Sep 8, 2010

In Venice, Black Venus recalls African ...
The humiliation of African slave Saartjie Baartman as a freak show curiosity in early 19th-century Europe unsettled Venice on Wednesday in Abdellatif Kechiche's "Black Venus".

The film shows how Baartman's handlers collared and chained her and put her in a cage to pose as a "tamed Hottentot" -- now referred to in South Africa as the Khoisan ethnic group -- before baying throngs in London and Paris.

In the title role, Havana native Yahima Torres, 30, felt a compulsion to tell the story of Baartman, who in 1808 allowed her boss to take her from southern Africa, then ruled by Dutch settlers known as Boers, in search of fame and fortune in Europe.

"It was worth it" despite the scenes of degradation and nudity and having to gain more than 13 kilos (nearly 30 pounds), Torres told AFP of her first film role. "It's a story you have to tell as a human being, as a woman."

The Tunisian-born Kechiche also "felt as if I had a moral duty to bear witness to this course that has run all the way up to today," he told a news conference, decrying the "scornful way we treat people" and in particular France's recent expulsion of hundreds of Roma.

Kechiche discovered the mixed-race Torres in 2005 on a street in Paris's multi-ethnic Belleville neighbourhood and was cast for the part three years later, she said.

Like Kechiche, Torres stressed the film's modern relevance. "We're still experiencing racism... with people who think they are superior to others."

The freak shows, and later appearances in bourgeois salons, focused on Baartman's outsized buttocks, but a genital disorder that left her with abnormally large labia was an additional source of irrepressible curiosity in the scientific community.

A prominent French anatomist is allowed to examine her, but she refuses to expose her genitalia.

As Baartman's popularity wanes she drifts into prostitution and eventually dies, probably of pneumonia and venereal disease, in 1815.

It is then that the scientists get their wish, making plaster casts of her body, then dissecting it and placing her brain and genitals in jars of formaldehyde -- which were on display at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris until 1976.

Finally, in 2002, her remains were repatriated to South Africa where she had a proper burial.

"I don't look at it as past history," said Kechiche, whose 2007 film "The Secret of the Grain" (also titled "Couscous") won the special jury prize in Venice as well as several Cesars in France.

"Black Venus" is one of 24 films vying for the coveted Golden Lion at the Venice film festival, now in its 67th edition with winners to be announced on Saturday. source


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