Shortly before the credits roll on “Chez Jolie Coiffure,” a customer in the eponymous hair salon asks her stylist, Sabine, if she has any plans to go home this year. Out of context, this sounds like the kind of standard, empty small talk one often makes while having one’s hair cut: what good movies you’ve seen recently, what you’re doing for the holidays, and so on. In this shoebox-sized shop for Cameroonian immigrants in Brussels, however, it’s a far more loaded question, and Sabine’s thin, rueful smile as she answers that she doesn’t know bespeaks a more pained, uncertain future. Rosine Mbakam’s stark, straightforward but subtly potent documentary doesn’t leave Sabine’s tiny workplace once in the film’s 70-minute runtime, viewing her much-traveled, much-punished life through the prism of its four close walls, and the vibrant but vulnerable community that fills the space.
“Chez Jolie Coiffure” is one of a pair of complementary but individually self-contained documentaries by Mbakam to examine West African female identity and displacement, both simultaneously released Stateside by Icarus Films. The other, “The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman,” is more autobiographical, movingly following the filmmaker — herself a Cameroonian expat in Belgium — as she returns to her homeland, observing her mother’s place and routine in a society to which Mbakam feels both a child and a stranger. “Chez Jolie Coiffure” is the inverse film, with Mbakam remaining a largely silent behind-the-camera witness to a fellow migrant’s disorientation, in this case trying to carve out her own space on foreign turf.
It’s a space she’s had to find several times before. To camera, Sabine relates the story of a Cameroonian woman who escaped to Europe via the gateway of Lebanon, where she was ostensibly employed as a housemaid, but really hustled into slavery; stripped of her passport, she escaped through Turkey to Greece. Though she relates this nightmare narrative with anecdotal detachment, it’s her own story. Sabine uses the third person to compartmentalize her suffering, presenting it as a kind of urban legend while impassively going about her daily business, whether briskly combing out headless weaves or braiding others’ hair with offhand nimbleness.
A coping mechanism that may be, but it also suggests Sabine’s journey is not a unique one. By turning herself into a story character, she speaks for many of her compatriots who have endured physical, economic and emotional hardship to reach this generically named “African quarter” of the Belgian capital — and are still awaiting the paperwork for permanent residence. Her small, busy shop is a microcosm of that society in anxious transit. As stylists and clients blithely chatter in its safe, sympathetic confines, idle gossip is mingled inextricably with grueling immigrant testimony: The horrific is everyday.
Mbakam’s shooting style is candid and artless: Figures cross and block the camera as the chaotic bustle of Sabine’s everyday trade and social life is established. But while “Chez Jolie Coiffure” is an intimately observational work, it’s not entirely a fly-on-the-wall exercise: Mbakam deftly draws out conversation and confession, making her close-quarters camera a confidante to its subjects. It’s a kinder, more engaged approach than that taken by other outside visitors to this diasporic oasis. At one point, a group of white European tourists passes by Sabine’s shop, snapping pictures of the women at work: “We pay to go to your zoos,” she mutters tartly. Bright, receptive and keen-eared, Mbakam’s film tacitly makes the point that not all observation is empathy.