Tag Archives: kidulthood

Why French flick Girlhood kicks Kidulthood’s arse

7 May
Bande de Filles: The young cast of Girlhood

Gang of four: the young cast of Girlhood

Girlhood, which has just finally opened in the UK, grabs you from the get-go. Over a fizzing electro-pop soundtrack, two teams of black girls clash in slow motion on an American football pitch. Their striped cheeks and outsized body armour set the tone for a film about urban warriors, but when the match ends and the helmets come off, it’s all broad grins and high fives. So this is a movie about the bonds between women, too. The girls walk home gossiping through the concrete night, splitting off one by one from the pack until we are left with just one: 16-year-old Marieme, who henceforth will appear in every scene.

It’s testament to Céline Sciamma’s skill as writer/director that she introduces the movie’s themes so effectively without words. And though the dialogue throughout feels real and street-fresh, heavily influenced and improvised by the astonishingly talented first-time actors who play the girls, it is the wordless scenes that linger long after the film has ended.

Oppressed at home by a violent older brother, denied access to high school by poor grades, Marieme falls in with a devil-may-care gang of three girls. It is while washing up that Marieme decides on her new life: she stops cleaning the sharp kitchen knife, folds it, and puts it in her pocket. Her hands clutch the edge of the sink. The camera moves behind her, and pulls back until she is small within the illuminated space of the sink. Then her shoulders straighten, and she lifts her head.

The pivotal scene that seals the girls’ bond is also wordless. They rent a hotel room with some ill-gotten gains. They knock back rum and coke, smoke a joint, and put on glamorous dresses with the anti-theft tags still attached. It’s as though they are getting dolled up to go out clubbing, but they are not dressing to attract men; they are dressing for themselves, testing out their power as women. The gang’s charismatic leader, Lady, begins to dance to Rihanna’s Shine Bright Like A Diamond, lip-synching perfectly. Marieme looks on for a few seconds, then joins in – setting a new style of dancing which foreshadows the way, later, she will take over as leader. It’s a beautiful, tender, exhilarating scene, which Sciamma rightly allows to play out for the whole length of the song.

You can even chart the girls’ emotional journey through their hair. When Marieme decides to join the gang, she unpicks her cornrows and lets her hair flow free, like theirs. When Lady is humiliated in a crucial fight with a rival, her hair is cut, Samson-like. When Marieme’s life choices narrow and she sinks further into the underworld, joining a hardened adult criminal gang, she adopts a short white wig.

Sciamma says she started with characters, and the plot grew from them. She herself came from the disadvantaged banlieues outside Paris, and was inspired by observing groups of black teenagers on the streets. “When you meet these girls,” she told Cineuropa recently, “they have such energy, such intelligence, such humour, such charisma, even though they don’t get to dream a lot and their country does not give them a vision of what they could become or do.”

Girlhood is Sciamma’s third coming-of-age movie, after Water Lilies (2007) and Tomboy (2011). Though a more direct translation of its French title, Bande de Filles, would be “Gang of Girls”, “Girlhood” evokes Kidulthood and Adulthood, the seminal British films about young black urban experience. But whereas Noel Clarke’s films were raw, hit-and-miss affairs, Girlhood is more than just a political statement about straitened opportunities or a moving female-centric relationship drama. Ravishingly shot in Cinemascope, it is pure cinematic art.

This review was first written for the Guardian website during the 2014 BFI London Film Festival.

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When Dominic Met Noel

8 Nov

Noel Clarke and Me

Noel Clarke’s a funny guy. Inspiring, too. At the London Screenwriters’ Festival at the end of October, the one-man British film industry was asked if he saw himself primarily as a writer, an actor or a director. “I see myself as a bill-payer,” was his pragmatic answer. “I only wanted to be an actor at first, then I realised it wasn’t going to pay the bills.”

That’s especially true for a black actor. “I’d be reading for the part of Bank Robber No 2, or Gang member No 1. Then, finally a character with a name! Yes!  You’d look (through the script) – what’s his first line? Oh. ‘Open the safe!’”

He started to think, auditioning for these scripts, that even he could write better. “And after a while, you have to stop complaining and start doing it.”

He wrote three or four spec screenplays – science-fiction, multiple-narrative drama —  but the first that got made was Kidulthood. No one would back it at first. “They all said, ‘take out the swearing. Kids don’t behave like that, our kids certainly don’t.’ I told them, ‘I f***ing think they might do!’”

So his team cobbled some cash together independently, mostly from the owner of a coffee shop. People liked the finished film, edgy and raw as it was, but no one dared release it. It sat on the shelf for nearly two years before finding a distributor who thought they could at least get some money from DVD sales. And the fact that Noel Clarke had landed a role in the relaunched Doctor Who didn’t hurt – another reason to diversify.

The film was a cult hit. I doubt there’s a teenager in south London who hasn’t seen it. Now, Noel thought, he could get his other scripts produced. Wrong. They kept asking, “But where’s your voice?” Meaning, why don’t you stick to writing inner-city gang films? So eventually, he gave them what they wanted: Adulthood, a low-budget sequel that made an impressive £3.7m, which he also directed.

Only now, finally, can he get other projects made: Storage 24 (sci-fi), The Knot (rom-com) and Fast Girls (sports drama) all came out this summer. Even so, he says, you have to just keep writing. He has two co-writers, and together they churn out half a dozen screenplays a year, in order to get one made.

He gave me some one-on-one time after the panel, and it’s heartening how he dares to dream big: Storage 24 was made very much with an eye to global sales on a micro-budget, and has now sold, he proudly says, in every territory in the world, including China and America. He was recently in LA for two months, acting in the new Star Trek, setting up meetings of his own. “If I was of a lighter persuasion,” he admits, “yeah, I would be living in the ‘H’ in ‘Hollywood’.”

But for now, fortunately, he’s staying. His energy is infectious. If there’s one message scriptwriters can take home, it’s don’t be precious. Write a bunch of spec screenplays, including one calling-card script that is your “unique voice”. Keep plugging away, and one day you too will have some project power. Until then, dream big.