Trailer for “Venus Noire,” The Film About ‘The Hottentot Venus,’ Saartjie Baartman of South Africa
From 30 seconds to now a minute for a trailer. This film is deep, as I knew that it would be.
Some folks have seen it at a special screening in New York. Of these, some had to walk out. This was not because it was a bad film, but because for the viewers, it was too much for them to take. One may have to be emotionally ready to watch it. And it echoes the kinds of exploitations and cruelties still visited on black women whether in Africa or in Western countries like the United States.
This film, Venus Noire, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, is about the exploitation and degradation of an African Khoikhoi woman who became more in/famous after her death when her body and genitalia were examined–in life and in death–by so-called scientists and then preserved and exhibited in a Paris museum until 1974. Saartjie (pronounced sar-key is an affectionate (?) Afrikaans term meaning “little Sarah”) or Sarah Baartman was an enslaved orphan (from the many colonial wars between the Khoikhoi and the white settlers). Baartman was probably in her late teens when she was talked into coming to Europe by a brother of her master with the promise of quick riches and eventual return. Instead, she endured five years of being exhibited as a kind of circus animal in Britain and in France. When her notoriety wore off, the woman was paraded before scientists and racists who were convinced–because of her color, her unusual dimensions, and her genitalia–of her subhumanity. Lastly, she was forced into prostitution in the Parisian underworld to survive. She never returned to South Africa, dying in 1815 from the effects of pneumonia, smallpox or syphilis or all three at the age of 25 or 26.
Baartman’s skeleton, pickled brain and private parts were only recently repatriated to South Africa after President Nelson Mandela formally requested that the French government return them in 1994. Can you believe that the French put up a fight for her remains for eight years? They were upset at the possibility that other nations–especially of those they had colonized–might ask for the return of their national treasures or artifacts that the French absconded with during the past.
Saartjie Baartman was buried with honor near her birthplace in her Khoi people’s homeland in 2002.
To call any one a Hottentot is now considered an offensive term in South Africa. It was the European settlers who called the Khoikhoi, or “real people,” Hottentots, and who refused to call the Khoikhoi by the name that they called themselves. Today, the Khoikhoi have nearly disappeared, except for the major clan group, the Namas, in South Africa.
Venus Noire does not yet have an American distributor. It is 166 minutes long. Eventually, it will.
Tambay at Shadow and Act has a review. About the film:
Director Kechiche’s film isn’t a lecture on the matters it documents. Each scene is presented “as is,” without any obvious commentary, you could say. It’s neither what I’d describe as a call to action. You are simply witness to an ugly injustice, an accomplice even, and your reaction to it is just that… your reaction, based on your own life experiences, which will also determine what you choose to do about whatever it is you felt, assuming you’re inspired to act in any way.
Don’t go into this looking for a biopic of Baartman, as you will be disappointed. It’s more a document of a very specific part of her life, that which she’s most known for. And despite the title of the film, she instead feels like one of several equal players in this tragedy, instead of its star center. There’s also what I’d call a disconnect between the filmmaker and the material. Like I said, he doesn’t necessarily take sides. In fact, the film played out more like a series of filmed news reports.
That is because we know very little about what happened to her other than what has been pieced together; and since she was illiterate (but not unintelligent), she could not write her own story. If she had, it probably would have been “told to” a white amanuensis, just like some of the slave narratives here, and censored or taken out of context to “spare” even sympathetic readers.
I’m left with conflicting thoughts on the film, and I wasn’t even sure how I would review the film. I feel like I could write volumes on the experience I had watching it. But maybe that’s all a good thing. I think a second viewing might be helpful in clarifying my thoughts. If anything, it’s not a film one walks out of the theater and immediately forgets. Other reviews I’ve read thus far have expressed concern about the film being hard to watch – not because it’s a bad film, but due to the contemptible scenarios Baartman lived through as explicitly documented in the film. As I’ve said before, the subject matter is already controversial enough, that any film made about Baartman will find it impossible to escape controversy. Kechiche’s handling of it is obviously crucial, and I’d say he handles it better than I expected. It certainly should inspire further discussion, especially with regards to contemporary correlations.