Why you want to be in a Paris girl gang

Watch an exclusive clip from Girlhood, a story about a tough girl gang in the Paris projects

Just three films into her feature filmmaking career and 34-year-old Céline Sciamma is the French ciné-poet of youthful angst. Her debutWater Lilies (2007), showed the competitive nature and flowering insecurities among a teenage synchronized swimming team. Tomboy (2011) focused on 10-year-old Laure, who yearns to be a boy. And now Bande de Filles – or Girlhood as its known outside France – traces the journey of Marième, a black teenager from the infamous banlieues outside Paris, who falls in with a feisty gang of three fellow inner city teens and changes her clothes, her lifestyle, even her name, to find a place for herself within the group and without it.

Sciamma’s scripts (she was initially a writer, who had to be persuaded to direct Water Lilies) are characterised by how seemingly small fluctuations in a young person’s life can cause the most enormous emotional upheavals. Cast wholly with non-professionals, the vibrant, pulsing Girlhood is perhaps her finest work yet, displaying an added confidence in her filmmaking and tackling a more overtly demanding group of characters and more unforgiving environment.

So after Water Lilies and Tomboy have people referring to your ‘Teenage Trilogy’.

Céline Sciamma: Yeah, they have! I didn’t think about it, but people kept mentioning it and then because I’m done with [movies on] teenagers, it makes sense.

When we previously met after your debut feature Water Lilies, you said you’d had no plans to direct. Presumably that’s changed now.

Céline Sciamma: Definitely. But at the time I didn't know if I was going to make a second film.

Because it was so hard? Or you didn’t enjoy it?

Céline Sciamma: No, I really enjoyed it actually. I guess I was just a little shy with my own desire; and also not knowing what the welcome was going to be, if people were going to look at me as a director.

So you’re more confident now?

Céline Sciamma: Oh yeah. And this film I really decided to go for it, not hide what I like and want to do. I strongly refuse the frontier of what’s supposed to be an arthouse film, supposed to be modest. I want a strong narrative, I want drama, I want entertainment.

I think this is your strongest film – do you agree?

Céline Sciamma: I think so. And it’s also opened new possibilities for me. I feel like now, I could make a horror movie, for instance. I still want to put a strong female character in the centre, I still want to talk about metamorphosis, but it could be in different genres. I don’t know yet but I’m excited.

“Spending time with those girls, I thought, my God, they’re so much better than me at that age: more alive, more inventive… I really admired them” – Céline Sciamma

The film’s original French title is Bande de Filles, but abroad, to be called Girlhood just after Boyhood came out…

Céline Sciamma: I picked the international title myself, which is not always the case. I didn’t know about Boyhood at the time but now I’m actually quite happy that both exist because we’re both looking at what youth is supposed to be today. Boyhood is about a middle-class white guy with average dreams, average ambition of being an artist. And the fact that the French Girlhood would be a young black girl from the suburbs of Paris…

It normalizes the characters as representing different aspects of youth.

Céline Sciamma: Yeah. I like that both can be compared.

What did you think of Boyhood?

Céline Sciamma: I liked it but I thought it was… kind of depressing. I find it hard on the female character. Ethan Hawke comes in and out over 12 years and he has a lot of evolution, great scenes. Whereas the mother always sticks with the alcoholic guy… (laughs) Why? And in the end she says, ‘Oh, it went so fast…’ Well, you waited a lot, you know?

Though isn’t that deliberate?

Céline Sciamma: Sure and it tells something about fatherhood and motherhood. I think Linklater knows what he’s doing. But people who came out saying, I cried so much – I didn’t. I saw it more as an experiment.

Your cast is largely non-professionals, from a different background and ethnicity to you – were you always confident you could connect with them?

Céline Sciamma: I wouldn’t have gone for it if I’d had any doubts. I grew up in the suburbs of Paris, spent the first 20 years of my life there – not in a hard suburb, but in a very mixed one. So for a middle-class white girl like me, I know the feeling of being at the periphery, of being so close to the centre but so far away. And actually one of my actresses comes from exactly the same city as me. And the lead actress, she’s from Paris. So it’s all more complicated than it looks.

Your lead actress, Karidja Touré, is amazing. How did you find her?

Céline Sciamma: It was the hardest part to cast. I auditioned 300 girls and actually there was only one option – her. We saw her at a funfair in Paris and offered her a casting. I was looking at her face in the camera and I could see she was immediately role-playing, trying on different personas. And that was the brief. So I thought, I can work with that girl. She’s hiding. And I like that.

What were your specific challenges of working with non-professionals vs. trained actors?

Céline Sciamma: Their own limits. But that’s part of the deal. And you don’t want to steal anything from them. But that’s where the mise-en-scene has to step up – it’s my problem, not theirs. They had several big scenes of improv, but they were really receptive, really committed and really wanted to work.

And presumably their natural energy is very infectious.

Céline Sciamma: It’s so energising. In the casting they have to choose you as much as you choose them. I’m the fifth of the group, you know? And I really lived it like that. That’s why I have to stop working with young people, otherwise I’m going to be stuck, because I enjoy it so much!

What’s your take on the reality of the suburbs having spent this time working and filming there? They’re still largely portrayed in the media as dangerous and troubled areas.

Céline Sciamma: Spending time with those girls, I thought, my God, they’re so much better than me at that age: more alive, more inventive… I don’t know maybe it’s another form of angst… but I really admired them. And at the same time, this is our future, our youth and look at the place we give them. And it’s even more terrible because they’re so great and have so much room to grow... It’s terrible when a country says its youth is a problem.

Girlhood is released in UK cinemas on May 8