‘Divines’ Director Houda Benyamina on a Journey to Break Glass Ceiling in France

Houda Benyamina
Jerome Mars/JDD/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

Since scooping up the Camera d’Or in Cannes with her directorial debut “Divines,” Houda Benyamina, the ambitious 36-year-old French-Moroccan – one of France’s rare Arab female filmmakers of North African origin — has become one of the country’s hottest emerging directors.

“Divines,” which was picked up by Netflix off of Cannes’ Directors Fortnight, will vie for a foreign-language Golden Globe on Jan. 8, alongside Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle.” Benyamina has just signed up with WME agent Jerome Duboz, whose wide-ranging client list includes South Korean film master Park Chan-wook (“The Handmaiden”), up-and-coming Indian helmer Ritesh Batra (“The Lunchbox”), and multi-hyphenate film vet Wim Wenders (“Submergence”).

Benyamina, whose acceptance speech in Cannes gave a taste of her acerbic, bold personality and ruffled the feathers of some high-profile French industry figures, hasn’t been blinded by the spotlight.

“Since Cannes, I have been approached by many American agents, but I immediately clicked with Jerome Duboz, who happens to have grown up in the same suburb as me in Evry Courcouronnes. From the first email he sent me, I sensed that he got me right away. I totally trust him,” said Benyamina, who last presented “Divines” at Les Arcs Film Festival, where she took part in several workshops and a panel on the status of contemporary female filmmakers in Europe.

“I came from nowhere. Me and producer Marc-Benoît Créancier (at Easy Tiger), we found each other: the Ch’tis [a nickname for natives of Northern France] and the chick from the ghettos,” Benyamina said. “Because we were both outsiders, it was tough to break into the French film community. It’s like entering a members-only golf club.”

Benyamina was poised to become a hairstylist before taking acting classes and venturing into filmmaking with the shorts “Ma poubelle geante” (“My Giant Trash”) and “Sur la route du paradis,” which won two prizes at Dubai.

She said “Divines” proved difficult to finance because it was perceived as yet another film about the banlieue (underprivileged French suburb), especially after Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood,” though the two movies don’t have much in common except for the fact that they showcase minority female protagonists from underprivileged suburbs.

But Benyamina and her producer were able to find backers in France, including the acquisition exec at French pubcaster France 2, who had initially declined to pre-buy the film but changed her mind after hearing Benyamina speak about it with passion. Like many Arab directors, Benyamina also received support from Doha Film Institute and Dubai Film Connection.

An eminently political film weaved into a friendship tale, “Divines,” which stars Benyamina’s sister Oulaya Amamra and Deborah Lukumuena as two friends determined to make money fast and escape to a better life, was conceived by Beyamina following the 2005 riots which erupted after the deaths of two boys who had been running from police in a high-rise ghetto near Paris.

“What’s extraordinary with ‘Divines’ is how universal it is. It sparks enthusiasm and empathy among young female audiences across different ethnic origins and social backgrounds; it captures the complexity of womanhood and the subtleties of a friendship between two women,” said Edouard Waintrop, who selected the film for Directors’ Fortnight and recently showed it during the rerun screenings of Directors’ Fortnight in Geneva.

Benyamina, who said she grew up watching TV movies, has a penchant for colorful characters and spunky dialogue filled with punchlines. Besides Martin Scorsese’s movies (in particular “Mean Streets”), she cites films by Bertrand Blier, Henri Verneuil, Ettore Scola and Pier Paolo Pasolini as inspirations.

She is looking to broaden her canvas and tackle different genres.  Although she aspires to make films as freely as possible, Benyamina is not the kind of European auteur who only wants to direct movies she’s written. In fact, she said she’s already found interest in scripts Duboz sent her.

“Houda is interested in many things beyond the banlieue, and her inner world is much bigger than the story of ‘Divines.’ For instance, in Cannes, she was mesmerized by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ‘Endless Poetry,'” Waintrop said.

One of her passion projects is “a ‘Cosmos’ movie, somewhere between ‘Tree of Life’ and ‘Gravity,'” said Benyamina, with her eyes wide open and a child-like smile.

Another project high up on her list tells of the lifelong love between a Frenchwoman and an American man, and is inspired by a true story. Although Beyamina acknowledged that she recently met James Franco and Robert Pattinson for a chat, she said neither had read her script at that time. While she would love to work with either man, she said she was willing to cast unknown actors if they fit the roles, as she did with “Divines.”

“I like to create the atmosphere of an artistic boot camp where actors really dive deep into their roles and merge with their onscreen characters like Robert de Niro did in ‘Taxi Driver’ or Gerard Depardieu in ‘Les valseuses,'” Benyamina said, adding that she’s a fan of Method acting, a technique more widely used in the U.S. than in France.

“If ‘Divines’ hadn’t been acquired by Neflix, it would have been seen by 200,000 people max outside of France, and thanks to Netflix it’s going to be available to 86 million subscribers across 190 countries,” she said.

Sold by Berlin-based Films Boutique, which is partly owned by the French outfit Films Distribution, “Divines” was released by Diaphana on Aug. 31 and made over 2 million euros ($2.1 million) from an estimated 324,000 tickets sold, a healthy performance for this type of film. Although “Divines” bowed on Netflix worldwide Nov. 18, promoted like an “original,” the movie will not be available on France’s Netflix service until 2018, under the country’s strict regulation for subscription-based VOD services.

In France, the only movies depicting, to some extent, the struggle of minorities in the ghettos which made a significant critical and/or commercial impact in the last 10 years – Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet,” “Dheepan,” Philippe Faucon’s “The Disintegration,” “Fatima” and Celine Sciamma’s “Boyhood,” among others – weren’t directed by minorities.

“French Arabs of North African origin are well represented in French society, but unfortunately they remain for the most part confined – culturally and socially– to ‘zoo-lands,’ and minority French filmmakers still have a long way to go to be fairly acknowledged in mainstream culture,” said Waintrop.

Benyamina, who founded the non-profit organization 1,000 Visages in 2006 to train and create opportunities for aspiring minority filmmakers and actors in France, hopes to break the glass ceiling with “Divines” at home and abroad, notably at the Golden Globes.

In spite of its rising profile, “Divines” was not considered by France’s Oscar committee to represent the country in the foreign-language race and it was not either nominated for the prestigious Louis Delluc prize for first film. It nevertheless earned two nominations – first film and female newcomer (for Oulaya Amamra and Déborah Lukumuena) – at the Lumiere Awards, which is voted on by members of the foreign press.

It remains to be seen how “Divines” will fare at the Cesar Awards, France’s equivalent of the Oscars. At last year’s edition, Philippe Faucon’s “Fatima,” which had also premiered at Directors’ Fortnight, won the Cesar awards for best film, female newcomer and adaptation.