Featured in Neneh Superstara film about racism at the Paris Opera with Maïwenn, the French actress and director Aïssa Maïga, 47, confides in her new roles, her commitments and her powerful speech during the César ceremony in 2020.
The committed French actress Aïssa Maïga, a figure in the fight for inclusivity
February 2020. Aissa Maiga shook the ceremony of Caesar with a powerful discourse on diversity and the inclusion of black women in the film industry. An instant tidal wave in the media, the very critical words of the French actress of Senegalese origin resonate as an affront for some and a necessary clarification for others. Indeed, the one who made herself known in 2005 thanks to her role in Russian dolls of french director Cedric Klapisch seems to have since founded his career on courage and commitment.
As one of the few non-white actresses to top the bill in France, Aissa Maiga takes advantage of its notoriety to move the lines of the 7th art still marked by prejudice. Now 47 years old, the actress and director of two committed documentaries, Walk on water (2021) and Black Look (2021) plays the role of a very protective mother in the film about classical dance and racism at the Paris Opera, Neneh Superstar of Ramzi Ben Sliman next to french actress Maiwenn. For NumberAïssa Maïga reveals her new roles, her commitments and her speech during the César ceremony.
The trailer for “Neneh Superstar“ (2023) by director Ramzi Ben Sliman.
Aïssa Maïga starring in the film Neneh Superstar alongside Maïwenn
Number: What were your reactions when Ramzi Ben Sliman offered you this role of Neneh’s mother, a 12-year-old black girl who has just joined the Paris Opera ballet school ?
Aissa Maiga: The quality of the story touched me as much as the way the narrative is delivered. As a general rule, I read a script like a spectator who discovers a film at the cinema. I pay attention to the emotions it gives me. Does this affect me? Do I project myself as an actress? I find the character of little Neneh interesting because it reflects the portrait of a generation which aspires to deploy its potential to obtain opportunities but which, even today, finds itself relegated to the second zone because of a difference. In this case, for her, her difference is her skin color. Beyond the cause, I liked the way the story is told because you can very quickly deviate, with this kind of subject, towards a very heavy and negative story.
How did you approach the role?
This woman is overwhelmed by her daughter’s fiery temper but also by her vision of the future. It’s very different from the way I raised my children. It’s quite funny because around me, I know a lot of parents who are impressed by the educational and administrative institutions. The destitute characters touch me because we see them struggling and a lot of questions too. Neneh’s mother only wants one thing: to protect her daughter. It is a universal human dimension.
“I was ashamed to say that I wanted to pursue acting.” Aissa Maiga
What are your common points and your differences with the character of Neneh, who wants to be a classical dancer while coming from a housing estate?
Living in a city has not been my reality. There are things I haven’t experienced. I come from a middle class. I was lucky to have a family that never told me that I couldn’t get into certain jobs. I was envisioned as a child who had to study, get a diploma, find a job… It’s important to have parents who place the child in a positive imaginary, in which he can project himself. On the other hand, I was ashamed to say that I wanted to pretend to be an actress. It was not commonplace in my environment. I was afraid of being seen as the girl who just wants to be on top of the bill. I didn’t feel legitimate, but that didn’t mean I was told: “You won’t do that”. This caused some fears but today I completely understand it. Having a child who wants to become an artist can be scary.
In the film, we hear the phrase “Iyou have to be brave in suffering”…
I do not praise suffering because it is not a compulsory path. Life doesn’t have to be hard. Above all, you have to be able to go through the trials with the maximum of grace without being in hatred or discouragement. We must rather try to understand that they are our limits and come out stronger from the trials of life.
Oumy Bruni Garrel, Aïssa Maïga and Steve Tientcheu in the film Neneh Superstar directed by Ramzi Ben Sliman
“From a certain age, all actresses disappear.” Aissa Maiga
What advice would you have liked to hear when you were younger?
I was lucky to be surrounded by caring people I could talk to. I was given a lot of life advice, especially in relation to honesty, the value of work, effort and the notion of pure love is sincere. I thank all the adults who, after my father’s death, took turns to educate me.
What scene did you enjoy shooting?
I liked shooting the scenes with the teenage girls in the kitchen because we feel that this mother is off the mark. She’s not exactly an ace when it comes to nutrition. Having a daughter embarking on a career as a classical dancer is a real challenge for her. More simply, I loved filming with Neneh, and the two other young girls because they exude vitality. There was a chemistry between all of us. I found Oumy Bruni Garrel (the daughter of Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and of Louis Garrel who plays Neneh, editor’s note) very mature in her relationship to work. She has a lot of grace in her way of addressing people. She takes it upon herself, because on a shoot, fatigue is always present.
Does the dance environment resemble that of the cinema?
I don’t think these two backgrounds are the same. There is a relationship to the body that is really unavoidable in dance. You have to conform to a defined physique to withstand the shock. In the cinema, there is a pressure on the bodies, a social pressure. A body must have certain measurements to try to have a career. But in the world of the 7th art, careers are not necessarily as short as that of a dancer. I have to talk about the pressure of women in cinema and the fifty-year tunnel. From a certain age, all actresses disappear. Only a small group reappears in the roles of grandmothers from the age of 65. I noticed very young, when I went to castings, that we are not in competition with other actors. It is work on oneself. The competition is with yourself.
Is it important for you to play committed roles?
It’s important for me to play roles that make sense. Even if the script is quite light, it has to tell a story. Right now, I’m playing in an English-speaking series called King Shaka, on the ruler of the Zulu empire in Africa. In France, I saw films that dealt with the subject of royalty but never with an African kingdom. However, I have read a lot of works on the different African kingdoms and there are a lot of stories to highlight.
The trailer for Walking on Water (2021) directed by Aïssa Maïga
“The fight against racism must be on the same level as the question of parity in cinema.” Aissa Maiga
Is this role a way for you to strengthen your fight for inclusion?
I don’t necessarily see my roles as combat support. When I choose to turn in Neneh Superstar, there is above all the artistic dimension that counts. There must be chemistry between the director and me. The meeting with Ramzi Ben Sliman was magical because he is someone fascinating. It was very fluid. We met a few months before the shoot. At first I was reluctant because I was still being offered the role of a mother. But, I found that there was an originality.
Do you think the situation of black women in cinema has changed since the release of your documentary? black lookin 2021?
Real change takes time. I have the impression that there is progress in cinema (especially in comedies) especially thanks to people like the French director Jean-Pascal Zadi, who has his vision. His film Simply Black (2020) was not an expected movie. But apart from comedies, I don’t think there is any change and place for non-white actors in France. There is a real glass ceiling, apart from a few exceptions… But I don’t want this situation to be based on exceptions. I want to tell myself that everyone has a chance despite their differences.
Your speech at the César ceremony in 2020 caused a strong reaction…
My speech was not based solely on personal impressions but on studies peeled with the co-director of Black Look, Isabelle Simeoni. Things cannot change on their own. I think we are in a country that can do everything possible to obtain concrete changes. The fight against racism must be on the same level as the question of parity in cinema.
Neneh Superstar (2023) by Ramzi Ben Sliman with Aïssa Maïga, currently in theaters.
Aïssa Maïga, starring in Neneh Superstar: “From a certain age, all actresses disappear”