What path have you taken up until now?
I was born in Senegal in 1975 to a Senegalese mother and a Malian father, but I have lived in France since I was five. Two things made me want to become an actress: on the one hand, an « amateur » musical which I performed on stage between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, and, on the other, a television drama I was in when I was eighteen: Le Royaume du passage, by Eric Cloué. I took drama lessons for two years. In 1996, after auditioning, I got one of the lead roles in Saraka Bô by Denis Amar, in which I played a young girl born in France, but whose Malian parents want to bring up according to African values. Since, I have worked as much in film as in television and theatre – I am particularly fond of the play Bintou by Koffi Kwahulé (directed by Gabriel Garran and Pascal N’Zonzi), which speaks about our generation torn between the harshness of a concrete world and a form of poetry. Lately, I have played in several films: Jonas et Lila by Alain Tanner (to be released in January), Marie-Line by Mehdi Gharef, Le Prof by Alexandre Jardin, and Code inconnu by Michael Haneke (to be released in the spring).
You play a leading role again in Tanner’s film, that of Lila. Can you tell us about this experience?
There was no audition. Tanner chose me after seeing the video of Saraka Bô, then after meeting me. The shoot was both hard and very pleasant. I didn’t have to create a character in the strict sense of the term, but to let myself be filmed. The connection between Lila and myself was particularly strong during a sequence in Senegal where the character goes to find her grandmother and her roots, something I in fact did over there… Lila is of African origin, but came to Switzerland at the age of two, which means that she is a lot more Swiss than African. Fun-loving, lighthearted, but also of acute, she is a twenty-five year old young woman who works in an uneventful job just to get by, and who reads enormously, philosophy in particular. She totally devotes herself to loving Jonas, her White husband who is the same age. There is a carnal dimension to their relationship, which Tanner sought to reconstruct by using sequence shots to film several love scenes. I find them beautiful, even if some people I know were shocked to see this sexual relationship between a Black girl and a White boy on the screen, as they felt they could detect a degree of submissiveness. That just goes to show that the taboos remain: people are not used to seeing a mixed couple make love lovingly.
What, based on your own experience, is your view of the situation for Black actors in France?
For my part, I have worked quite regularly for four years, and I attained the ‘intermittent’ status in December 1999.* I am not, therefore, in the best position to complain. But is obvious that the frequency of parts is not ideal. I have a White friend who goes to forty auditions a year, whereas I only do five or six. I have heard audition directors say that there are no Black actors in France, or that they are no good. A Black actor has to be stupendous in order to work… The main broadcast medium for Black people remains the television, and yet I know from a reliable source that the television stations (with the exception of Canal +) have a very « clear » policy, if I can put it like that: it is out of the question to give a Black or Arabic or Asian person a leading role at prime time. As for the cinema, I have to say that most of the directors who spoke out against the « racist » Debré immigration laws a few years ago, in favour of foreigners’ right to live in France, do not maintain a coherent discourse in their films, in which Black people are absent. When they write a role for a twenty-year-old girl, she is necessarily White.
One indeed gets the impression that people only give Black actors « Black roles » in France, with all the prejudices that entails…
There is no doubt about it. Personally, I am frequently confronted with the cliché of the whore or the plump, loose girl with a pert butt, who goes to take refuge with a civilized White man, because she is the victim of a savage Black husband or a castrating community… People don’t consider us for other jobs. It is not about only playing lawyers or Good Samaritans, but that people give us parts! I did all my schooling here, I have learnt the great French authors, and today, people won’t give me the chance to recite their language!
Do you think that changes are possible?
I am pleased that the Collectif Egalité, based around Calixthe Beyala in particular, has spoken out to launch the debate. The question of quotas inevitably has to be posed – even if no one is proud of them, as an actor would always prefer to be chosen on his/her own merit. In terms of the law, there is no intentional segregation in France, but in reality, the situation is at a standstill. So, I am absolutely in favour of quotas, in the same way that there are quotas for French songs, and that male-female parity is being discussed at the moment. Measures need to be taken which would tax all productions that do not employ non-White people.
But isn’t there as risk that people then only give you ingratiating roles, just to meet the quotas?
At least we will have a chance to meet people. In the United States, it is quotas which have enabled actors such as Denzel Washington, Danny Glover, or Whoopi Goldberg to emerge… In fact, I am going to New York for a while to improve my English and to make contacts. I would like to work for the Americans in the near future.
* Translator’s note: a special social security status for artists and technicians workings in the arts in France, which allows people who have accumulated a certain number of hours work a year, to be paid a proportion of their salaries during the months when they are out of work. ///Article N° : 5442