Yamina Benguigui

When rioting erupted in the suburbs here late last year, the world was shocked to see television images of burning cars and violent confrontations between youth and police.

PARIS — When rioting erupted in the suburbs here late last year, the world was shocked to see television images of burning cars and violent confrontations between youth and police.

Yamina Benguigui, a French filmmaker of Algerian descent, was not. She was in the midst of wrapping up her latest documentary exposing the discrimination that France’s immigrant populations still endure.

“To me it was a cry of revolt which said, ‘I belong to this society but I live in a ghetto,’” she says of the civil unrest, the worst here in more than 40 years. “When I started filming three years ago, it felt like a journey into another France.”

Benguigui, 48, is best known for “Mémoires d’immigrés,” a scathing 1997 documentary about immigration in France, and her award-winning “Inch’ Allah dimanche,” a fictional account of an Algerian woman who struggles against old-world traditions when she leaves her homeland to join her husband in France. Now Benguigui is tackling employment discrimination in “The Glass Ceiling,” her two-part documentary currently playing in French cinemas. It was sponsored by SolidarCité, a nonprofit, antidiscrimination organization founded by luxury and retail giant PPR, which owns Gucci Group.

In it, Benguigui tracks young men and women with college degrees who turn to gardening because they can’t get job interviews or cashier’s jobs so they can at least get a foot in the door. Some do catch a break, and Benguigui highlights initiatives by PPR to hire more immigrant employees for its retail and fashion chains, from Fnac record stores to Yves Saint Laurent boutiques.

“Saint Laurent always had this idea of ‘multiculturism’ — he was the first one to hire a black girl as his leading model,” she notes, referring to Fidelia, a black model who was on the YSL catwalk back in 1962.

“We have to get rid of our Franco-Camembert attitude. We are not open enough,” PPR’s François-Henri Pinault says in front of Benguigui’s camera.

Pinault argues that French businesses can only gain from hiring young managers from immigrant backgrounds because it better reflects the social reality in modern-day France.

Benguigui herself is a case study in overcoming obstacles, considering herself a pioneer. “I’m the first woman director from an immigrant background,” she says, describing her struggles in an industry not known for inclusiveness. For example, she said it’s not unusual for movie scripts that arrive from a low-income Paris suburb to be tossed without being read.

This story first appeared in the March 27, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Yet this vivacious woman wears none of her troubles or her causes. In her Christian Louboutin heels and skintight jeans, Benguigui is as much a fashion plate as an activist. At the beginning of her career, she filmed Thierry Mugler’s runway and backstage shows and she shot the first Paris Première live fashion show.

And her next project, “Aïcha,” a TV series for France 2 that she’ll start shooting in June, will take her to the runways again. It recounts the story of a girl with an immigrant background from suburban Paris who gets an internship in a couture house thanks to an open-minded designer who himself shook up the fashion world when he started. While it hasn’t been confirmed, Benguigui has one designer in mind: Jean Paul Gaultier.

“He’s opened up mentalities,” she says of the designer. “He would see Aïcha. He would definitely notice her.” Now, she only hopes Gaultier will see things her way. “It’s written for him. I hope he’ll agree to do it,” she says with a smile.

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