Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Chez Jolie Coiffure, Foregrounding From The Inside

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We’re commissioning short essays for each feature in our film programme. Here, Tayler Montague writes on Rosine Mbakam’s Chez Jolie Coiffure.

Rosine Mbakam’s Chez Jolie Coiffure begins with a delineation of the outside world and Jolie Coiffure, the hair braiding shop that serves as a safe haven to many. We first meet Sabine, the film’s subject as she sweeps the shop floor. After Mbakam seeks to take an establishing shot of Jolie Coiffure, her camera is pushed by those telling her they don’t want to be filmed. They most likely see the camera as a tool of surveillance and try to topple it. “Rosine, come here!” Sabine ushers the filmmaker inside, and that’s where we stay for the remainder of the film. 

Sabine is the matriarch within those four walls. She’s the relationship counselor, financial advisor, and most importantly hairdresser. “I don’t let just anyone touch my hair” a client says, a refrain heard the world over. The hair salon as a safe haven for Black women is not a new concept. However, the interiority displayed by the patrons there is what makes the film so special. I loved watching the images showing the great precision and skill that comes with braiding with kanekalon, putting in quick weaves, and creating even parts, which further exemplified the intimacy between women and their hairdressers. It’s clear that Mbakam spends so much time there amongst her subjects, seeing as to how they don’t always notice her presence. Mbakam becomes a sort of omniscient figure, talked to, talked at, called upon, but never (explicitly) seen. 

I’m interested in the way that the dynamic amongst Sabine, her customers, and Mbakam works as an interrogation of typical documentary form, even if not the filmmaker’s initial intentions. The best moments are ones in which there is plotting, girl talk, politics, and practical life advice. So much is folded into casual conversation. At some point in the film we learn Sabine has applied for citizenship more than once, but it seems as if the Belgian government is prioritising Syrians, according to a friend of hers there to update everyone on the situation. 

When faced with conversations about the refugee crisis on the world stage, I doubt many people imagine it to be Sabine and company as those who traveled great lengths to get their new lives underway. This is a journey she recounts for us twice, once from a distance, then later identifying herself as the proverbial “she” in the initial story. Moving between very serious moments like this, to lighter conversation, allows for the film to mirror the way we actually address trauma and the worrisome aspects of life; bypassing the need to be heavy handed.

Sabine also talks about her love life and how it’s changed in the midst of a new environment. In Europe, love is more complicated. In her native Cameroon, things tend to move slower, yet either way time to herself is essential. She consults the gizzard man through his marital woes. And collectively, the women in the shop work out the logistics of their sou-sou, being rightfully wary of banks. Mistrust of White people and by extension the institutions they run is very much earned.

The only time we do see those White people in the film are when they’re peering into the shop through glass, as if it were a zoo. They’re outsiders, their gaze is unwanted and unnecessary. Sabine tells Mbakam to turn the camera in their directions in hopes they’ll disappear. This moment has stuck with me since first viewing, in that we’re seeing the use of camera as a means of dispelling the white gaze in a field that often feels oversaturated by documentaries trying to appeal to White moral consciousness. 

Films that seek to “shed light” on a “perspective,” films that play upon to the preconception of the viewers beliefs about said group of people and the objective to “change”, “humanise”, or “lend perspective to” to them. When the Belgium government begins to raid the businesses in “Little Africa”, Rosine continues to record as everyone is scrambling to hide. Her footage doubles as evidence of the reality that Jolie Coiffure can function as a safe space but only for so long, and the film ultimately benefits from not even considering the gaze of outsiders, instead foregrounding the perspective from the inside. An idea more filmmakers should lean into. Mbakam simply tells it how it is, with each moment feeling carefully considered and thoughtfully curated, paying no mind to being beholden to conventions about documentaries that would put distance between herself and the community she documents; her community. 

Tayler Montague is a writer, film programmer, and native New Yorker. 

Rosine Mbakam’s Chez Jolie Coiffure screens on Saturday September 7th at Bertha DocHouse.