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La Ligne de Couleur, Paris press screening

Wednesday 10 June 2015, by Abla Kandalaft

This is one for the francophones amongst you....

Calling La Ligne de Couleur a documentary about the French “minority” experience would be reductive. It is this and much more. It is also a quietly moving and intimate collection of personal stories, “filmed letters” as director Laurence Petit-Jouvet calls them, that their authors read out loud. They are 11 French citizens, French born and bred, men and women, of various ethnic origins, displaying a palette of skin tones. Petit-Jouvet films them individually, reading out loud letters written to themselves, to a friend, a family member, or in one case, the French president.

They read their own words in an environment that is dear to them or symbolises the image of themselves they want the world to acknowledge; Petit-Jouvet has us follow them around Paris on a scooter, to a cemetery, a church, their places of work (a radio station, a recording studio), their homes. One writer spits out the words as he boxes, another tells them to her daughter in her bathroom, another recites them on a stage.
They describe instances in their lives when they have felt belittled, hurt, insulted, misunderstood as a direct result of their ethnicities. They talk about particular sticking points that have come to define how they see themselves, often borne out of prejudices and stereotypes so deeply embedded in the popular psyche that they often go unnoticed by most people and make it so hard for the recipient to reject. Fatouma, for example, struggles to encourage her daughter to embrace her natural afro-textured hair. The girl is upset when her mother washes it and lets it dry au naturel-without any braiding, straightening or relaxing. It looks lush and healthy but she tugs at it in an effort to flatten it and begs her mother to tie it back, or else she will be made fun of at school.

Yaya is from a cité in the Parisian suburbs, one of those large complexes of tower blocks that mushroomed between the 1950s and 1970s to house newly arrived immigrants from the ex-colonies, mainly brought in to help rebuild a post-war France.
In the public consciousness, these areas are synonymous with high unemployment and a concentration of second and third-generation immigrants. Yaya has a masters degree in psychology, he is well read, very articulate and clearly a gentle soul. But when he looks for work, the only job he is consistently offered is that of a security guard. He calls France “the country with the most qualified security guards in the world.” And it is because she refuses this state of affairs that Petit-Jouvet wants to shed light on these everyday instances of prejudice.

It’s not all bleak; Yaya now occasionally works as a radio DJ for Radio France, the national, public service radio. In fact, the beauty of this documentary is that it refuses to strictly focus on the doom and gloom. Petit-Jouet explains that she didn’t want to “push an already open door,” as she puts it, by underlining heavily certain clichés (and realities of course) of the pitfalls and miseries of belonging to an ethnic minority. She wanted to explore more latent forms of discrimination and question how this feeling of difference manifests itself and is handled by those men and women with much more subtlety. Petit-Jouet’s lens focuses on what truly defines them, their hobbies, passions, families, careers, making their ethnicity entirely incidental. They all seem fairly comfortable and happy in their lives and careers; they are close to their families; some of them have children. They are psychologists, filmmakers, businessmen, councillors. And aside from a couple of cases, by and large, the writers have not been subjected to particularly violent cases of racial abuse.
Rather, they have faced more insidious discrimination. One of them talks about their skin colour as a sort of permanent filter through which white French citizens see them, thereby always tainting slightly whatever interactions they have. Another, Rui, talks about the traits that are de facto assigned to him as a man of Chinese origin: “studious, serious, asexual, timid”. Of course, these are part of the after-effects of history, colonialism and so on, but there are also obvious consequences of stereotypes often peddled by film and media.
Yumi is an actress and voice over artist whose parents are Japanese; her deepest passion is performing Racine’s work on stage. Despite a flawless and clearly native French accent, she is only booked to dub the voices of characters from the four corners of South East Asia. Some of the instances of discrimination are more “explicit”. Soft-spoken Jean-Michel, born in Montreuil, whose parents are from the French West Indies, is occasionally stopped and searched because of his skin colour, despite having been “French for four centuries,” as he puts it, referring to the French sovereignty over the islands.

Importantly, They all consider themselves avowedly French and France to be their country. They have no apparent desire to belong to an ethnic or national community. You sense they would balk at being asked to tick an ethnicity box.
There is a lot to be said for the French education system, which is for the most part, free and inclusive. This certainly isn’t to say that it isn’t slowly being eaten away by increasing privation (fee-paying Grandes Ecoles encroaching on universities), deteriorating economic context, lack of funding, overstretched teachers.

Their attitudes also reveal the effects (for better or worse) of the French system of assimilation, integrating everyone under the colours and slogans of the French Republic. But it also reveals the dichotomy between the ambitions of such a system-that all citizens have equal rights and obligations before the law, and so feel a sense of belonging to the nation-and the reality on the ground-stop and search, violence, casual racism, odd looks...

As a viewer and a French national of foreign origins, and of what could be best called Mediterranean or Near-Eastern ethnicity, I had never thought of myself as “other”, it did make me think to what extent similar clichés and instances of latent racism had insidiously provoked certain reactions (lying about my origins, colouring and straightening my hair) or wonder whether I had a CV binned after a glance at my foreign name.

We have yet to see whether the film will enjoy screenings in the UK, but it would be very interesting for it to spark a discussion on what British audiences make of it, and if the stories told by second or third generation Brits would echo some of Yaya’s, Patrice’s, Yumi’s or Jérémie’s experiences.

Dir. Laurence Petit-Jouvet, 2015

The film is out in France on 17 June.
For more info and a look at the trailer: http://lalignedecouleur.com/

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