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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Portraits de femmes aux quatre coins du monde

by Dominique Widemann

Film Review: Portraits of Women from All Four Corners of the World

Translated Thursday 27 January 2011, by Helen Robertshaw and reviewed by Henry Crapo

With this film, selected in the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, French artist JR pays a fine tribute to women who fight for human dignity. Women Are Heroes, by JR, France. 1hr 25min.

A woman’s body is filmed close to her skin, with the bulging veins of her breasts and her pregnancy curves in motion, held by the camera. Do these carefully chosen scenes of childbirth in the opening of JR’s film really reinforce the meaning of its title “Women Are Heroes”? Does women’s heroism lie in a natural state that demands moments of total self-sacrifice from all women who give birth?

An artist of the gaze, JR soon develops this meaning. In Brazil’s favelas, the poor streets of India and Cambodia and the shanty towns of Africa live women on whom survival often depends. A combination of harsh poverty and male domination force them to put up a daily resistance. The poster artist and his teams of collaborators went to find them there, in a bold and patient quest that is anything but sensationalist. Their photographic portraits in close-up, in fits of giggles or pulling faces in huge format, are then displayed in the very places where, in the background, they battle on with life.

As if extracted from a coal-black corridor where miners toil, these women’s stories thus emerge into the light, carried by visual choices which heighten their symbolic significance. The arches of a bridge, the sheet metal roofs of a shanty town, transient brick structures destined for unscrupulous destruction, railway carriages: JR uses all supports and all opportunities drawn from the complexities of real life. Everywhere he recruits teams of billposters, tries to get involved, disrupts the space and scrutinises the reactions in silence while the street noise rumbles on.

This is of course reminiscent of Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s work, of the ghosts he’s been bringing back to life, since the 1960s, from the depths of buried memories: silhouettes of Rimbaud and Mandela, anonymous people frantic with loneliness attached by him to the walls of phone boxes. We are reminded of the figure of anticolonial campaigner Maurice Audin whose image he scatters across Algiers, of the mythologies he prints on the skin-like layers of the walls of Naples.

However, art is about echoes rather than direct connections. JR, with his Dallas-esque pseudonym, made his own way first of all through graffiti art before moving on to photography, facial shots of individuals in different projects, in different places whose “architecture imposes upon the art work, and not the other way round”, according to him. Portraits of young residents from Les Bosquets estate in Montfermeil stuck to the walls of the social housing blocks (Portrait of a Generation), Israeli faces posted on the Palestinian side of the separation wall, Palestinians displayed in Jerusalem… the world is his theatre.

However, the artist never focuses on these human stories for the sake of his artistic freedom. This freedom surpasses that of his actions and he exercises it whilst refusing all promotional backing. When the works from one project are sold, the money helps fund the next one. His current film certainly documents his work but, above all, its very cinematic qualities powerfully and beautifully convey the words of these women who share their stories facing the camera. Like a mark of recognition.

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