contrast to a common opinion in the cinema and television milieu. It was particularly important to me to show black women with very dark skin who are less frequently seen than women of mixed race or black women with fair skin.
After six months, the film is still in the cinemas - a huge success for a documentary. Was it also shown elsewhere?
The film premiered in France in October 2017, then in Switzerland, Belgium and Quebec. After six months, we had already sold 15,000 tickets, which is unbelievable, considering that in France, 70 percent of documentary films don’t reach 10,000 tickets during their entire run. In Germany I did a mini-tour with stops in Berlin, Bremen, Oldenburg and Hamburg. Everywhere we sold-out the performances. The discussions afterwards, organized by various associations - from the Berlin Feminist Film Week, the Women's Circle, Decolonize Bremen and a Black Students Association of the University of Hamburg - were interesting, because they showed me the situation in Germany and what people recognized of themselves in the film. And since January, the film is awarded internationally by MK2 and soon shown as part of the Femmes-Totales-Filmtour by Eksystent in Germany.