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French director Houda Benyamina, whose first feature, Divines, won the Camera d’Or in Cannes and has now earned a best foreign-language film nomination at the Golden Globes, admits she made some enemies with her controversial Cannes speech where she took to the stage in fist-pumping defiance and praised Director’s Fortnight head Edouard Waintrop for “having clit,” what she calls the female equivalent of “having balls.”
“In my speech, when I arrived to take my award, I could have taken it and said thanks and been meek,” she said. “I was so happy, but at the same time I still had that anger inside and I wanted to talk,” because she was still one of just a handful of women directors in competition.
“If a man had made the same speech, nobody would talk,” she continued. “Of course, it’s not what I said, it was the form. I was so free, and they’ve never seen a woman like that in Cannes.”
The vocal talk of clitoris was a line from the film about young girls making their way in the poor French suburbs.
“Because I’m a woman, I’m not supposed to be vulgar. But to me, there is poetry in vulgarity,” said Benyamina. “But we don’t have to be polite. In the last century we fought for equal rights — now we have to fight to have equal power.”
During a panel on women in French film, she cited that only 14 percent of filmmakers in France are women, despite a strong funding system that finances 300-plus films per year. In film schools, gender is roughly on par, “then when we try to do movies, it’s ‘poof.’”
That fight is ongoing, and even though Benyamina is nominated alongside Toni Erdmann director Maren Ade at the Globes, it’s only part of a long battle to get women into the business.
“I don’t want to be an example, me and [Ade],” she said. “All the time in France, people say, ‘Oh, there are a lot of women in cinema,’ and ‘Oh, look at Maiwenn.’ I say, ‘And? And?’ I think it’s good to open your mouth. Sometimes when you arrive, then you are afraid to speak up. And now it can’t be, ‘Oh, look at Houda Benyamina, look at [Maren Ade].’ It has to continue to be ‘And? And?’
“It’s not because we are women that we are in the competition — it’s because we did something special, something singular, and this voice is being recognized,” she continued. “I don’t think we are here because we are women, we are here because we touch people, we touch the soul, we touch something in the audience.”
Noting that women have to work harder to get their films made, Benyamina joked, “I think when we have the right to be mediocre, that will be parity.”
The filmmaker was in the U.S. during the election in November and was shocked by the ascendancy of reality TV star Donald Trump to the presidency, which had been dismissed by everyone she knew in the film community.
“It was so surprising because everyone said, ‘No, no, no, no way,’ and then I realized they are not connected to reality outside of L.A,” she said. “Maybe these people voted for Trump because they need dignity and they think Trump will get it for them. Trump is like Superman, ‘OK, I’m here to save America!’ and all the people will be able to have a lot of things, you know, capitalism. Capitalism is a form of dictatorship, if you only see the god of money.”
Benyamina claimed it was the film industry’s responsibility to get out of its bubble and understand why people have made that choice and to confront them with different perspectives and ideas through the art form.
“We have to be careful because when you are angry and this anger doesn’t have a word, it’s very dangerous,” she said. “And Trump knows how to speak to these people, so we have to understand why they heard him and why they believed him.”
The same problem also exists in France, said Benyamina, noting that there is a real chance of right-wing National Front candidate Marine Le Pen being elected to the French presidency in May, even though Parisians discount the possibility.
“Maybe one day I won’t be allowed in America, because I’m French with Arabic origin, Muslim origin,” said the director, although she will return for the Golden Globes in January and hopes to take on larger projects in the U.S. “Hopefully someday I will work in America, even if Trump is there, because we have to fight for our values.”
Benyamina added: “If you want something to change, you have to speak up at the highest level. I think my speech in Cannes, or the Oscars So White [movement], or [Patricia Arquette’s] Oscar’s speech — we have to speak up and put the clitoris on the table.”
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