“Sexism is everywhere — so are we.” It’s just one of many slogans plastered across the streets of France in the timely documentary Feminist Riposte (Riposte Féministe) which is in the Special Screenings section at Cannes. Filmmakers Marie Perennès and Simon Depardon follow 10 groups of women around the country who are protesting about harassment, rape, femicide — and about the police response to these crimes. “Les flics” — aka the cops — are a silent force in this film, policing protests with grim faces. This is about giving a voice to the young women, recording their dialogue about the cause.
Initially, it’s a bit like attending a party: some conversations are fascinating, others feel a bit repetitive and you want to move on. But as the women’s stories become more serious and personal, the film becomes more impactful as it highlights the urgency of their mission.
After a brief narrated introduction, the filmmakers are silent observers, allowing their subjects to relax and chat. Sometimes they’re in a bar, or in the street; one time they’re sat in a circle at home with some scene-stealing kittens. We aren’t given names or formal backstories: just an attractive shot introducing each town, city or rural area (remind me to book a holiday to Compiegne). The cinematography is crisp and steady, giving this a slick, cinematic feel.
It’s clear that many of the women — who also include gender minorities and trans or non-binary people — are just getting to know each other, united by a shared cause. This allows them to share revealing stories.
One young woman slowly describes being isolated by her older boyfriend when she was underage. She tells how he moved her to a different town and subjected her to abuse and death threats. An older colleague breaks down in tears, unable to express her response. The camera captures the bravery, intimacy and awkwardness of this moment. This powerful scene also gives a personal context to the messages that the women paint and glue onto walls at nighttime, highlighting the frightening number of femicides in France. There are many women who did not escape their abusers, and a testimony from the mother of a murdered girl is deeply moving.
As with most protest movements, opinions can differ about the best approach. There’s talk of violent responses (“Your hand on my ass, my fist in your face”) and an alarming chant of “Let’s impale all males!” A girl later reasons that this is a playful quote from a song, and that she’s not anti-men: “I’m more in the mode of: ‘Let’s find solutions’ than ‘you’re all sh*ts’.”
Male passers-by frequently stop to query or comment on their slogans — some supportive, some confused, others hostile. A girl calls out a group for making “animal noises” at them — this is about challenging harassment, and it’s good to see.
There are also charmingly humorous moments. On a nighttime mission, one young woman carefully debates where to glue a poster in a small residential street, whispering, “I don’t want to ruin their wall, all nicely plastered.” This thoughtful protester is a good poster girl for the cause. Let’s find solutions, indeed.