Thursday, January 16, 2020

Chez Jolie Coiffure

Director Rosine Mbakam (left) alongside Sabine

CHEZ JOLIE COIFFURE         B               
Belgium  (70 mi)  2018  d: Rosine Mbakam

Cameroon and Belgium are fused together in this film about a charismatic hairdresser named Sabine, an undocumented émigré from Cameroon who runs a hair salon in a shopping mall in Matongé, the African quarters in Brussels, where her effervescent personality drives this picture, as she is blatantly honest, gets into everyone’s business, flirts prodigiously, hands out essential support information to other African émigré’s, where her shop is an epicenter of social services, which includes a myriad of expansive hair styling (Africaine, Europèanne, Americaine), which she effortlessly performs while carrying on a running conversation with the camera which is planted directly in the center of her shop, Jolie Coiffure Salon, often referring to the director by her first name Rosine.  While the size of the shop is tiny, the dazzling array of angles used is expanded exponentially by the use of mirrors, where it’s hard to tell if you’re seeing the actual shot or the reflection in the mirror.  Sabine is a larger-than-life character in every respect, unabashedly unafraid to throw her curves around, wearing skirts and blouses so tight that it’s a wonder she can actually fit it all underneath, as her full-figured body is hard to contain.  She is such a healthy presence onscreen that viewers will take to her instantly, while Rosine helps with the braiding or around the shop, with other hairdressers recruited when many hands are needed, all working simultaneously with a patient customer enduring it all, which includes eating while she’s working on someone’s hair.  Apparently addicted to eating gizzards, she constantly flirts with a man who sells them, earning a daily smile and an assault of criticisms when he arrives emptyhanded, teasing him relentlessly, but over time we come to realize she’s friends with his wife, who runs off temporarily during the middle of the picture, which leaves him heartbroken, where she’s seen consoling him, offering advice, and just being a good friend in a time of need.  There is literally nothing this woman can’t do, as she is constantly the focus of attention throughout the film, where it would be hard to find a more generous subject. 

Over time we learn her story, which began with a recruitment agency in Cameroon for a housekeeper in Lebanon, which was her most dreadful experience as they keep your passport so you can’t leave, feeling imprisoned, treated like a slave, eventually escaping to Syria, then Greece, traveling mostly by foot before finally arriving in Belgium, where her request for asylum has repeatedly been denied, making her subject to the frequent immigration raids in her neighborhood, quickly shutting off the lights and disappearing, basically hiding from the authorities.  Rosine allows her camera to continue to run in the darkness, as shouts of commotion can be heard offscreen as arrests are made, suggestive of what could be happening.  The police routinely patrol with dogs, randomly rounding up undocumented immigrants who are either imprisoned or exported across the border.  The pervasive feeling of fear followed by relief is shared among the many who face similar circumstances, who are seen commiserating in Sabine’s shop afterwards, which becomes a safe space, each sharing their own story of woe, yet fortunate they evaded the trap this time.  Sabine also spends her time organizing a network to support fellow Cameroon émigrés by raising money, recruiting new members, informing them of their rights, and helping people who need work and a place to stay, particularly mothers with children, even welcoming people into her home, which may simply be the loft above the shop, often teaching these young girls the art of braiding or weaving hair, adding hair extensions, or various degrees of colorization, routinely seen giving work to other girls who just arrived.  Yet there is also down time when there are no customers, with Sabine staring silently out the window lost in her own thoughts, occasionally looking down in the dumps, but in no time she’s back to her bubbly disposition.

Despite repeated warnings to avoid Lebanon, African émigré’s continue to come, even members of Sabine’s family, desperate to try something new, as their economic opportunities are so bleak.  Sadly she receives a phone call from her younger brother needing immediate cash, finding himself in dire straits.  While she’s always willing to lend a helping hand, there’s only so much one can do, as she needs to stay current on her own rent.  One of the amusing sidelines is the attention she receives from the gazes of white tourists walking by who literally stop and stare, literally gawking, making them feel like zoo animals on display, as if they have never seen a black person before, particularly one who flaunts her body, wears a blond wig, and plays Afro-pop music all day long, seen singing along at one point when the lyrics reference the power of God.  Sabine has no patience for these groups of tourists, instructing them to move along, as this is literally her home, a tenuous one at that, so easily taken away, where her job is to make the best of the situation, feeling like she’s happier here, as she’s working while also regularly providing a service to others, not really wanting to return back home where opportunities are so few.  The personal is interwoven with the political, where the film becomes a collection of shared stories, many of them harrowing, with the camera never leaving the shop, placing viewers in a similar situation of feeling trapped, never allowed to leave the premises, where the world outside is a potential danger zone that exhibits very little sympathy or understanding for people in Sabine’s situation, feeling instead the wrath of a xenophobic rage.   With this film, released alongside Mbakam’s THE TWO FACES OF A BAMILÉKÉ WOMAN (2016), it’s an interesting exploration of African women both at home and abroad, where they’re never really welcomed or accepted on either continent, where their only protection is to form a community of like-minded women to support one another, with the film enlarging their small community networks to an international stage, bringing to light the continuing strife and oppression that exists in a post-colonial world.

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