French women took on the patriarchy on the big screen and the red carpet with the Cannes screening of “Feminist Riposte”, by Marie Perennès and Simon Depardon, about the feminist activists whose influential poster campaign highlighted the scourge of sexist violence.
Political protests are ostensibly banned on the red carpet at Cannes. But twice already this year, the famed walkway has been the stage for dramatic protests calling out violence against women.
On Friday, a woman interrupted a red-carpet premiere, stripping off her clothes to reveal the words “Stop raping us” written across her torso, next to the blue and yellow colors of the Ukraine flag. She was quickly covered up and spirited away.
Two days later, feminist activists took over another premiere, unfurling a long banner with the names of 129 women murdered in France since the last time the festival too took place. This time security looked unfazed as the black-clad protesters paused on the steps of the Palais des Festivals, releasing plumes of smoke from handheld devices they had concealed in their clothes.
The protest by members of the Colleges activist group coincided with the premiere of Ali Abbasi’s competition entry “Holy Spider”, about the serial killing of sex workers in Iran. It was tied to another film, “Riposte féministe”(“ Feminist Riposte ”), which screened later in the day, documenting their struggle to combat sexism, sexual violence and the scourge of femicide.
Armed with brushes, glue and sheets of paper, the Colleges – literally, the gluers – have waged an economical, creative and highly effictive campaign to make women’s voices heard in towns and cities across France, plastering walls with slogans denouncing sexist violence. “Feminist Riposte”, by Marie Perennès and Simon Depardon, follows them on their nighttime raids as they brave the law to paste their slogans in the streets during Covid-19 lockdowns and curfews.
“Sexism is everywhere – so are we,” says one popular slogan. “If you don’t want us inside, we’ll stick things outside,” reads another, plastered over the entrance to an art gallery in the Breton city of Brest where a group exhibition features only male artists. The action and the message are equally important as the Colleges reclaim public spaces, countering male ubiquity in street names, on building façades and in graffiti.
“Have you noticed the number of cocks drawn everywhere during the Tour de France?” asks a bemused Colleuse in one of the film’s many glorious lines. “What is it about men that they need to draw their penis everywhere?”
“Feminist Riposte” hits back with its own tour de France, a journey through the country’s towns and cities, big and small, meeting the “strong, united and badass” young women taking the fight to the patriarchy. Theirs is a joyful activism, powered by sorority (footage of them stirring glue and hot water in pots, “like witches over their cauldrons”, is a particular treat). But they’re also mindful of the urgency of their cause in a country with stubbornly high rates of femicide.
Throughout the film, Perennès and Depardon remain silent observers, preserving the atmosphere of understanding and solidarity that permeates the groups’ discussions, allowing the Colleges to feel at ease, open up and broach difficult subjects.
“The first time someone told me, ‘I believe you’, it blew me away,” says one activist, recounting the personal ordeal she experienced. “I realized thanks to MeToo that I was not alone and that I wasn’t to blame,” adds another. Discussions often touch on the subject of violence as a useful and legitimate tool to “riposte”.
“Touch one of us, we’ll hit back,” warns the plastered slogans, signaling the Colleuse’s readiness to pay back in kind. In one powerful scene, a feminist march silences and drives away a group of anti-abortion activists, overwhelming them with cries of, “My body, my choice, now shut your mouth!”
FRANCE 24 spoke to the film’s co-directors about the making of “Feminist Riposte” and the importance of bringing the Colleges to the world’s premier film festival.
The film conveys the liberating effect of gluing messages on walls and “reclaiming” them. How did you go about filming those scenes?
Marie Perennès: The act of plastering the walls with slogans is practically as important as the message itself. It’s the whole idea behind the reappropriation of public space. This space in which women are not normally welcome, well, you’ve got to claim it back, day and night, and state clearly that you have every right to be there.
We tried to back up this notion of reappropriation in the way we filmed the scenes and placed our camera. We didn’t want it to look like a news report, with a shaky handheld camera ‘stealing’ images, almost fearfully, adding stress and urgency. Instead, we placed our camera on a tripod, the idea being to claim the street with them (the Colleges) and accompany their action, underlining the fact that they have every right to be there.
Simon Depardon: Our aim was to make something that was both politically committed and cinematographic. We didn’t want to do a history of the movement, a series of interviews facing the camera. Instead we wanted to capture a moving image of the Collegesthat would be screened in cinemas and last in time.
How important was it for you to cover the breadth of France?
MP: We were determined not to stop at Paris, as is often the case with films that tackle political subjects. We wanted to travel the country, meet different kinds of people and look for specificities in each town or city. We also wanted to show the connections between young activists who don’t know each other but who act with the same determination and courage across the country.
SD: The posters were also an excuse, an opportunity to film French youth and the political engagement of a generation that is not at all apathetic. We wanted to counter the notion that rural parts of the country are lost to the far right. Young people want to participate in the democratic life of the country. Not necessarily by casting ballots only, but also with paint, glue and sheets of paper – and without asking for permission.
Your film highlights the inclusive nature of the movement and its fight against all forms of discrimination. It does not touch on splits over the issues of transphobia and biological sex. Was it a conscious decision?
SD: Our film is not a comprehensive survey of feminism. While touring the country the vibe we got was one of sorority and of a great desire to change things, particularly regarding femicide. The issue of transphobia came up in discussions but only to a certain extent and not as a source of divisions. We did not wish to give it more importance than what we actually witnessed on the ground.
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MP: We were also disappointed to see that media coverage of the movement often gave a distorted, almost caricatured vision. We wanted to remain true to the young women we encountered, whom we found deeply moving. These are complex issues and our film is not a complete history of the movement. It is based on 10 groups of Colleges out of the 200 or so that exist in France, and the issue (of transphobia) was not a source of tension.
The Colleges have had a big impact at the festival. What’s next for them?
SD: We were delighted to be able to unite many Colleges from different parts of the country here in Cannes. They’d been touched on social media but had never met before, it was very moving to see them converge on the festival. They seized the opportunity to do something spectacular on the red carpet. It’s important to have such powerful images to give visibility to the cause.
MP: The posters are more of a tool than a movement, one you can deploy on a little street at night or on the red carpet in Cannes. We’re talking about something that is multifaceted, that will continue and evolve. Our concern was to keep a trace of a movement that belongs to a specific time, a post-covid moment in which people felt a great need to express themselves and change things. Even if the posters end, the determination will remain and express itself one way or another. Our film is not about the posters; it’s about young women who fight for a cause.