Maverick Life


This weekend we’re watching: The pursuit of happiness, against all odds

This weekend we’re watching: The pursuit of happiness, against all odds
'Divines' (Image Diaphana Films)

In this week’s edition, a superb film about cash-strapped Muslim girls in Paris and their struggle against a hostile society.

In what seems to be the most absurd, and what many have called hypocritical, passing of laws in a democratic country, a French bill was recently voted, following the outbreak of Covid-19, making it simultaneously possible for a woman in France to be fined up to 150€ for covering her face in public – the so-called Burqa ban that was passed in 2010 and is still in existence today – and 135€ for not covering her face in public – wearing a mask is mandated to control the spread of coronavirus. Many have pointed out the irony of the new law, that shines a light again on a ban that has divided French politics over a decade.

Divines is a story about a painful reality, the human collateral damage that happens when communities are divided and when racially homogenous police forces who are supposed to protect all, seem often to only protect those who look like them. 


Divines is an award-winning film about two hustling Muslim teenage girls living in a Romani low-income housing project on the outskirts of Paris, and who try to break free of their poverty by finding work under a female drug-lord. Shamed for their depravity, persecuted for their religion, bullied for their genders, they are one another’s oases in a world which treats them like ash.

This is a hyperrealist film, authentic, poetic, modern and real. It is a breeze through a window which many might never have looked through before – a sincere perspective of multidimensional characters. Maimouna is a weed-smoking daughter of a religious family, and Dounja is an insubordinate child in a broken home, forced into the role of partial provider by her single mother’s drinking.

Dounja is filled with shame and resentment for her lack of childhood, yet ironically, she tries desperately to grow up as fast as possible, inadvertently trained by her unreliable mother to hold independence (and consequently money) above all things. Frustrated with the broken systems that shackle her, she lashes out, emotions unchecked, and self sabotages constantly. Why even try when the system is stacked against you?

And so, it all comes down to money. Money, money, money. It consumes their minds, it controls their lives. It’s understandable that these cash-strapped girls idealize the local drug lord with her swanky car and fearless attitude. The mantra goes “get rich at any cost”, but of course one seldom knows what that cost will be until it’s already been paid. If you’re born without money, you can try to follow the capitalist rulebook – it’s not likely you’ll ever have much, but take shortcuts to wealth and you’re bound to step on someone’s toes. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Dounja’s choice to drop out of vocational school and dive into this dangerous world is confusing for the viewer. You are disapproving and worried for her but also excited and rooting for her. Dounja herself is confusing too – likeable and good-hearted, fierce and spunky, cheeky and arrogant, reckless and selfish. The complexity of her character makes it extremely easy to invest in her personality and believe her performance.

The film includes a lot of creative footage of the two girls just messing about. Being silly, enjoying fleeting moments of playful bliss pretending they’re living in the lap of luxury. These moments don’t relate to the plot but they are crucial to the narrative. They humanise the girls and are a pointed juxtaposition to the shocking way in which the film ends, emphasising the frivolity of the quest for the American dream, and the painful reality of being poor in a world where police and the powerful aren’t likely to serve and protect someone who doesn’t look like them. DM/ ML

Divines is available for streaming in South Africa on Netflix.

Found a little-known gem of a film which you absolutely love? Send a recommendation to [email protected]


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