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Into the darkness: Venus Noire

“A remarkable phenomenon …A female savage from the dark continent Africa…Bear in mind that she is a genuine savage…If there is anyone among you of a sensitive nature, I pray you, leave the theatre now quietly.”

19th century London. The audience is invited to watch a “creature” called Hottentot Venus. Her capturer defines it/her with these words opening the show. The creature has been “captured” and brought to London to be displayed to the people. This creature’s name is Sarah Saartjie Baartman.

Director Abdellatif Kechiche’s latest movie revolves around the life of Sarah Saartjie Baartman, who was brought to Europe from Africa to be shown in the circus and exploited.

Hendrick (Andre Jacobs), the first “owner” of Saartjie (Yaima Torres), explains how he came across her and brought her to Europe. In the show, the audience was told that she is a savage - actually a freak, due to her physical apperance with enormous buttocks and labia. She was called the "Hottentot Venus," “Hottentot” being a name given to people with cattle.* Saartjie, who was also made believe to the role, grinned and behaved like a savage during the show.

Her physical appearence is what attracted the audience. The “other” and “abnormal” part of her nature makes the show important. As Hendrick explains during the show, the audience must feel to believe, so they should touch her body and test their courage. Besides Baartman’s story, the movie portrays Europe in 19th century and how Europeans saw “the other” and “the unknown”.

Besides what the audience can see, Saartjie’s genital organ becomes the intriguing part, as it is different. During the movie (and also her life), all men who “owned” her body were interested in her genitals to see and investigate them. This shows how exploitation remains the same, while it is only the names that change. In London, some communities become aware of this and take the incident to court, but Saartjie replies that she was there of her free will.

After London, Saartjie is taken to Paris to be shown in special events. The new master Reaux (Olivier Gourmet) promises to raise her to the highest spheres of society, but in fact the exploitation becomes even more severe as Reaux wants to abuse her sexually. While “astonishing” the people of the highest spheres, the scientists from the Natural History Museum also show interest and want to study her closely to see if she is a genuine “Hottentot” and to prove the superiority of the white race by comparing her skull and brain. The rest of the story is as bleak as the beginning and will end in a very sad way. The only happy moment in the story comes during Nelson Mandela’s speech at the end, when he was welcoming Baartman’s remains back into her own country.

Venus Noire, being a biographical work, raises many questions in the audience. In my opinion, director Kechiche remains a little distant from the story, maybe to be able to consider every angle or not to take sides. I have read that he has been criticized of not giving much voice to Baartman and showing the things from the “white man’s” perspective. However, he might be right in his approach, as there is not much evidence how Saartjie reacted to this exploitation.

The duration of the movie is 160 minutes and there are some very tough scenes to watch. There are some online sources to read more about her life, and the movie could be a good start for those interested in the subject, as well as those “who are ready to test their courage”.


2Comments -June/26/2012

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Sedef Olgaç

6/28/2012 10:25:37 AM

Yes, and maybe how we see the situation summarizes everything.

Arthur Borges

6/27/2012 7:28:09 PM

There's no way to really know how she saw it; you can only do a follow-up by making another film about the reactions of today's Africans to the film.
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