Bande de Filles (Girlhood), written and directed by Céline Sciamma, took awards ceremonies by storm when released last year, and deservedly so. The film has certainly not gone unappreciated, with eleven award nominations, including the Queer Palm and the SACD Prize at Cannes, and six wins, among which were the Special Jury Prize at the Philadelphia Film Festival and the TVE Otra Mirada Award at the San Sebastian International Film Festival.
The film focuses principally on fifteen-year-old Marieme (Karidja Toure), on the verge of her sixteenth birthday, with supporting roles filled by other members of the girl gang she becomes involved with: Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Marietou Toure). Girlhood shows the progressive disappointments, hopes and frustrations Marieme experiences, increasingly involved in the youth gang culture of her Parisian suburb. The inevitability of these girls’ situations, already becoming young women, is brought into sharp focus in the opening scenes of the film, when Marieme is told by a faceless career advisor (an off-screen voice) that her grades are not good enough to get her into high school. When Marieme protests, saying “I want to be like others – normal”, The advisor replies “It’s a bit too late for that”. The audience gets the impression it may always have been too late for Marieme.
In the midst of her disillusion, Marieme meets Lady and her gang, who are on the lookout for a new member. This membership offers Marieme an escape from the pressures of her family and a bleak looking future, and she gradually becomes more involved in their world of petty crime. In this world of children and not-quite-adults, the only parent you ever see is Marieme’s mother, who is cold, vague, and has no real character development. Other adults, like the career advisor, are absent or invisible. In this world, children take on the roles of adults. Marieme cares for her two younger sisters, and they are in turn dominated by a complex relationship with their older brother; he is controlling and violent, but also trying, in his way, to keep the girls away from certain dangers. Achieving a reputation for being hard is essential to the girls, and Lady and Marieme fight to maintain the notoriety of their group.
Although there are moments when the girls interact with other groups amicably (in a dance-off in Paris, for example) the majority of the scenes between the girls and other groups are of conflict. Here, sisterhood is only between you and your gang, not between all women. The girls seem to be mirrors of the male gangs, who pride themselves on violence and their toughness, though, as Marieme finds out when she decides to break away from the group, in the real world of gangs the women are not treated the same as the boys.
Sciamma uses interesting visual motifs to demarcate the transitions of the girls from one state to another, especially Lady and Marieme. This is communicated through changes in clothing style, but especially in the symbolic changing of the girls’ hairstyles, from braids to chemically straightened weaves, to a more natural state. There is a strong symbolic element behind these aesthetic alterations.
Those expecting a La Haine (1995) type situation might be disappointed by this film, and there is actually relatively little violence. Sciamma achieves a far more high pitched sense of realism by avoiding over dramatisation throughout the film and keeping even the most intense scenes low key to the last. However, this is an excellent portrayal of life for young women coming from difficult situations, and of sisterhood in general. The film is interchangeably funny, moving and thought-provoking. With some truly exceptional scenes, and interesting use of music (you will never listen to Rhianna’s “Diamonds” in the same way again), the film lives up to the impression created by its nominations list, and will not disappoint.