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Female Gaze: Shamira Raphaëla

The blonde bombshell, the femme fatale, sirens of the silver screen. For 125 years, we have seen women on the cinema screen, but they were seldom in control behind the scenes. Luckily, things are finally changing. In this series of interviews, inspiring female filmmakers talk about their own work on the basis of film excerpts from other women’s films. In this tenth interview, Shamira Raphaëla talks about her profession as a director, using the example of Titane (2021) by director Julia Ducournau.

By Gina Miroula26 September 2022

Portrait by Kiki Weerts
Portrait by Kiki Weerts

“I see myself as a storyteller, not a filmmaker as such”, says Shamira Raphaëla, sitting on a sun-drenched IJpromenade. Around her neck, a gold pendant in the shape of Aruba. “The fact that I’ve often focused on documentary till now is really just coincidence.”

Shamira grew up on the other side of the ocean. Aged around fifteen, she took lessons at Aruba’s Instituto di Cultura. “There were lots of options: acting, directing, set design and more.” She got a subsidy and applied to the Dutch theatre academy. “In the first round I thought: ‘Wajo, what is this?’ Everything was really different.”

She chose the art academy and graduated in film with her documentary Met zout in mijn ogen. “A coming-of-age about three young women on Aruba who, in spite of all kinds of setbacks, carry on a positive struggle in life.” Shamira smiles: “It’s weird actually, after that I always chose male protagonists.”

Through a Rotterdam-based broadcaster, she was hired on the spot for idealistic travel programme Aanpakken en wegwezen. “I was completely thrown in at the deep end, given a cameraman and sound guy. We filmed a recycling project with Brazilian street kids, and went to Ethiopia to set up an ecological campsite.”

“The idea of making documentaries kept bubbling under the surface. I used the money I earned doing seven years of reality shows (De Spaanse droom, Expeditie Robinson) to make Deal with it.” A documentary about her relationship with her drug-addicted/dealing father and brother. Then Shamira’s career really took off: from the documentary Ons moederland to De waarheid over mijn vader and the recent summer/feelgood film Shabu, which won her the IDFA Award for Best Youth Film, as well as a Special Mention at the Berlinale.

Still from Deal with it
Still from Deal with it
Still from Ons Moederland
Still from Ons Moederland

You have chosen Titane. What moved you about this film?

Titane is relentlessly violent, both in terms of the directing and the main character. For me, this is also the female gaze: getting past what a female gaze should be, i.e.: being psychoanalysed. We women always have to show our soft sides, play the peacekeepers. We’re brought up to keep quiet. But keeping the peace doesn’t give the scope to express your emotions in a certain way. You can cry, you can be vulnerable, but that other side: fury, revenge and strength – that’s not allowed. Director Julia Ducournau breaks with these conventions. Her protagonist is absolutely not lovable.”

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still from Titane (Julia Ducournau, FR 2021)
still from Titane (Julia Ducournau, FR 2021)
Trailer of Titane (Julia Ducournau, FR 2021)

Titane tells the story of Alexia, a young woman who, following a traffic accident when she was a child, gets a titanium plate implanted in her head. This makes her sexually attracted to motor vehicles – she even becomes pregnant from one. “During one specific fight sequence, Alexia pushes the leg of a chair into her opponent’s eye and then sits down on it. I thought that was great, I felt it really hit home. You don’t often see things like this in films, certainly not ones by female directors. In Ducournau’s horror film Raw (2016), she also breaks through all kinds of boundaries. I find that enormously appealing.”

What fascinates you about the profession of (documentary) director?

“The aspect of curiosity, of passing judgment as little as possible. A good director is aware of their position (of power) in the story that they are telling. Integrity is the most important aspect of this. The relationship between the person in front of the lens and you is always an unequal one. I sometimes compare it with an arena where we are like some kind of elite, watching people fighting for their lives. And then I’m there at IDFA, rubbing shoulders and drinking white wine. You have to be really aware of this. Documentaries are about the lives of real people, who you are putting on show. This can have a huge impact.”

Shamira also stresses that she wants to grow, emotionally and spiritually, as a human being, with every film she makes. “Of course, I keep a distance to my work. I put my filmmaker head on, like a surgeon. In that process, you switch a certain part of yourself off.”

In 2014, you made the documentary Deal with it about your relationship to your drug-addicted/dealer father. How did you get him to agree to you shooting all that, to depicting your lives so intimately?

“The process took four years, but it was pretty organic. I started off at home with a camera. My father felt strong, which meant I didn’t have to persuade him. He realised that our life is exceptional, and that he is on the margins of society. The documentary isn’t a protest film as such, it’s about his life. He realised how he can open other people’s eyes, and that it is possible to love one another in spite of the fact we weren’t exactly the perfect family.”

Still from Deal with it
Still from Deal with it
Still from Deal with it
Still from Deal with it

Following his death in 2019, Shamira kept working on a second documentary, which has not (yet) been released. “The best gift you can give someone as a director is that your protagonist recognises themself in the story. For my father, the film was his greatest achievement.”

How do you as a documentary director manage to get such (emotional) access to your protagonists, get invited into their lives?

“By being very open and vulnerable. I often show the trailer to Deal with it. This allows me to show the impact making a film can have on you, personally. I’ve experienced this myself: I shared all my pain, I revealed myself completely. From that point on, I invest a lot of time in building a relationship, in strengthening the bond. I am always looking for a contact within myself, something that allows me to identify with the other.”

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Trailer Deal with it (Shamira Raphaëla, 2015)

Can you give an example based on your documentary Ons Moederland, about the leader of the extreme right party NVU, Constant Kusters?

“We shared a view that the Netherlands is changing massively. Previously the extreme right didn’t get much attention, and was portrayed very simply. The difference now is that Kusters sees this as a positive change, whereas for me this is a negative development.”

“We had to deal with one another for four years”, Shamira recalls with a smile. “I’m his biggest nightmare, because I have diluted the bloodline: I’m bi-racial. Kusters once said: ‘It sends shivers down my spine: a whole world full of mixed-race, caramel-coloured people.’ I looked at him, and he replied: ‘But you’re different, here... I’ve made a nice bowl of soup for you.’ This is the fascinating thing about humanity: the layers.”

Since the completion of Ons Moederland, Kusters has a picture of Shamira on the wall in his living room. She has mixed feelings about this. “You could also see it like this: I was able to enter into a loving relationship with someone I see as an enemy.” Shamira stresses in this respect that what someone does, doesn’t define their whole being. “I learned this at a young age from my own family members. I always try to communicate from a place of love, but after some days filming with Kusters I sat in my car weeping, or I was moved: angry.”

As a (documentary) director, you have to be completely aware of your own position as a filmmaker. How did you experience this during the process of making Shabu?

“I give my main characters a lot of freedom my documentaries. They almost make the film.” Shabu is about a fourteen-year-old boy from Rotterdam-Zuid. One summer holiday, he crashes and writes off his grandma’s car while she’s away in Suriname. He then gets into a fight with his family, and has to come up with a plan to make it right.

still from Shabu (Shamira Raphaëla, NL 2021)
still from Shabu (Shamira Raphaëla, NL 2021)
still from Shabu (Shamira Raphaëla, NL 2021)
still from Shabu (Shamira Raphaëla, NL 2021)

“For the scene where Shabu is in the swimming pool with his girlfriend, he wanted to get these floats in the shape of hearts, and matching sunglasses. As the director, I can say: ‘Well, okay, by the plan was actually this, or that.’ But I’m someone who likes to go along with the wishes of others. I appreciate creative input from the other, and I draw on my own flexibility, I find that really important. At the end of the day, it’s about someone else’s life.”

Still uit Shabu
Still uit Shabu

What would you like to see change in the present Dutch documentary landscape?

“Experiment. So many makers play it safe. I understand, because this makes it easier to get a subsidy, and win awards.” By ‘safe’, Shamira means not artistically challenging. “For example, a story about a refugee who makes it, that’s a guaranteed win. Most documentaries are stories of victims. I think this is really reductive. Then the people who watch these films think that’s how reality really is, and the protagonists in these films internalise the stories told about them. A real shame, as this palette doesn’t do justice to who we really are.”

She says it only “gets really interesting” when makers dare break out of established forms. “These days, that doesn’t happen so much. This is because of the subsidy system within which we create, the broadcasters we work for, and the streaming platforms. They just want more of what they already know, the same narrative. A story they know will sell. You know what I would really like? For everyone to dare to really go flat on their face, and for there to be a subsidy for that: the big dare-to-fail subsidy.”

What is your most important advice to up-and-coming directors in relation to changing this system?

“Try something different. Interview, someone walking through the woods, voice-over and birds – we’ve seen that all before. The problem isn’t that directors lack creativity, but that sometimes you are broken because a broadcaster wants to know what the film’s about within the first five minutes.”

Partly because of this, Shamira has decided for herself that she'd rather no longer work with broadcasters. “Let me shout this really loud now, and later change my mind because I’m not getting any work”, Shamira grins. “Fortunately, the Film Fund has a new scheme that means that, for the first time, you don’t need support from a broadcaster. Of course, you can choose to release your film yourself, but then you really reach a smaller audience. This means that makers are often caught in a constant struggle. You want a big reach and to be successful at festivals, but you don’t want to be dependent on a broadcaster.”

What project can we look forward to seeing from you next?

“I recently made the fiction series Sihame, with director Lisette Donkersloot.” This is about a girl who gets exposed online, and then takes revenge in an extremely violent way. “She really takes back control. Including of a nail gun, and a scrotum.” In Sihame we see explicit violence alongside flashbacks in which Sihame is shown in a vulnerable position: in love, and in her relationship with her mother and her little sister. “We really want to flag something up with this series. To feel all kinds of emotions, and on the basis of that start a conversation. We aren’t aiming to make a manual on how women can slash men, but the undertone is that we will stick up for ourselves, and in the same way as male characters.”

Shamira is also currently working on the finishing touches to Shabu. “We traveled a lot abroad. Now, he really feels like family. He asks me all kinds of questions, but at the same time gives me great advice about life. These days we also have matching outfits, we both wear the same tracksuits. Shabu’s is green, mine is purple. Whenever we go anywhere, he wants me to wear it. I say: ‘I look like a sixteen-year-old boy, not an adult woman!’ But, honestly: I really enjoy it.”