After studying film at UQAM, Geneviève Albert makes her filmmaking debut with the documentary “Paul Hébert, le rêveur acharné” (2007). In 2008, she makes her first work of fiction “Reviens-tu ce soir?” which screened at international film festivals. She then writes “La vie heureuse de Gilles Z” (2010), a cinematic tribute to Gilles Carle, selected for the official opening of the Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois, and the short film “La traversée du salon (2012),” crowned with two awards in Vancouver. She also directs various projects in parallel with her filmmaking. In 2012, she flies to Los Angeles to perform in IRIS by the Cirque du Soleil, while pursuing her film career. Back in Montreal, she directs “Entre mon nom et ton film” (2014), a cinematic tribute to Michel Brault.
At this year’s Transilvania International Film Festival, Tara Karajica talks to Geneviève Albert about her debut feature “Noémi dit oui,” feminism and film and what she is up to next.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Geneviève Albert: I wanted to be a filmmaker when I was a teenager. Then, I forgot about this idea for some reason and came back to it after I took some optional classes at University and kind of saw the light. I was like: “Yes, that’s what I wanted! That’s it!” So, I went to film school (UQAM) in Montreal.
How did Noémi dit oui come about?
G.A.: Prostitution is a reality that is very interesting to me. It mobilizes every bone in my body not because I have a past in prostitution myself, but just because my humanity and my compassion go towards these girls. Women are being sexually exploited everywhere in the world, so it’s such a strong topic for me that it was obvious that I would make my first feature film about it.
You tackle juvenile prostitution in a crude manner that is never complacent or voyeurist. But it’s very real. Can you talk about this approach?
G.A.: Absolutely! The vision I had with this film was to immerse the audience into what it means going through that. I wasn’t interested in making the audience understand what prostitution is because we all know. I wanted to make them feel what being a prostitute can be like. And so, I had this vision of a very immersive, very physical film. I guess, my intention behind it is that, strangely, I feel that as a society, we approach prostitution in a very conceptual way everywhere. But prostitution is not a concept. It’s super concrete. It implies concrete stuff, like picking up condoms full of sperm, for instance. So, I wanted to go into this very concrete approach. That being said, my film is very raw but, at the same time, I tried to find this balance of making a raw film that doesn’t escape prostitution or the subject or the roughness of it and I wanted to stay very far from sensationalism. I didn’t want to glamorize prostitution. I didn’t want to go into something too dark either. But the camera, at the end, is pretty prude too, so there’s this balance.
In that sense, without falling into horror, you manage to retain some grace, some prudeness, as you say, in the way that you don’t sexualize Noémi’s body and show the act as a dehumanized sort of transaction. Can you comment on that?
G.A.: For me, there’s a violence that is inherent to prostitution. The clients don’t have to be violent themselves. The pimps don’t need to be violent themselves. It’s just that prostitution in general is violent in itself, and I was like: “Okay, how do I translate this with my filmmaking and just the story itself? So, I went for the aesthetic of repetition. There are a lot of clients. I wanted to use this repetition style because I thought that the number of clients that the women have to see is huge, but then I didn’t want to reconduct the violence through my film. I didn’t want to sexualize it or make it something erotic. So, that’s why I decided to not sexualize my character to immerse the audience into what she’s going through. I turned my camera towards the client. And so, we see the client and Noémi is most of the time off screen. This way, I thought that I could alienate the audience and the scenes would be very shocking and suffocating sometimes. But again, we feel exactly what Noémi is going through, which is alienating as well. There’s an alienation from Noémi and us as the audience, but with a camera that doesn’t highlight the transaction.
Exactly! You show one scene after the other ad nauseam, making the audience feel sick and feel the physical and psychological abuse that Noémi is going through, being powerless and manipulated at the same time, all of which is very immersive and visceral. Can you elaborate on that?
G.A.: I decided to go for repetition because I thought that was a very strong and effective way to immerse the audience into what prostitution is. If I wanted people to just understand what prostitution was, I would have shown maybe just one client, but what I really wanted to do with my vision was to immerse the audience into what Noémi is going through, and this meant going for this aesthetic of repetition. And, one film that is an important reference for me, is Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles for this aesthetic of repetition with this alienated housewife who also sees clients; we never see them in that case, except for the last one at the end. In this film, maybe like mine, even if it’s very different, after a while you’re like: “Okay, this is boring. It’s long…” But, eventually, what happens is that with the duration and the rapidity of change, you really get immersed in the film and you get alienated yourself, just like the character. And this, I thought, was extremely interesting and inspiring. I watched tons of films on prostitution, obviously, and I’ve never seen anything like that. I’ve never seen such visceral approach to prostitution.
Can you delve deeper into the research process?
G.A.: Apart from all the films I saw, the most important element of the research were all the prostitutes I met to make this film. So, I met teenagers who were prostitutes who were essential in building all these young characters in my film. I also met older prostitute who were actually survivors of prostitution in the sense that they managed to quit. All these testimonies were extremely important. For me, doing this research was essential. First, because I wanted to make a film that was realistic and that made sense. I also wanted to be accurate in terms of what’s happening right now in the prostitution world, because it’s different compared to even ten years ago, especially with all the social social media apps that make it very easy for these guys to recruit girls. Then, because it was my way of honoring these girls or women and respecting what they’ve been through. I am very happy about that because many people involved in prostitution came to see me after seeing the film and told me: “This is my story. I’ve never seen a film that portrayed what I’ve been through know in such an accurate way. I recognize the client, I recognize myself.” That was the biggest validation for me that the film speaks to these people, that it makes them feel seen.
I met a very young pimp to make my film. He was seventeen years old and he’d already been a pimp for one- two years. So, that’s why in my film, the pimps are still very young. And, he was determinant in the creation of the pimps in my film, especially Zach, who is very inspired from this guy I met. What amazed me in this meeting was that, first of all, I thought I would meet a young guy that I would hate, that I would find to be stupid because it was like: “Oh my God! Here we go, I’m going to meet a pimp.” But no! I was in front of a young man that I thought was intelligent, charismatic, brilliant, funny. I was like: “Oh, holy sh*t! Of course, these girls trust these guys. I trust him.” And, I understood how she can totally fall in love with him or at least trust him. And, this made this whole manipulation so confusing for them. Also, what amazed me with him is that he began to be a delinquent very young, and he comes from a very poor family in the country and he was like: “I don’t want to be poor and I’m going to stand up for myself and do whatever I need not to be poor.” And, he built it up and eventually became a very good drug dealer. And then, he switched to recruiting girls. Do you know why? Because it was safer for him to sell girls than to sell drugs. There was less risk to be caught by the police. And, I thought that was f*cked up. I was like: “What kind of society do we live in? Where it’s less risky to sell women than to sell drugs? What is that?”
Something else that you tackle in the film is the mother-daughter relationship. Can you expand on that?
G.A.: With all the research I’ve done, one of the discoveries was that in prostitution, it’s systematically the most vulnerable people in our society that can fall into this. Not all of them but, in general, yes. And so, the pimps are very good at identifying these girls and these men and women. I decided that Noémi would come from that kind of family, a family that is harsh and where love is lacking. So, she wasn’t born on the good side of the road as we say. After being definitely abandoned by her mother, this is when she says “yes.” So, it’s not a “yes” with enthusiasm and with full consciousness of what’s going on. She said “yes” out of despair, just because nothing makes sense anymore. She doesn’t have any family anymore. She’s dead inside. It’s just like: “Well, you know what? Whatever. I’m going to do it three days during the F1 Grand Prix, not a big deal.” Even Léa is telling her it’s not a big deal. Can we say that she consented to prostitution? Yes, sort of…
Exactly! Can you delve deeper into the aspect of consent, an extremely current topic that is also reflected in the title?
G.A.: Yes, consent is a very interesting concept and it’s much more complex than what we usually think consent is. And just saying “yes” is not enough for consent. It can be enough in some cases, where saying “yes” is done with true freedom and true consciousness of what you’re saying “yes” to but, in many ways, “yes” is obtained by manipulation, or in a context where there’s a lot of constraint – financial constraint, psychological constraint, emotional constraint, all kinds of constraints… And, I believe that all the yesses are not born equal. We’re not born equal as human beings. And, especially when it comes to prostitution, we have to go further than just the usual consent because consent is the biggest argument to sanction prostitution. So, do you get a consent if the person wants to prostitute him or herself? Then, it’s their choice. But I say: “Hold on a second! Where does this concept come from? Where does these yesses come from? How were they obtained?” We have to go deeper as a society to really understand what it means.
And are you a feminist? And if so, how does it inform your filmmaking?
G.A.: Of course, I’m a feminist! And, I’m a feminist every second of my life, basically. It’s just the way I am. It’s the values that I carry with me. So, of course, in my films, it’s not even an intention; it’s not voluntary. It’s just because I carry these values. They will naturally get into my film in many ways, in terms of the topic, but also just in terms of the way I shoot my films, in terms of the casting, in terms of the roles that I write for men and women. It’s going to infiltrate my filmmaking in many ways.
How do you see the situation of women in film today? How is it in Canada?
G.A.: I’m very proud of my country for that. Our industry is financed entirely by public funds and all our cultural and film institutions agreed a few years ago to finance projects half-half between men and women. It’s been like this for a few years already and it changed the whole landscape of filmmaking in Quebec and in Canada. So now, we have an equal amount of films that are made by men and by women. And, it’s amazing! I really believe in this, in that kind of of rules, because society tends to change very slowly, and I believe in politics to change things. I’m not a cynical person. I believe in politics. I also believe that politics are the solution to prostitution as well. And, you have to press them. Politics have to be the initiator of social changes to make them progress faster and change our mentality.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
G.A.: I think my favorite filmmaker is Céline Sciamma. I have seen all her films. I deeply appreciate them. Also, Or by the Israeli filmmaker Keren Yedaya. It won the Caméra d’Or in Cannes in 2004 and it’s an amazing film on prostitution as well. It’s mesmerizing!
What are your next projects?
G.A.: I’m working on two scripts right now, so I don’t know which one is going to be made first yet. One is a social drama on native women in Quebec. The other one is completely different – it’s going to be about my love life. It’s going to be a very, very personal film; my love life in relation to my dad. So, we’ll see…
Photo credits: Vlad Braga, courtesy of the Transilvania International Film Festival.
This interview was conducted at the 2023 Transilvania International Film Festival.