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French cinema takes on a new hue

by Alison Hird

Article published on the 2008-12-06 Latest update 2009-02-26 09:23 TU

Felicité Wouassi plays the leading role of Sonia(Photo: courtesey of ARP Selection)

Felicité Wouassi plays the leading role of Sonia
(Photo: courtesey of ARP Selection)

Non-white faces are few and far between on the silver screen in France. But a new film is changing that, breaking new ground with a mostly black cast.

Culture: a film about a family in the Paris suburbs

06/12/2008 by Alison Hird

“It’s a shame you’re black…. you could’ve been my daughter,” quips an old (white) lady as home-help Sonia (Felicité Waoussi) tends to her with the kind of loving attention and patience most mothers could only dream of receiving.

Sonia and her son at her daughter's wedding(Photo: courtesey of ARP Selection)

Sonia and her son at her daughter's wedding
(Photo: courtesey of ARP Selection)

Sonia, a kind of Mother Courage struggling to bring up her 4 kids on a sink estate in the Paris suburbs, is the leading lady in the film Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera (God helps those who help themselves).

One the day Sonia’s elder daughter gets married, one of her sons gets busted for drugs and her husband dies of a heart attack. Her younger daughter later announces she’s seven months pregnant at the age of 17.

Meanwhile everyday life goes on with trips to the hairdresser, launderette, the odd party and a bit of love interest from an ambulance driver.  

Film director François Dupeyron

Film director François Dupeyron

Director François Dupeyron says he wanted to show the everyday ups and downs of a family in France’s multi-racial, underprivileged suburbs, in the style of Italian comedies of the 1970s.

“It happens to be an African family, and it’s quite rare to see that in France,” he says. “But above all it’s a family… black, white, yellow, green… they all have problems.”

He says that blacks are “not represented in French cinema”, and there is little doubt this film shows more black faces on the big screen in one go than you would see in a year in France. In fact, Dupeyron admits he’s only filmed one black actress in his 20-year career.

The CSA or French television watchdog, recently said the lack of non-white faces on French television was deplorable. Cinema isn’t much better.

While Mata Gabin (who plays a man-eating hairdresser and Sonia’s confidante) had already acted in one of Dupeyron’s earlier films Monsieur Ibrahim, the majority of the actors were new to cinema, and some were complete beginners. Felicité Wouassi came from theatre.

Sonia tries to keep her sons in check(Photo: courtesey of ARP Selection)

Sonia tries to keep her sons in check
(Photo: courtesey of ARP Selection)

“I saw her in a play directed by Roman Polanski,” says Dupeyron. “It was a small role but her charisma shone out. She was a real ‘Mother Courage’.” 

Wouassi received the best actress award at this year’s Tokyo film festival.

Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera isn’t afraid to confront clichés about immigrants in rough suburbs, such as teenage pregnancy and drug dealing.

Stereotypical? Dupeyron admits some members of the black community were worried about the film, denying that black tramps (like the one hiding out in the launderette spin dryer) or elderly black violent fathers (like Sonia’s husband) exist in real life. But the director defends his subjects and the way he treated them.

“It’s a reality and you have to show things how they are, but be fair, not fall into caricature,” he says, adding it’s a mistake to show any community in a perfect light.

The lead-up to the film’s release coincided with the United States presidential elections, and the poster featured the slogan “Obama, le ciel t’aidera” (Obama, God will help you).

So were they riding on the ‘Obama wave’? Dupeyron says just as Obama was elected despite being black, not because of it, “we have to get to the point where Felicité gets acting roles not because she’s black but because of her talent,” he says. “And we’re a long way off,” he adds ruefully.


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