Tag Archives: racism

Vénus Noire (2010)

Some stories need to be told, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that those stories–transcribed to film–result in an enjoyable or entertaining experience. This of course brings up the whole question of just what we expect when we place a DVD in the player. I know that I want to be entertained. If I’m educated in the process, then that’s great, but while Vénus Noire (Black Venus)  tells an incredible story, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it. Am I glad I watched it? Yes.

Vénus Noire begins in France with a scene of eager young doctors at the Royal Academy of Medicine. It’s 1815 and this is a lecture hall filled with young men studying medicine. The lecturer proceeds to hand around a jar containing the unusual genitals of a “Hottentot” woman, and he also has a life size cast of the woman’s body. The upshot of the lecture is that the Hottentot woman resembles the baboon–rather than the human. That sort of gives you an indication of what you are in for with this story.

Vénus Noire is Saartjie Baartmann (Yahima Torres), a former servant from the Cape who in 1808 travelled with her entrepreneur employer, Hendrick Cezar (Andre Jacobs) to London. Lured by the promise of riches and the possibility of owning her own farm in the Cape, Saartjie becomes a highly successful draw and a big moneymaker. Hundreds squeeze into the shabby little theatre and watch the so-called Hottentot Venus who is dressed in a sheer costume, paraded around in chains like a wild animal, and managed with a whip. Off the stage, Saartjie smokes cigars, knocks back booze and even shops followed by two black attendants, but Saartjie and Cezar’s performance outrages certain members of the African Association (Britain saw the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807) who see Saartjie as horribly exploited. Saartjie and Cezar end up in court with both of them arguing that she performs of  her own free will. She’s not a slave, and yet due to racial inequalities, it’s easy to argue that the act which is in extremely bad taste, also exploits Saartjie–after all what other choices does she have?

When Saartjie is more or less forced to leave England due to the messy trial, things go downhill. They hook up with animal trainer Réaux (Olivier Gourmet) and Jeanne (Elina Lowensohn) and become the entertainment for various Paris salons, kink shows, and brothels. If Saartjie was exploited before, it’s nothing to what awaits her in Paris….

At 159 mins. Vénus Noire is a long film, and throughout the course of the tale, Saartjie’s act doesn’t basically change–although it is modified to include even more degrading exhibitions. During the performances, Saartjie objects occasionally, and most of the objections occur when she’s fondled by the audience or required to exhibit her genitals–either at kinky parties or for French doctors. Films which require the audience to accompany the protagonist on a journey of degradation can be extraordinarily painful and even an exercise in masochism. As the endless scenes from Saartjie’s act continue, I’ll admit that I had a difficult time watching performance after performance of this poor woman who is trotted out for ‘entertainment’ repeatedly.

Vénus Noire is most interesting for its blurred boundaries. Is Saartjie, for example, performing of her own ‘free will’? Well, if ‘free will’ means that she agrees to walk on stage, then, yes, she’s there of her own free will. But if ‘free will’ means that Saartjie wants to perform for a leering, groping crowd, then the answer is ‘no,’ Saartjie is not acting through free will. There are several other instances of the blurring of boundaries in the film–Saartjie is forced to exhibit her genitals for the pervs of Paris and for the doctors of the Royal Academy. Is there a difference? Both lots pay for the pleasure, and one lot may be drooling, but for Saartjie, who’s on the receiving end of the voyeurism, there’s little difference.

And of course, finally, the Royal Academy, measuring every angle of Saartjie’s body (reminds me of the Nazis)  make note of her genitals and extraordinary buttocks, yet panning the audience of Saartjie’s shows, we see only crowds of freaks–the ugly, the deformed, the pock-marked–a race of imperfects who squintingly point a finger when noticing the differences of others.

From director Adellatif Kechiche (Secret of the Grain)

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Nuit Noire, 17 Octobre 1961(2005)

nuit noireNuit Noire, 17 Octobre 1961, a French made-for-television film is a long-overdue look at the horrendous events that took place in Paris on that fateful night. In the summer of 1961, Algerian nationalist forces and De Gaulle’s French government were locked in negotiations for Algerian independence. Meanwhile racial tensions in Paris were at boiling point. The FLN (National Liberation Front) began to carry out ‘retaliations’ against French police and led a bold attack at a police station that left policemen dead. Following the assassination of another policeman, Police Chief Maurice Papon (Thierry Fortineau) declared “for each blow we receive, we will deliver ten.” On Oct 5, the curfew from 8:30 pm-5:30 am was declared on all French muslims from Algeria, and the demonstration on October 17 was organised by the FLN in response. The night ended in horrific bloodshed with an undetermined number of protestors beaten to death. Some were beaten and thrown in the Seine and others were beaten to death by police in a walled courtyard at police headquarters. Estimates of the number of dead range from 50-300. There was no official enquiry at the time and it was only in 1998 that the French government finally acknowledge the shameful events that took place that night. No one was ever prosecuted.

Since this is a re-enactment of events that took place, the film is not character-centered. Instead the story is a detailed reenactment that answers the question: how could this have happened? Watching the lead-up to October 17 becomes a tense, almost painful experience, and there’s the definite feeling (even if we didn’t know what happened that night) that everything will end badly. The film follows several characters and their roles in the events of that night: Sabine (Clotilde Courau) a young female reporter who doesn’t approve of the FLN, Abde, a young Algerian who’s taking classes to improve his French, his sympathetic, naive young teacher, a young French radical woman whose sympathies lie squarely with the Algerians, and a young policeman, Martin who’s about to resign due to fear for his life.

The film begins with details of the weeks before the demonstration, and these scenes set the stage for what lies ahead as the film’s characters are gradually trapped in a maze of violence: Algerians are stopped and harassed by police for entertainment, and police officers, many of whom have served in Algeria, feel as though they have ‘carte blanche’ in this perceived period of open season towards any Algerians who may fall into their hands. Algerian workers, living in slums or shantytowns, are beaten and harassed by police, and then when the police are done with them, the same Algerians are beaten and threatened by the hardcore FLN members. Amidst rumours of bodies of Algerians found hanging in the forest, bands of rogue cops go hunting for stray Algerians at night. And of course, in the process, Italians, Spanish–anyone slightly dark skinned fall foul of the police.

In one scene, Abde reluctantly goes to police headquarters accompanied by his teacher to ask about his missing uncle. The treatment the teacher receives at the hands the officers leaves her in shock and tears–as a French citizen, she’s always had assurances of certain behaviour from the police, but now, in the company of an Algerian, she gets a taste of how the immigrants are treated every day. At first, she protests with the typical threat of a complaint and then it dawns on her, just who is she going to complain to?

This very intelligent film shows the political machinations from both sides during this period, and of course, the often unacknowledged political tactics has a trickle down effect to the ground level. Clearly the FLN organisers of the demonstration expected violence, and scenes depict shantytown dwellers being forced to participate. While there are definite innocents in the film, the plot also reveals those who waver before choosing sides. The policemen, Martin, for example, isn’t portrayed as a bad character, and police violence and harassment of Algerians seems to make him queasy, but he’s also weak and tends to turn away rather than utterly reject their behaviour. After the assassination of a fellow policeman, Martin finds himself participating in violence towards Algerians. On the other hand, another police sergeant utterly rejects the events of 17 October (also known as The Paris Massacre) and finds himself ostracized and threatened.

Police Chief Papon was, of course, a major player in events. Not only did he serve as a French Prefect in France’s Dirty War with Algeria overseeing repression and torture, he was also interestingly enough, finally convicted in 1998 for deporting over 1600 Jews from Bordeaux to concentration camps. Strange, isn’t it, the way these old fascists just pick up and move on from one government gig to another.

Police records show, and the film illustrates, that Papon encouraged police to be  “subversive” and he even promised to protect them from prosecution. This of course, opens up many other questions. For example: while the French government denied that the police murdered demonstrators, how did they explain the bodies fished out of the Seine or beaten to a pulp at police headquarters? These bodies must have been buried somewhere, and of course, this can only lead to the idea that many levels of the French government contributed into a media clamp down of the incident.  Indeed the film shows media censorship and biased reporting.

Nuit Noire, 17 Octobre 1961 is an extremely powerful film.  Even though we know how the film will end, nothing can prepare the viewer for one scene of unspeakable violence in the walled courtyard at police headquarters.

From director Alain Tasma

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The Respectful Prostitute (1952)

“Don’t paw me, you’re not part of my contract.”

Based on a Jean Paul Sartre play, The Respectful Prostitute explores the moral choices experienced by a white prostitute after she witnesses a crime committed against a black man.

Set during the segregation period, the film begins on a train traveling to a small town in the Deep South. A white woman, prostitute/singer/hostess Lizzie McKay (Barbara Laage), is manhandled by two white men who are drunk. During the scuffle, a white man kills a black man who is an innocent bystander. The white man, the nephew of a local senator, is hauled off for the crime. In jail, he’s perfectly happy to brag about the killing, but his uncle and cousin want him set free and decide a little witness tampering is the perfect solution.

The plan is to get Lizzie to sign a statement that the murdered black man was trying to rape her, and that the white man came to her rescue. There are only two impediments to this plan–Lizzie and the only other witness–the murdered man’s black friend. Both the senator and his son decide that Lizzie can be bought or persuaded to sign the false statement, and they try a number of different tactics to win her compliance. As far as they are concerned, she shouldn’t testify against a member of her “own race”–and whether or not the white man is guilty is beside the point. Lizzie, however, is already on the fringes of society. She doesn’t exactly relate to the privileged white set, so the dilemma for the senator becomes a matter of making Lizzie identify with her race.

In the meantime, the black witness is terrified. He doesn’t expect Lizzie to tell the truth about what happened, and now in hiding, he knows he’ll be lynched if found.

Lizzie is a hard character who’s tough enough not to buckle to fear, but she’s not immune to other rhetoric. As an outcast from mainstream white society, she becomes humanised by her experience with the slimy southern politician and his ‘old boy network’ who would quite happily sweep the crime under the rug.

The film is dubbed. It would probably be too absurd for a French film set in the Deep South to have subtitles, but the dubbing is an unfortunate feature of the film. Luckily, there are not many close-ups, so the dubbing isn’t too distracting. The Respectful Prostitute is an interesting story that explores the ugliness of racism, and in Sartre’s hands, Lizzie’s moral choices become the focal point of this tale.

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