Cinematographer Julien Poupard, AFC, discusses his work on Houda Benyamina’s film “Divines”

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Upon graduating from La fémis in 2006 Julien Poupard designed the lighting on a number of short films and was noticed for his work on Party Girl, awarded a Golden Camera at Cannes in 2014. He is a faithful collaborator on first films and for young directors – for example 40-Love by Stéphane Demoustier, or Les Ogres, by Léa Fehner – now he is back with Divines, the first feature-length film by director Houda Benyamina, in selection at the Directors’ Fortnight.

In a ghetto where drug-trafficking coexists with Islam, Dounia thirsts for power and success. Backed by Maimouna, her best friend, she decides to follow in the footsteps of Rebecca, a respected drug dealer. When she meets Djigui, a young dancer whose sensuality is troubling, her life changes.
Starring Oulaya Amamra, Majdouline Idrissi, Deborah Lukumuena

Julien Poupard et Houda Benyamina sur le tournage de "Divines" - Photo Emma Benhamou - © Emma Benhamou
Julien Poupard et Houda Benyamina sur le tournage de "Divines"
Photo Emma Benhamou
© Emma Benhamou

Julien Poupard and Houda Benyamina on the set of "Divine"

What is the context of this film ?

Julien Poupard : Ten years ago, Houda Benyamina founded the association Mille Visages in the hope of “creating a more open and democratic dynamic in French cinema so that it is representative of the thousand different faces and the thousand different skills of present-day France.” The association offers training workshops, from which all of Divines’ actors were selected. They rehearsed their roles, which were all as difficult to play from an acting and an emotional standpoint, for an entire year. Twenty-five young people supported by this association were hired to work on this film.

What are the main artistic lines of this film of dance and flames ?

JP : For me, this film is a bit like a feminist remake of Scarface...
Houda did not want to make a ‘naturalist’ movie. She wanted a lyrical and poetic film with very impactful staging. We slowed shots down, the lighting is pronounced, there are editing effects and a lot of music…

You had to define the film’s tone beforehand.

JP : Yes, and at the same time everything was constantly changing. Much has been made of Mean Streets, which I greatly appreciated. An energetic film, cobbled together using the means at our disposal. We had limited means, but strong ideas about directing, the visuals, and we were ready to take risks... and above all, this is a film that talks about the sacred.
It was also inspired by Casino, by Scorsese, for its lyricism, Ugly, Dirty and Wicked, by Ettore Scola, Do the Right Thing, by Spike Lee, for its saturated colours and the liberties it took with its departure from realism. Houda desired effect-lighting, long focal-lengths, and zooms.

Why zooms and long focal lengths ?

JP : It’s the idea of focusing a look, starting with the overview and getting to the details, going to retrieve things from afar, which symbolizes the distance between the heroine and her different worlds : dance, love, and money. This idea of distance is also here to highlight her desire for recognition and upward mobility within the hierarchy of her neighbourhood, to transmit the feeling of what seems inaccessible to her.
I chose the Zeiss T2.1 series. I wans’t looking for an overly-sharp image and I like the flares on those lenses, the accidents that they can cause. The zoom lens was an old-fashioned Angénieux 25-250.

Talk to us about your desire to show the heroine’s transformation on screen…

JP : We wanted to show the transformation of Dounia’s face (Oulaya Amamra), and mark the transformation that gives birth to the heroine. It was like a challenge, we wanted her face to change in every scene.
There was a lot of work on the makeup, the lighting, and the hair. We wanted to give her an aura, something on the order of the icon, of the sacred image.

Explain to us your choice of equipment for this film.

JP : The director wanted to create a film in motion but not a film entirely filmed from the shoulder. I had a pretty wide range of equipment : a dolly, a Stab One, a Western Dolly, a Rickshaw, a Quad ...
We thought about the meaning of each scene in order to create its own unique language, its own movement. All of this deliberate thinking was guided by the central idea of the film : the question of faith and the relationship to the divine.
Some very complicated movements were established during cutting, whilst others were improvised. For example, for the confrontation between Dounia and Djigui on the stage of the theatre, I allowed my key grip to improvise the first take with the dolly… Then from take to take we perfected the movement.

Colour was one of the elements most central to the film, why ?

JP : The colour was supposed to espouse the film’s movement. It had to be a transformation, an evolution. Early in the film, the blues are very present in the image ; gradually warmer colours appear with points of red, ending up at a more golden image supported by the importance of fire and flames at the end of movie.
We did not want this colour movement to be a crude effect of colour timing (from cold to hot) rather that the transformation should come from the image itself, from touches of colour. Work on this began early in the preparation stages with Marion Burger, the set designer, and Alice Cambournac, the costume designer.

Houda and I wanted the film to be colourful, but not too colourful. So I created a LUT to highlight the primary colours – blue and yellow - while nuancing them so that they wouldn’t be electric, but still strong enough.
Every evening after the shoot, I would make variations of that LUT in order to apply them to the dailies. At first it was a bit tedious but then I had a dozen LUTs and I quickly realized which I was going to apply. It is valuable to have colour timed dailies for when the director is editing the film, they already have an idea of the film’s visuals. But above all, it allows you to constantly think about the image. I don’t believe in arriving in colour timing the first day with a neutral image and just building the image from there. The image of a film is something that is constantly evolving. You have to be careful. Ideas happen take after take within the dynamics of a shoot.

Tournage de l'incendie de la cave - DR - ©Marine Beauguion
Tournage de l’incendie de la cave
©Marine Beauguion

How did you shoot the riot and fire scenes ?

JP : We couldn’t find a rough neighbourhood where we were able to film a riot... We filmed them outside of the Bry studios. We had to do a lot of work to make Bry believably appear to be the entrance to a rough neighbourhood !
The cellar fire was shot in studio. The idea was to make the most fire possible appear within the frame. It was the same for the tower and car that caught fire. “Les Versaillais” were there for the special effects. I didn’t want to use spots to create the effect of fire, I used fire booms, which are much more realistic, especially for the actors’ sweat and their performance.
It was very complicated, the cellar was a very small space. We had a special set and a very high ceiling with special ventilation. We had to air out very often and at the same time keep the smoke from the fire inside ! This is why "Les Versaillais" had the smoke machine on their shoulders and constantly moved it back and forth to create smoke. We wanted black smoke, but black smoke is too harmful to the health. It was added in later in post-production. I think we managed to create a feeling of suffocation and panic.

There were a lot of different scenes, a lot of action, improvisation…was this a complicated movie for you to work on ?

JP : No, it was exciting ! Each scene has its own language and we didn’t limit ourselves in any way. We decided to be daring, even if we had to redo something later on. When we began preparing, I remember Houda saying to me, “I’d prefer it if we made a flop than a mediocre movie.” And Houda has crazy amounts of energy, so we dared…