There are two films in SIFF's French Cinema Now festival that are not actually French: Tenderness and Grigris. The former is directed by a Belgian, Marion Hansel, and the latter by a Chadian, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. The former begins on the slopes of the Alps; the other begins in a nightclub in an unnamed Chadian city. The former is about a white European upper-middle-class family (they live in modernist homes, drive SUVs, work in ski resorts, and have bank cards); the latter is about a black working-class family (they have small businesses, live in a compound, and have no savings or bank accounts).
When an accident occurs to a young snowboarder in Tenderness, his divorced parents (Marilyne Canto and Olivier Gourmet) go on a road trip (utopian wind turbines rising over trees, romantic farmhouses here and there, a little trouble at a rest stop) to the resort where it happened. Here, they help deal with his medical issues and lack of insurance, enjoy the presence of his beautiful girlfriend, meet a handsome Arab who shares the room with him at the hospital, and enjoy the mind-clearing air of the Alps. When the father of the family in Grigris suddenly becomes ill, he ends up in a deep financial crisis (the hospital wants 700,000 francs) that forces his stepson, Grigris (Soulémane Démé), to join a violent gang that smuggles petrol. When Grigris is not with the gang, he is either dancing for money at a local nightclub or falling in love with a gorgeous and light-skinned prostitute, Mimi (Anaïs Monory). In short, Tenderness is in line with what the film critic Stephen Dalton calls the "bourgeois chamber dramas of the late Eric Rohmer," whereas Grigris is the Africanization of the noir underworlds we find in the films of Jean-Pierre Melville.
But here is a good question to ask: Is Grigris, a movie that deals with poverty, debt, and crime, more real than the bourgeois Tenderness? No. Both films are very real. The thing you have to understand about our neoliberalized world, about migration and capital flows, is that it is not impossible for Grigris to have been in the hospital bed next to the wounded snowboarder. And it would be the same Grigris: the Grigris with a bad leg, the Grigris in love with a prostitute, the Grigris who wants to be a dancer. With this understanding, what we can better see is that poor people really do suffer, that they never get used to hunger or the dangers of police corruption, that they have the same structure of feeling as anyone else. When a person sleeps on a street, they really are sleeping on the street with as much discomfort and worry as you would.
French Cinema Now runs Oct 24–30 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. For the full schedule, see siff.net.