44. Divines, directed by Houda Benyamina

44. Divines, directed by Houda Benyamina

“You’ve Got Clitoris!”

By Rose Marel

Dounia, the protagonist in Divines, proves pretty quickly that she can throw a punch, and take one too. But by the film’s conclusion, aside from Dounia, it’s the audience who’s really been dealt a blow, leaving us reeling as hope spirals downwards and tension escalates upwards.

An early collage of recordings establishes a close friendship between Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) and Maimouna (Deborah Lukumuena). Both from Islamic backgrounds, they have a special kind of closeness, bound by high-spirits and troublemaking. This kaleidoscope of escapades includes clubbing and ranting, messing about and some good-ol’ light-hearted mischief making. It’s all youthful exuberance, but their high energy and punk-ass attitude tugs at the undercurrent of danger. The fact that we see them through the filter of an iPhone alludes to an attention-seeking thrill – the desire for an audience, and a life that transcends their gritty reality.

Doubtless, their reality is a grim one. She lives with her mother in a sordid shantytown somewhere in Paris. There is no luxury or comfort. Dounia’s shower is a pit in the ground; her door is a curtain. Encapsulating her life within a single symbol is that of Dounia’s cracked iPhone screen. In it, we see her desire for a better life, and how it’s been shattered by circumstance.

Poverty can drive people towards desperation, especially when the driver is full of rage. Dounia has no ambitions for financial security but, rather, aims higher. Claiming to her exasperated teacher that there aren’t any millionaire secretaries, she rebels against both education and authority by ultimately expelling herself from school. Proving herself to be a hustler, she, along with Maimouna, sells lighters to school kids and observes street culture in a dark channelling of energy. Other shots are reminiscent of surveillance footage, as she susses the turf and dynamics of local drug dealers.

Having excluded herself from her religious community – while having to act as a carer to her own alcohol-soaked mother – and without the influence of school, Dounia lacks any type of direction. She does, however have a goal, black and tantalizing one: $$$. When there’s no stable or paved path towards this illusive flashing fantasy, Dounia goes about hacking one herself, and convinces a formidable drug dealer to take her on. From there, she finds herself not on a road, but a hurtling bullet train that’s even more dangerous to get off as it was to board.

Throughout the film, we see Dounia’s resilience, her drive and street-smarts. She has the kind of hard-set determination that can only be born from misfortune. Yes, Dounia sure has clitoris (as one character commends her), but it’s a misguided use of her energy. And while it’s heartbreaking to watch her actively claw her way into a serpent’s pit, her heartbreaking youth remains close to the surface. One scene, where Maimouna and Dounia wait for a client, sees their physical surroundings transform by the power of their imagination. Suddenly they are floating, as if in a Ferrari and clinking glasses of champagne. Deviating from strict realism, Benyamina allows for humour while suggesting that her hard-assed protagonists still maintain a particular kind of childlike innocence. Destroying this spirit is Rebecca, who begins grooming Dounia for purposes other than just standard drug deals. Encouraging her to wear her hair down and teaching her to wear heels, Rebecca moulds her into a weapon, at once capable of feminine seduction and masculine brute force.

Image result for divines 2016

Even from the beginning we see the infiltration of pop culture into the lives of impressionable youths, and how this can transmute itself into a perversion. Lil Wayne lyrics, for example, become a form of inspiration, and snapchat becomes a potential advertisement for drug dealing. Immersing the viewer in the world of urban youth, snippets of iPhone-shot videos fill the screen in portrait as we watch them, their spectator and collaborator. Tapping into the age of technology, Benyamina insinuates that it can encourage the user into a type of performance mode. Dounia becomes increasingly reckless as the film progresses, and things become more unreal. As her mind unhinges further, interjecting recordings of her crimes indicate that her reality has taken on a game or movie-like quality.

Part of this comes from Benyamina’s perspective that a new rebellious culture has no outlet among the new generation. In contrast, past revolutions were channelled towards escapism, voiced by intellectual poets like Allen Ginsberg or orbited around transcendental quests for self-enlightenment and world peace. Among this type of protest-inspired 21st century youth, there’s a laziness towards philosophising and an apathy towards global improvement. Focus is directed more exclusively towards the self, but in a superficial way, unlike the self-improving direction of the ’60s. It’s now all about money, or fast-tracked success, or fame, but without a traditional work ethic.

This apathetic, consumerist culture clashes with religion, exacerbated by the generational shift. It’s an ironic and sacreligious dissonance that Benyamina highlights through multiple juxtapositions. One of the earliest scenes is Dounia, lost inside her hoodie, peering first through a mosque window at her friend, whom she texts (and is responded to), before spying on a drug-deal across the road through the lattice of a fence. Each contradiction enfolds the next, in a practical look at the tug-of-war between cultures. Rather than simplify the complexity, Benyamina leans into it, emphasising the religious tone and then vandalising it. Dounia and her best friend Maimouna wearing full burqas in order to steal, and one drug-exchange takes place in a mosque during a cash-dollar, bling-bling, self-metamorphosis montage. The nail on the coffin? “Father, forgive me.” Well, that’s a big ask when she knows what she’s doing, and yet continues to spit in the face of piety.

This spiritual theme is explored, but it’s a warped spirituality. Instead of religion, the girls regard money and material possessions with the same kind of reverence. No doubt encouraged by an upbringing that’s wholly devoid of luxury, the young girl’s values twist themselves around symbols of happiness, as they succumb to the idea that consumerism equals a better life. As Benyamina explains, it’s from a certain absence of spirituality, values and cultural awareness that then, along with deeper feelings of not belonging, can foment into an angry wildfire. And when fire burns this bright, it can become an uncontrollable, unstoppable force.

A hymn-style soundtrack modulates according to the story, sounding at times powerful, and at other moments agonising despairing. It’s weighty in terms of emotional impact, and it is a fabulous score to Dounia’s own spiritual view towards money and power. A sub-plot is the quasi romance between Dounia and a male dancer Djigui, whom she spies on (not so secretly). He is almost like a parallel of her: another figure full of rage and emotion, but one who harnesses it through dance. The use of effects during one scene adds a magical subjectiveness to their budding relationship, when he spins her around and time ever so slightly slows, while the edges of frame appear faded, conveying a dizziness that could be both literal and figurative.

Director Houda Benyamina, on the set of Divines.

Winning the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2016 (and rightly so!), this is probably one of the best movies I’ve seen in recent years. Often the most challenging films don’t allow a genre or definite label to be tied around their neck, and it’s the same with Divines. Grungy, gritty, funny and socially potent, Benyamina directs with a forcefulness that aligns with Dounia’s own. An allegorical story of striving for a way out, but getting caught in the undertow, Divines cautions us against worshipping the wrong religion, and that having nothing to lose can be just as dangerous as having everything to lose.

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