“I will carry on making protest films”
French director Clément Tréhin-Lalanne was at the Cannes Festival to present his eight-minute short film, Aïssa, in competition. With ice-cold, devastating precision, the movie shows us the unpleasant examination that undocumented immigrants must go through in France if they are suspected of not being minors, as they claim to be. While a genuine doctor’s report is read as a voiceover, the camera follows Aïssa during her examination. Every part of her is studied and analysed, her personal hygiene questioned and her body checked for hairs. From her teeth to her genital organs, her entire body is subject to inspection, in order to eventually establish that the young girl is, perhaps, not as young as she says she is. Just perhaps. Through her frightened expression and her rapid, nervous movements towards the end of the film, which reveal her desire to get out of the doctor’s room and far away from this nightmare as quickly as possible, the actress Manda Touré expresses all of the embarrassment and fear caused by this invasive probing, which is carried out with a complete lack of respect for her human dignity – in fact, all of her dignity is trampled on, for good. Clément Tréhin-Lalanne speaks to Cineuropa about the factors that drove him to make this film.
Cineuropa: What made you decide to tackle such a delicate and complex subject?
Clément Tréhin-Lalanne: This story shocked me to the core. I’ve been following the undocumented immigrant problem for a long time now, and I’ve taken part in a great many demonstrations and have signed a lot of petitions. What upsets me is the complete lack of respect for human dignity in these medical examinations that are performed on undocumented people to establish whether they are adults (in which case they would have to be deported) or minors (in which case they can stay in France and have a right to education and accommodation). During this examination, the doctor takes a wrist X-ray, examines the person’s teeth and can also examine pubic hair, armpit hair and the development of one’s chest; the doctor can even measure the testicles if the person in question is a young boy. The most reliable examination is the one of the wrist, and that’s got around an 18-month margin of error. All of the other tests are less trustworthy, and yet they are still carried out. You can’t base a person’s future on an examination that isn’t reliable.
So why do the rules not change?
Since 2013, there’s been a memorandum that says that this examination must only be used as an absolute last resort, and that first of all they have to try to investigate the country that the young person comes from, try to verify the authenticity of the documents that have been shown, and then arrange an interview with a social worker and specialists to see whether the young person is lying or not. And there must only be an examination as a last resort. But in practice, it doesn’t always happen like that. It also depends on which department you’re in: there are some departments that have stopped doing it. In Germany, for example, it’s been done away with, and the European Commissioner for Human Rights has said that it has to be stopped.
So this film is an act of protest…
Absolutely – it’s something I care very much about.
The device that you chose to use to tell us about this reality is very effective. How did you come to decide on it?
It was reading the actual report by this doctor that inspired me because he really scrutinised her body. It made me think of when, at school, we looked at old slides in biology class, old pictures of human bodies, and the image presented by the film brings to mind this old style of medicine a little bit. I thought it was enough – the report speaks for itself. The fact that he gives his opinion on the accuracy of the bone test, for example, and says afterwards that at the same time there are only verification tables available for the Caucasian population (whereas it's usually used to establish the age of a person of African origin), and that these tables date back to the start of the last century, to 1930, it's ludicrous.
How did you find the film's lead actress?
We did our casting in two stages. For the first one, the only criterion was that we were looking for a young girl of African origin. We had a lot of replies, but afterwards, we thought we should make it clear that there would be some nudity involved. So we published another advert, and with that one, we only had three replies, including from Manda, the actress in the film, who is incredible. She understood the project very well, and it also represents an act of protest for her. We maintained a certain degree of modesty, and her body is deconstructed to such an extent that her nudity is not shown too much either – there is no voyeurism involved.
Will you carry on making protest films?
I will carry on making protest films, perhaps without wanting to denounce something every time, but in any case to talk about humanity and all its good points. My next project will be more optimistic.
28 May 2014, by Fran Royo