I Want to Change the World

A conversation with French director Maïmouna Doucouré

Sometimes, people share loud opinions about subjects of which they know nothing. Or they hold forth about a movie they’ve never seen. They see some controversy on social media that affirms their world view and run with it. It is a deeply unfortunate mode of discourse but one that has gotten all too popular in recent years. And sometimes, great art nearly gets overlooked because people are more invested in the discourse around the art than the art itself. Such is certainly the case when it comes to Cuties (Mignonnes), the first feature film from French director Maïmouna Doucouré, which she also wrote.

Cuties is a nuanced coming of age film about Amy, a young French girl torn between two cultures—that of her traditional Muslim family and that of the Parisian community they live in. Amy and her friends start to prepare for a dance competition and we see how easily, how completely the young girls are influenced by the media they are constantly consuming. Before long, the girls are twerking and mimicking the overly sexualized content they have been watching, feeling what they think is empowerment but is, in reality, something more complicated. When the girls finally perform their routine at the dance competition, the crowd’s reaction is not what they expected, and Amy is forced to reckon with the distance between who she was and who she is becoming as a pre-teen.

As a third culture kid, so much of this movie resonated with me. And as someone who is very online I was not terribly surprised to see that people were opining about a movie they knew nothing about though I was very disappointed. Cuties deserved critical engagement about the story it told, the strength of the screenplay, the directorial choices, the craft. Creative people of color are rarely afforded the robust discourse they deserve about the substance of their work.

This film would likely have debuted to critical acclaim were it not for a misstep from Netflix, the film’s distributor. They released a promotional poster featuring the four girls at the heart of the film, as highly sexualized, coquettish young women, instead of the vulnerable girls grappling with the precipice of adolescence and a budding awareness of their sexuality. For many people, the poster was enough to condemn the film because they assumed it was a reflection of the subject matter. There were threats of boycotts. The director received death threats. It was an overwhelming frenzy that threatened to subsume a very good film.

In reality, Cuties takes an unequivocal stance on the oversexualization of young girls. It offers an elegant condemnation of the ways in which childhood and innocence are all too often corrupted by the undue influence of the Internet and popular culture. Doucouré’s directing is deft and confident. The cast is uniformly excellent and though the ending could be stronger, Cuties resonates and tells a satisfying story.

When Doucouré and I spoke over Zoom, with a translator facilitating the conversation and a Netflix publicist in the virtual wings, I must admit I did a tiny flex. The director is a native French speaker and I speak French, though I am too shy to do it in public most of the time. I get nervous and stumble over words and then I lose coherence and it’s too embarrassing. But during our conversation, I started responding to her before the translator could share Doucouré’s thoughts in English. I understood her just fine and so we held forth, her in French and me in English and we made it work. Doucouré was charming, passionate and eager to discuss not only the film but the origins of her ambition.

Roxane Gay: Why did you make Cuties/Mignonnes?

Maïmouna Doucouré: For a year and a half, I did research, I met a hundred little girls who told me how they experienced their femininity in today's society. That’s the first reason. And the second one is really, this movie, it's a reflection of myself. I let the little girl that I was and who was torn between several—well, two models of femininity, like my character in the film, Amy—express herself.

RG: What surprised you most about what you learned about 11-year-old girls?

MD: I was overwhelmed by their stories. I was also angry at times because I could see how difficult it was for these girls to develop a sense of self. It was difficult for them to develop their self-esteem at a time when what matters most is having the most "likes" and "followers." And especially the models that society gives them—models whereby the more a woman is forced to use it, the more she’s valued for her body, the more valuable she in society. I saw just how much these little girls were mimicking what they observed on social networks in their search for love. They were experiencing a sort of violence in the transformation of their bodies because they’re still children and they don't really understand all the workings of their bodies and what it means. But they’re also simply looking for their place in society. They want to exist.

In Mignonnes, I’m telling the story of how these girls try to find their place, their femininity—or at least, the freedom in their femininity through dance and the way they express themselves through their bodies.

RG: I noticed exactly what you just talked about—about how these girls don’t really know yet what they’re doing with their bodies. But at times, they did understand they could use their sexuality as a weapon. I am thinking of the scene at the laser tag place. I’m curious as to why you put that in the movie and how you wanted viewers to respond.

MD: These little girls are weaned on these images the media pushes on them. They're being sold the message that women’s bodies have that power, that power of seduction, that power to sell. They know their bodies have power because everything in society comments on how much power a woman's body has, much more than her brain, much more than her imagination, much more than her capacity for leadership or creativity. They know that. This film walks a very fine line. 

RG: Throughout the film, we see Amy trying to navigate that line between being a girl and being a woman, using her body as a weapon and trying to just be a young child who takes delight in jump rope. And I understand that you also wrote the screenplay. What was the process of deciding how to tell this coming-of-age while also making this commentary on the sexualization of girls?

MD: Those hundreds of little girls I listened to echoed my own story. When I was little, when I was eleven, my dream was to be a boy because I saw so much injustice around me. Women experienced a lot of injustice. And I thought life would be a lot easier if I were a boy. That anger I had when I was little and when I was totally helpless in the face of all that, I kept that. This film is, to a certain extent, an alarm call against the patriarchy, but not just the patriarchy we’re used to denouncing in other cultures. It’s also the patriarchy that exists in Western society and that we find difficult to see. This little girl is torn between two models of femininity: the one offered by her mother, who has resigned herself to polygamy, and the one society is pushing on her through this group of young female dancers who are moving toward hyper-sexualization. In the end, it’s the story of a young girl who understands that she, as a child, can take her time growing up because her childhood is precious, and above all, she can choose the woman she wants to become.

RG: What do you value most as a director? What do you want most to accomplish in terms of how you translate your vision to the screen? 

MD: I realized after doing Mignonnes, that I put a very deep, very personal part of myself into this film and making it was my therapy. I dealt with a lot of things. I’m saying things to the people I love that I’m not able to say in real life, through my film. Art is beautiful because you can heal yourself through art. At the same time, as a director, today, we’re lucky to be able to make our voices heard, and we're lucky to be able to change the world. We are lucky to be able to kick the anthill, to wake ourselves up, shake ourselves, and think, "What's wrong with this society? What do we want to denounce? What do we want to change?"

RG: We rarely see any men, even though the patriarchy influences so much of the subject matter.

MD: I'm not sure men are that absent. They are not physically present, but not seeing them makes them even more present because we don’t see the father physically, but it’s because of him that this family upheaval takes place. I didn’t want to make him physically present because he’s the very symbol of patriarchy. It’s omnipresent, omniscient. You can't see it, but it’s there.

RG: How did you work with the young actors because they really had to walk a fine line between being a young girl and being a woman. And I’m sure it was challenging to get that performance out of the actors. So what were you like on set in terms of trying to get the performances you wanted? 

MD: I love working with kids because I have a pretty unusual way of working with them. When I work with children, I don't give them the script because I'm always afraid they’ll resort to recitation. I tell them the story, what happens, how they have to evolve in their space...  In Mignonnes, to create this tight-knit group, we went on vacation together. I brought them to the carnival several times in Paris. I took them to eat fast food many times because they love eating fast food [laughs]. So lots of things to find this complicity. Even today we’re still extremely close.

I also came up with some techniques to help them let loose on set, forget the camera. In rehearsals, I filmed them over and over again so they got used to the camera. I matched each character to an animal. For example, the character who plays Angelica is a snake. You can see it in the way she dances like a snake. She can bite you. Amy, initially is a tiny kitten that becomes a cat that becomes a black panther.

RG: Once the trailer and the first Netflix poster were released, there were a lot of vocal opinions. How did you feel about the way people responded to a film that hadn’t even been seen?

MD: [Laughs] You know, the film started at the Sundance Film Festival in January [2020]. It was seen by an American audience. The film was very, very well received. It won best director. It also won an award at the Berlin Film Festival a month later. In France, it was very well received by the French public and the press. I admit I was initially surprised, because I hadn’t seen the marketing materials yet, I hadn't seen the poster. When I saw that people were attacking me—that’s when I became aware of the poster and that people didn’t get the right message—or had, without seeing my film, taken the opposite message of my film. At the time, it was kind of strange because I thought, okay. This is precisely what this fight is all about: the hyper-sexualization of children and I’m being accused of making an apology, of promoting hyper-sexualization. So I was patient. I thought, when people see the film, they’ll understand that we’re in the same fight, we’re on the same side because it’s nothing if not a film that gives our children a voice and tries to understand them. The film streamed on Netflix. There are a lot of people who decided not to watch the film, who stayed fixated on the poster and out-of-context excerpts so they could hold on to their opinion. But fortunately, there are also many people who have watched the film and who fully understand that it’s a film that actually denounces the sexualization of children.

RG: How do you make art in a world where you have no control over how people will respond to your project, to your intentions? Do you feel hesitant to make another film, given the response you received initially to Mignonnes?  

MD: Today, for sure. What I went through with the controversy, I found it unfair and it was not always easy. But on the other hand, I hope this will help us put the focus on the real problem in society, the one that the film denounces. I hope this controversy will ultimately let us address real problems together. Then I’ll have succeeded in my mission because my mission goes far beyond my movie. I made my film so we could find solutions and take action. It's not going to stop me. I still have a lot of stories to tell. And as I told you earlier, I want to change the world. I will continue to make films with a cause, activist films to open our eyes to other subjects that are sometimes difficult to see, but so important to tell.

RG: What do you like most about your work?

MD: What I love most is creating emotions. When I wrote Mignonnes, my goal was to let the audience live through my main character’s experience and feel all the emotions she does. I designed all my cinematography around the emotions my character feels. I adjusted the light. In the beginning of the movie, everything is very colorful, everything is very bright, because that’s how my character experiences and interprets the world. Gradually, as we’re inside her home, the light darkens, the family upheaval intensifies, and everything becomes much darker—clothes or lighting—to reflect what she feels. So yeah, that's what I like best: finding a way to make us feel emotions as strongly as possible. I like the idea that we can go through the heart to reach the mind.

RG: How did you get your start as a filmmaker? 

MD: In 2013, I participated in a screenplay competition I won. I had three months to make a film with no money. That's the most beautiful thing that's ever happened to me. All of a sudden, all these mental barriers I developed because I had no role models—I grew up without really seeing people who looked like me on screen and subconsciously, it filled me with self-doubt. When you see the first images of your film on a screen—it was a magical moment. I said to myself, I can do it. I can have images in my mind and create them and make them real.

From there, I just decided to continue. I made a short film called Maman, which has had a pretty exceptional life because it was accepted into nearly two hundred festivals around the world. It won awards on every continent. It won at the Toronto International Film Festival, it won at Sundance, it won the César, which is the French Oscar. And today, here I am with my first feature film, Mignonnes. I hoped people would talk about it. [Laughs] I didn't expect everything that happened, but I know it's an important film. More and more people are realizing that.

RG: Who are some of your creative influences?

MD: I come from the world of storytelling. When I was little, I often went to Senegal to see my grandmother during vacation. And at the time, there was no television, there was no electricity, there was no light in my grandmother's village. I actually loved it because every night she told me stories. She asked us to shell peanuts so she could plant them the next day. [Laughs] And the more peanuts we shelled, the more stories she told us. And I'm actually a big lover of fairy tales. They’re a big inspiration. I'm also inspired by a lot of other things. I like the idea of being inspired by what surrounds me too—by what makes me different. I have two cultures. I'm French. At the same time, I have a culture that comes from my parents, who are Senegalese. That’s what gives my work as a French filmmaker a richness because I like to put a part of me in the stories I tell. Voilà. [Laughs]

RG: As a Black woman, as a Parisian, as a Senegalese woman, you negotiate different cultures. And there are very few Black women directors who get the attention they deserve. How do you negotiate the film industry as someone who is part of multiple cultures?

MD: This lack of role models brought me to the film world late. I think that occupying the place I have is extremely important for people who have dreams beyond even cinema. There are few of us, that's true, but all over the world—it goes beyond even France. As a Black female director, I deal with it through my stories, with the protagonists I create. I also deal with it by participating. I know that in France there’s still a desire to make institutions more inclusive. There is a will to make this happen because when you see a film, it's the result [of that work], but we have to start at the earliest stages. We have to tackle the problem at the script stage and at the decision stage, made by the people who finance movies, the producers. We need more inclusion at the institutional level. Inclusion has to exist at all levels so that we can feel it and see it. It's one of my struggles, because I believe in the power of cinema to open up people’s imagination. When children look at the screen, when they develop an identity through the images they look at and have role models that look like them—that allows them say they can do it too. That anything is possible. It allows them grow up without limits, to become the best version of themselves. 

RG: Who taught you that there are no limits to what you want to do?

MD: [Laughs] Good question. I think a lot about my father. He arrived in France more than 40 years ago. He got up his entire life at four in the morning to go sweep because he was a street sweeper, he swept the streets of Paris. He never... [voice cracks]. Sorry, it’s just…he’s not here anymore.

RG: You have nothing to apologize for.

MD: He never stopped working, even when he was sick. Our parents worked hard to give us a better life. For them, dreaming did not exist. They had to go to work and they said, "You are lucky to have been born in France. You have to do well in school to have a better life than ours.” Realizing my dreams is paying tribute to my parents. It gives them back their dignity and it’s a way of thanking them for having sacrificed themselves so we could achieve our goals.