Set in protagonist Sabine’s hair salon in the Matonge quarter of Brussels, Chez Jolie Coiffure plainly watches as throngs of life enter, exit and exist in this tiny sanctuary. Conversations flow with each new and returning person that enters the space – a man selling gizzards seeking marital advice; a woman raising money to send a dead relative back home to be buried, and various customers declaring Sabine to be the only woman worthy of touching their hair.
This film is exceptional in the experience of belonging it offers to viewers, positioning us alongside the black migrant proprietors and patrons in a radical move that consequently draws attention to the white gaze – a gaze usually normalised as neutral while the non-white gaze is racialised.
This is principally achieved by the physical positioning of director Rosine Mbakam, who does not leave the confines of the salon. She occasionally turns her camera beyond the windowed façade, towards white passers-by who peer in excitedly, as if the salon is some elaborate theatre. These are the only white people in the film (apart from the police who periodically search the area for people to deport), and they show no embarrassment when caught on camera gawking at other human beings in the same way they would gawk at animals at the zoo. These standout moments, grossly uncomfortable, exist for the benefit of the viewer’s empathetic position: all of us become victims of the invasive white gaze, no longer neutral.
A triumph in observational filmmaking, Mbakam directly involves herself in the localised drama of the salon, a microcosm of broader issues facing migrants in Belgian society. She is constantly present as people openly recognise her presence and encourage her participation in conversations. Paired with glimpses of her camera in the many mirrors of the salon, Mbakam is instated as an equal to the people she is filming, as a participant rather than a voyeur.
By refusing to efface the camera, Mbakam leads us to recognise the act of a film being made. She does not defer to the documentary form as arbiter of objective truth, but instead creates a scene of personal intimacy, culminating in a work of love and care.
Chez Jolie Coiffure is distributed by Icarus Films.