France’s Other Women: Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood

Last fall, Moroccan native Majida Bargach, who teaches a course on immigration in France at the University of Virginia, made a striking remark, “There is going to be a war,” she told me. At the time, we were discussing French director Celine Sciamma’s upcoming film, Girlhood, set in the banlieu, the sprawling low-income suburbs outside of Paris. These are the neighborhoods that spawned the Charlie Hebdo attackers. They are also home to one of the largest Islamic communities in France, a country that has the largest Muslim population in Europe.

Bargach worried that conditions in the banlieu were perfectly suited to the kind of disaffection that might lead young people to turn to extremism or terrorism.

The sense of deeper worry that Bargach expressed to me months ago has since acquired a tangible dimension, with an attack by Muslim extremists on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

Girlhood, which opened in New York City last weekend, arrives at a time when a candid portrait of France’s “other women,” those among its teeming and often disaffected Muslim immigrant population is very needed.

The film follows the life of Mariame, a 16-year-old French-African girl who lives in the now-notorious banlieu. Neglected by her mother and abused by her brother, Mariame drops out of school and joins a girl gang. The girls’ friendships empower their youthfulness in what is otherwise a hostile adult environment, and their affinity for each other gives them a sense of identity and respect in a world where they will never be normal. Rather than resorting to violence for attention, Mariame and her girlfriends are loud and aggressive, threatening other girl gangs and blasting music on the Metro to make a statement. The young women use each other to try to neutralize the threat of the outside world.

This is the same world — one of prejudice and economic disadvantage — that alienated the Charlie Hebdo attackers Cherif and Said Kourachi. Through this wildly modern coming of age story, in which these young girls are essentially thrust into adulthood, Sciamma captures how the banlieu’s dire conditions are suited to cultivate the kind of estrangement that leads young people toward extremism.

In 2005 and 2007, France was stricken by urban rioting that arose from economic desperation among its largely Muslim immigrant population. Earlier this year, after a decade of growing tension, that prejudice grew into extremism when two Muslim brothers attacked the offices of the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo. Now, France is finally starting to reexamine not only the gap between the deeply secular French middle class and those struggling to make ends meet, but the prejudice that has led to the growth of powerful xenophobic political movements.

Surprisingly, Sciamma’s decision to focus on French-African girls wasn’t a political choice — she was merely interested in using art and conflict to make human experience universal. In fact, the idea for film, she says, grew in part from seeing French-African girls parading together in groups though the streets of Paris. Their style and charisma attracted her. She liked the way they inhabited public spaces like performers on a stage. They were vibrant and tough, as if public settings gave them the freedom to be true to themselves.

Though it would be disingenuous to compare to mood of the Kouachi brothers with the people who populate this film, Mariame’s desperation represents a useful barometer. Those in her world slip easily into drugs and violence. They have nowhere to turn and few role models. Though French, they have little fondness for mainstream French society, which seems remote. Girlhood gives its audience a nuanced understanding of how hard it is to grow up alone in the projects — and how the idea of belonging to a small collective can seem invigorating, if not ennobling. Sciamma’s portrayal of Parisian girl gang demonstrates both the hope that emerges as a result of friendship, and the darker potential for violence.