Name: Fanta Sylla
City: suburbs of Paris, France
Occupation: Freelance critic
In reference to your latest piece on Rookie Mag, where do you see the future of the relationship between black people and film if not in representation?
In the U.S. we are seeing great things happening in television and film, for instance with Donald Glover’s Atlanta or Ava DuVerney’s Queen Sugar where it’s not about reproducing a form that we have already encountered. There were a lot of sitcoms in the 90’s but we could say that in tone and even thematically they were similar. With these two new shows I mentioned there is a desire for both these authors to be very personal, to talk about their own experience and to experiment with the form inside of television conventions. So I guess I’m optimistic. There are a lot of great webseries, U.K. side Cecile Emeke created the funny Ackee & Saltfish, and she just released a new short called FIRST ACT that is like nothing I’ve seen before. Then there are music videos something Black people have always been masterful at, and within which they were able to go beyond representation and respectability politics. There are Vines that are to me such a reflection of young Black people inventivity and creativity. So yes, I’m optimistic because we are already seeing wonderful, funny, weird things.
This is true – Chaia (MG Editor) published a piece about the Netflix series The Get Down which seems to be inspiring a whole new wave of art for the Black community. On that note, what are some films (if any) that you feel represent Blackness and tell Black stories in a real and important way?
I haven’t seen The Get Down yet but one reason I was super excited about it is because I know Baz Lurhmann is a bit excessive and his films are highly stylized so it would be refreshing to see Black people, especially in that era and that music movement being portrayed that way. I knew we wouldn’t be in that hand held camera, documentary style type of TV shows. Like no one would be able to compare it to The Wire, which seems to be the only reference for some critics… He also loves actors so I’m curious about the performances of these young, mostly unknown actors.
Yes, exactly! It was so nice to get to see Black/Latinx stories being told through the eyes of a director like Baz Lurhmann.
I rewatched John Singleton’s Poetic Justice (with Tupac and Janet Jackson) this summer and loved it. One of my favorite film ever is Touki Bouki directed by Djibril Mambety Diop, I don’t know if it portrays blackness in an authentic way but it features the most atypical couple, and it captures the dreams and desires of a generation pretty well.
How do you personally reconcile your love for film—a majority white male medium—with your identity as a black woman? How/when did your fascination with it start?
My father loved Westerns and American cinema, my mother loves TV soap operas and Bollywood films, I basically grew up watching movies. I have always been a mainstream viewer, going to the movies every Saturday, renting Black rom coms and teen films at the video club. I’ve never had a cinephile education, I’d watch what everyone watch. I also loved Disney movies and cartoons in general. I guess came to film criticism via film criticism, meaning via reading and listening to critics writing/talking about films. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and it seems to me that writing about film was a great to write about many things: politics, art, beauty, people, sex whatever.
As I said and keep saying, French film criticism which is a big deal was well reflective of French colorblindness and republicanism – meaning no talk about race, and of course film criticism was overwhelmingly white and male. There are a few women, but most of them weren’t that disruptive. They were great writers, they are all mostly great writers and my first pleasure comes when reading well-written texts.
But the thing is French cinema is super white, and sometimes super racist and it was obvious that these critics didn’t even have the language to write about it so they’d brush it off. Or like fucked up films like Westerns or Birth of A Nation would be talked about without any mention of the racist propaganda in it, or really like trying to turn it around and say that it’s not that bad.
Yes! I was just about to say – did living in a place like Paris influence this as well? I noticed when I lived there that everyone has a very distinct approach to film (they pride themselves on their knowledge of it), but it must be weird, as a woman of color, being institutionally excluded from it.
So it’s quite isolating. It’s changing – very slowly. I didn’t know there was a whole literature, cultural criticism, that was dealing with just that. But I had to learn English to access it. So basically when I was in the U.S. I read everything about race and representation. French cinema and film criticism are just like any other institutions in France. Even anti-racist organisations are white as hell in France.
That language barrier (having to learn english to access this criticism) is super fascinating to me, but also makes me sad because this conversation should be going on everywhere. What would you say are the major differences between the two industries – American film vs French? Are they both equally unaccepting?
When I was a child I really thought America Was Better because I could see one black person in the background, while French cinema literally just denied that non-white people existed in the country. Of course all those things are not necessarily true. America has integrated non-white people in films but in very fucked up ways. And French cinema has a history of black filmmaking that I just didn’t know, and that I am discovering now. There are directors such as Claire Denis who have worked beautifully with Black actors. Agnès Varda directed a documentary on the civil rights movement in the U.S. So there can be a racial awareness, especially among white women I’d say – even though that too can be fucked up because fetishization is never far away.
I think both institutions are racist. America just moves faster, and also Black people in the U.S. have more space to organize. It’s hard in France to just name a problem, and to say I’m Black this is bothering me because you’re not supposed to be black you’re supposed to be French etc.
There is a strong history of black filmmaking in the U.S., independent and mainstream that doesn’t exist in France for many reasons, but I do feel like things are changing. It’s coming. The problem of the French industry is that it’s not just anti-black, it’s also anti young people trying to do their things. It’s hard to make a film in France if you don’t have the connections, or the resources, if you haven’t been to school, if you’re young. And there isn’t this entrepreneurial culture like in the U.S. where people don’t wait for the government to help to make films, they just take their camera and shoot. In France we are more dependent and easily discouraged.
What advice would you give to young girls of color wanting to break into the film industry, via any format – be it directing, acting, criticism, etc?
I think my advice for criticism is to read everything, because that’s what I did. And I guess it’s easier now to access bell hooks work, not just because you can find pdfs of her essays and books online but because people, more and more, are writing cultural criticism influenced by her and other theorists.
Don’t feel like this is not your province, it is, it’s totally yours. Also if you don’t feel like talking about race or your experience, if you want to have some kind of detached perspective about it, it’s okay too. What feels good to you, just do that. The most important to me is good, honest writing. And this comes with practice. So practice and read!
Current music favs?
I’ve been listening to Frank Ocean’s Blond and Tame Impala’s Currents which I’m still obsessed with a year later. I don’t like to call white men geniuses but…Kevin Parker really did that.
What does being a modern girl mean to you?
It means being voracious, and curious and willing to be vulnerable despite how hostile and shitty this world is. It means creating and experimenting despite all odds, creating spaces for yourself and others. I don’t know if I am modern, but the modern girls I admire are just like that.
Interview by Vanessa and all photos provided by Fanta.
Read Fanta’s “The Black Film Syllabus: A critical movie lover’s starter pack” on Rookie Mag here.
Check out more of Fanta’s writing here.
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