AFTER winning almost 40 prestigious film awards, Josza Anjembe’s debut short film French has now qualified to be considered for an Oscar for Live Action Short.
The story of a recently-graduated teenager who aspires to get her French nationality, Anjembe’s film confronts issues of identity and discrimination with intimate honesty. Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Anjembe to talk about the abuse she faces, Trevor Noah’s World Cup comments and much more.
Q: ‘French’ (Le bleu blanc rouge de mes cheveux) is loosely based on your own experiences. How often do you find your French identity challenged and how does it affect you?
A: THERE are days where everything is going great and others where I feel like I’m going crazy. Two weeks ago, a lady insulted me on the bus, calling me “fucking black”, adding that I was stealing French people’s jobs and that I deserved to be locked up in Versailles. The next day, another lady called be “bitch” for some unknown reason. It took me several days to recover from the violence that I received. Hopefully, these verbal harassments don’t happen everyday.
But I think the worst thing is when people try to check where I am from when I have already told them I am French or Parisian. It seems to me that a French person is from France and a Parisian from Paris. I shouldn’t have to justify who I am. These kind of questions are traumatizing because it occurs in my daily life in an insidious way, and no one thinks it isn’t ok to ask it.
However, the first hypothesis is clear: there’s a doubt. We all exist through one’s gaze. And when one makes you understand that there is a doubt about you, so a form of suspicion, something challenging your identity, it becomes serious. Today, I am able to overcome these questions: I did what I had to do and my therapy is going very well!
Q: Your film reminded me of the discussions provoked by comments comedian Trevor Noah made after France’s Word Cup win. How much of a talking point is identity in France and what direction is the debate moving in?
A: I can’t speak in the name of the French people. Each person has their own story and point of view. I’ve heard Trevor Noah’s comments. He was right because what he said was ‘fair’. It’s about looking at your own personal story and facing it.
Often in France, when it comes to sport or music, black people are recognized and admired. But when it comes to facing History, the history of France that used to be a colonial empire and which still has some archaic behaviours, there’s no one to talk about it. One can’t be proud of the winning French soccer team, which is multi-racial and multi-ethnic, and in the meantime choose not to recognise that the countries from which the players are from, are countries that are still mistreated by France, and I’m measuring my words here.
Q: Grace Seri (who plays Seyna) gives a terrific lead performance. Can you tell us about casting Grace and how she fits into the character of Seyna?
A: GRACE is a gem. It’s my producer, Nelson Ghrénassia, who once told me to go check on the National Conservatory for the dramatic arts’ website. The “visible minorities” or the “diversity” (that’s the expressions used to designate the non-white people in France) are almost not represented there, so I didn’t have the idea to check it out myself. It happens that Grace was on the website. When I saw her arriving at the audition, I immediately knew it was her. It was clear. It’s not something I can explain.
Q: How did Grace react to having to shave her hair during the film?
A: GRACE is an actress and she never forgot the idea that it was the character of Seyna, and not her, that was going to get a haircut. So, there was no reluctance, even the contrary actually. There was some excitement. The proof is that on the day of the shooting, on set, everyone burst in tears just because she always stuck to her character.
Q: How did you find the challenge of directing your first short film?
A: I wasn’t planning at all on working in cinema. Cinema came into my life accidently. So, I never felt any pressure. Quite the opposite actually, directing actors was a real chance for me. All of them gave me a wonderful gift by accepting to act what I defend politically. I’m so grateful for this, so I think there was only enjoyment. And when I had doubts, because I don’t know everything, I talked with my script supervisor, Marie Morin, who was my most faithful ally on set.
Q: You mentioned Nelson Ghrénassia earlier, how much did it help to have such an experienced producer involved in the project?
A: IT doesn’t help! (laughs) No. There’s a difference between talking about a film and actually doing it. As long as we talked about it, I didn’t really measure his importance. But once the film has been shot, I finally understood that he would become a real partner for me, way beyond the financial aspect.
Q: French has made me excited for your future work. What type of stories and films do you want to make in the future?
A: I am someone who questions the world a lot. I want to talk about my questionings in my next films. My next film will be about homosexuality in prison. I am thinking about a lot of other things that are not defined yet, but it’s work in process. I take my time. I’m not in a rush. What has to happen will happen.