“Neneh superstar”, diversity and ballet on the big screen

“A black dancer among forty swans is a distraction”: without taking gloves, the film “Neneh superstar” tells the story of a young girl’s fight against discrimination when she enters the Dance School of the Opera of Paris.

In this feature film by Ramzi Ben Sliman, in theaters on Wednesday, Oumy Bruni Garrel, adopted daughter of Louis Garrel and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, embodies, for her first major role in the cinema, Neneh, admitted as a little rat despite the opposition of the director of the Marianne Belage School (Maïwenn).

“I don’t think it’s made for this school, it’s about creating aesthetic uniformity for the corps de ballet”, she protests in the face of more benevolent teachers and a director of the Opera in the role preeminent a little exaggerated (Cédric Kahn).

– “Allegory of France” –

It’s about “skin tone”, “black morphology” and “protection of our values”, a nod to the words of Benjamin Millepied, former director of dance (2014-2016), the first to openly criticizing the lack of diversity at the Opera.

“I heard very clearly when I arrived that you don’t put a person of color in a corps de ballet because it’s a distraction,” he said.

Two years ago, the Opera, under the leadership of its director Alexander Neef, published a report on diversity and has just launched “The Opera in Guyana”. Ramzi Ben Sliman told AFP that he had designed the film before these developments.

Why specifically name the Dance School?

In France, “it is only at the Opera that there are these three-hundred-year-old traditions, these ultra-strict rules”, affirms the director, who in 2019 had produced a short film for “The 3rd scene” – the digital stage of the Opera.

Aware that this is a “sulphurous” subject, he specifies that the institution has not been put in the loop, despite a brief appearance by the star Léonore Baulac.

But he assures us that this is in no way an attack on the institution.

“We do not denounce, on the contrary we show that the dance is not fixed. (…) This film is a perfect allegory of today’s France and the question is: + What does – we when we are different, while everyone is the same?+”, he says.

– Pressure and jealousy –

A secret will come to explain the tension of the director with regard to Neneh. “In Marianne Belage’s generation, you had to keep a low profile, while in Neneh’s, you assert your uniqueness. The world has changed,” he adds.

The film also shows the reluctance of Neneh’s environment: her father (Steve Tientcheu) supports her but her mother (Aïssa Maïga) is not convinced (“At her age, I was doing judo like everyone else”). Neither did her friends in the neighborhood (“It’s a school for princesses”; “your head doesn’t go to the Opera”).

Faced with the pressure of the director and the jealousy of the other girls who go so far as to soil her tips, she rebels and sometimes cracks (“Why am I not white like everyone else?”).

The film is largely inspired by real words from dancers but also, for the technical side, from teachers taken almost straight from the documentary “Graines d’étoiles” (broadcast on Arte).

He selected little dancers who all passed real competitions and auditions, and affirms that they were the ones who referred him to Oumy because he could not find a 12-year-old black girl with both a good level of dancing and convincing acting.

Currently in a sports school in Paris, the 14-year-old actress “immediately loved the story” of Neneh.

“It made me think of my own story. We both suffered things,” she told AFP.

The teenager, who wants to become a lawyer, hopes that the film will act as a trigger and that the situation for black dancers “can change because we need it”.


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