French is the language of love. But in Chez Jolie Coiffure, it’s the language of fear, anguish, suffering, pain, friendship, love, triumph and defeat. The language is broken up by bits in many tongues, a manifestation of the cultural clashing that occurs throughout the film as, over the course of a year, director Rosine Mbakam documents the relentless journey of a hairdresser named Sabine.
Sabine was born in Cameroon. She travels to Lebanon to become a housekeeper, a path she says that many use as a means to get to Europe. There, she finds herself stripped of her passport and reduced into slavery under the pretense of being a housekeeper. She escapes, traveling mostly by foot, through Syria to Turkey to Greece and then, finally, to Belgium, where she now lives. She has no money or family accompanying her.
We learn all of this information from Sabine herself, though not directly. When speaking of her pain, she exclusively uses third person to avoid the emotional weight of her journey. “You can’t describe it,” Sabine says of the gruesome migration. “You have to live it.”
The work itself is a chamber movie, meaning it takes place exclusively in one room: a hair salon. Even when there are disturbances outside, the camera is unwavering. It creates a sense of constriction; as a viewer, you lack agency. You cannot leave the salon for the next 70 minutes. Although this phenomenon is temporary for an audience, it’s permanent for Sabine. She is trapped.
Chez Jolie Coiffure lacks any sort of traditional plot arch. In fact, the film is devoid entirely of action and, instead, is reliant on dialogue, which places a heavy weight on the free-flowing conversation that bounces off the salon walls. The exchanges are intensified by the very significance of the salon to the women who occupy it: it’s a sanctuary, an insider’s realm, a safe space to be true to yourself. As a viewer, you almost feel as if you’re invading a private zone.
The intense vulnerability makes the film emotionally gripping, but the contrast between a public storefront and intimate confessions makes it engrossing. As Sabine details her undying fear of being caught and deported by the police, she does so in front of a store made up entirely of windows, where white passersby stare and even take photographs. At one point, a group of white tourists takes pictures of the African women doing their work. “When we go to your zoos, we pay,” Sabine scoffs.
It’s easy to become entrenched in Sabine’s struggle, to feel anger as she does, to feel the panic when she must run from a police raid. Although it’s a somewhat slow-paced and mildly dense film, Chez Jolie Coiffure unequivocally extracts a powerful sense of empathy — and urgency.
At the end of the film, one patron asked Mbakam, who is in town for True/False and in the U.S. for her first time, if Sabine is doing okay, if she got her papers. “No,” Mbakam says. “She got arrested 10 days ago.”
Chez Jolie Coiffure will play again at True/False on Friday at 4:45 p.m. at Big Ragtag, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Rhynsburger Theatre and Sunday at 10:15 a.m. at Big Ragtag.