Director Maïmouna Doucouré Was Inspired by Her Own Adolescence to Create Cuties

Up until a few weeks ago, writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré was known mostly among those who attended the Sundance Film Festival back in January and were blown away by her debut feature, Cuties. The semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama centers on Amy (Fathia Youssouf), an 11-year-old French immigrant who is newly exploring a kind of feminine freedom and sexuality that are in contrast to her conservative Senegalese upbringing. Seen then only by festival goers, the film received an overwhelmingly positive response.

Fast-forward to August and the film was everywhere—but earning a very different reception, most notably on social media. Netflix had debuted the U.S. art for the film, a poster featuring little girls twerking on a stage without any context. The image caused an uproar. A petition against the film described it as for the “viewing pleasure of pedophiles.” Netflix quickly apologized and replaced the poster. The controversy spurred up debate about the relationship between an individual artist’s vision and how a larger corporation chooses to market it.

Things continued to escalate when Cuties started streaming on Netflix in September. Clips of the actresses dancing in revealing outfits spread on social media, again out of context. Naysayers claimed the film sexualized young girls and threatened to boycott the streaming platform. Later that month, a Texas grand jury indicted Netflix over Cuties for the promoting “lewd material of children.”

The company stands by the film. The outsize controversy has been a disappointing distraction for the director who had hoped to bring attention to an urgent issue among young girls today.

“The movie has certainly started a debate, though not the one that I intended,” Doucouré wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last month. She added that she wanted to “open people’s eyes to what’s truly happening in schools and on social media [and] force them to confront images of young girls made up, dressed up and dancing suggestively to imitate their favorite pop icon.”

When Cuties finally became available to viewers, reactions were mixed. IndieWire has praised the film’s “even-handed” approach to the complexities of adolescence, calling it “the kind of coming-of-age story that will make any adult viewer think back to their own tween years. You couldn’t pay most people to re-live all that; watching Amy endure it on screen is hard enough.” Doucouré‘s decision to hold true to the reality of adolescence, one filled with conflicting images that girls like Amy struggle to interpret, may jar some viewers. But there are few things more complicated than acting out the rituals of womanhood when you don’t quite understand them yourself.

That said, the most radical thing about Cuties is that it tells the story through the perspective of the young girls themselves, revealing their complex interior lives. “Some people have found certain scenes in my film uncomfortable to watch,” Doucouré continued. “But if one really listens to 11-year-old girls, their lives are uncomfortable.”

This is something Doucouré knows all too well. Like Amy, she struggled with how to express herself as a young girl watching her mother sob when her father brought home another wife. She found this memory—reflected in both Cuties, as well as her 2015 short film, Mothers—deeply unsettling. “I saw so many injustices that were lived by the women around me that I developed a very strong anger that I had to keep inside,” Doucouré tells BAZAAR.com. “And I felt completely powerless.”

Doucouré spent a year and a half interviewing more than 100 young girls for Cuties. The result is an unflinching look at a girl so committed to dismantling everything she’s learned about her place in the world that she is drawn into a polar-opposite vortex of sexuality and intense liberation, nearly losing her identity in the process. Here, the filmmaker (who speaks English but spoke through a translator) discusses what freedom looks like in the eyes of young girls, learning to reconcile her bicultural identities, and the road to Cuties.

In Cuties, a young girl explores her sexuality, which begs the question, particularly now: Can a young girl discern the difference between sexual freedom and exploitation, where her sense of empowerment is influenced by external factors like social media?

In my film, that’s exactly the question. These little girls who are transitioning into that are not yet adolescents, let alone adults. Their bodies are changing and transforming, and they’re searching for themselves. They’re trying to decide who they want to be. So, what I was really looking for was … what is that like for them?

The way that I got to create these characters is … there are two things that collided. One is my own: all my memories of my own childhood when I was 11 and what I was feeling and thinking. Then there are all the experiences of the young girls who I interviewed for a year and a half, and how they were living their changes.

Were any of their experiences similar to your own?

Recently, I reminisced with friends that I grew up with. And, yes, we used to dance at that age. We would [do] a dance called Ragga Murphy, which is a fairly sensual dance. But the difference is that we were just doing it together, the only image of us dancing is in our memories. And now, these girls when they’re dancing, they’re in front of a camera to make an image to then be posted on social media. So that changes the reason why they’re dancing.

It does.

And what I remember, and what my friends remember, is that we had no idea that this dance we did was sensual at all. For us, it was just a game. That’s a similarity that we have with these young girls, who very often have no clue that they are being sensual in these dances. They’re just copying what they see on social media.

Considering the challenges that come with working with young actors, how were you able to create an environment for the cast that looks natural on-screen?

First of all, we auditioned 700 young girls. And each of them had something in them that was special and a special talent. So we just looked for that. And [for] each of these girls who we cast, it was their very first time acting. So I had to invent a whole new technique of working with them. For example, I never gave them a script. I would tell them the story like an adult would tell a child a story. And then, I would tell them what their lines would be. But I would let them take these lines, play with them, and develop their own characters.

And I attributed to each one of these girls an animal. For example, with Angelica [Médina El Aidi-Azouni, who played one of Amy’s friends], she was a snake. Our main character, Amy, was a kitten who then became a cat, who then became a black panther. With each of these children, and each of these animals attributed to them, it completely changed their breathing, their posture, and even the way they looked at each other and on the screen.

Part of my technique was also to invent an entire lexical field or vocabulary for these children. Because they love food, instead of saying, “Action,” I would say, “Hamburger.” Instead of saying, “Cut,” I would say, “Chips.” And if I wanted more energy, I would yell, “Watermelon.”

[Laughs.] I love that. Similar to Amy, you lived in a polygamous household and had 10 siblings. What did you understand about your parent’s relationship when you were growing up?

I actually had a very happy childhood. What I remember, though, wasn’t not understanding what was going on between the adults, but the non-communication—the lack of communication that the adults had towards the children. Just like Amy, who tries to understand what’s going on by hiding under her mother’s bed, I had to figure things out for myself.

Much of Amy’s curiosity of adolescence and sexuality is brought on by her newly acquired bicultural identity. How were you able to reconcile your own French-Western and Senegalese identities and ideals as you were growing up?

This question of having two cultures, [and] how to become a woman, haunted me for a long time. That’s how I decided to, instead of choosing between two cultures, use both of them and have that become my strength.

What I finally figured out was that I could construct myself towards what pleased me [about] each culture. And what I really wanted Amy to take away by the end of the film was that she, too, could enjoy living in both cultures. [She] can go beyond both cultures to create who she wants to become.

I was really struck by the fact that Amy’s mother pivots from chastising her to defending her from her grandmother later in the film. What inspires that change?

What happens is the mother also evolves throughout the film. She realizes that Amy is acting out and that she is acting out every time there’s something that happens to the mother. The mother, in fact, is living a silent suffering. She’s in the process of living something extremely difficult, with the new wife coming in. Therefore, she starts to realize that she’s possibly responsible for some of Amy’s acting out.

And for me, what is interesting is that Amy is a character who is completely closed in, imprisoned by self-destruction. And that, in fact, it’s going to be her mother who frees her at the end, to let her become the girl she chooses to be. So it is actually the mother who lets Amy have this freedom of choice by the end of the film.

Both Cuties and Mothers center around young girls. What inspires you to continue to return to this era in life?

I believe that it’s because when I was young, I saw so many injustices that were lived by the women around me that I developed a very strong anger that I had to keep inside. And I felt completely powerless. So, in a way, my films are a revenge on my childhood. I want to be able to give voice to these women through my films.

Because Cuties, particularly, is inspired by your own life, was it cathartic for you to complete and then watch it?

The first reason that I wanted to make Cuties was because I felt this urgency after researching for a year and a half by interviewing hundreds of young girls. I really saw how difficult it is for young girls to find themselves and create who they want to be in this world of social media.

And the second reason is that my films permit me to go through a type of therapy for myself. [They] allow me to talk to people that I love through my stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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