September 8, 2010 / 1:20 PM / 10 years ago

Film on 19th century "freak" impresses in Venice

VENICE (Reuters) - A film based on the true story of Saartjie Baartman, a woman brought from what is now South Africa to Europe in the early 1800s and paraded as a freak of nature thanks to her appearance, has impressed audiences in Venice.

The 1816 complete cast in plaster of Saartjie Baartman is displayed during a ceremony at the South African Embassy in Paris April 29, 2002, in preparation for Baartman's remains to be returned to South Africa in early May for burial.REUTERS/Charles Platiau

“Venus Noire,” directed by Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche, is one of 24 films in competition at the annual festival, and the warm reaction after press screenings suggests it is a favourite for awards at Saturday’s closing ceremony.

Yahima Torres plays Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus” who travelled to London in 1810 and Paris several years later in the hope of making a fortune with which to return to her homeland.

The movie, which recalls elements of the 1980 picture “The Elephant Man,” opens with Baartman playing the part of a tamed savage before a raucous London crowd which is at turns repulsed and fascinated by her figure and behaviour.

Both slave to an avaricious master and willing participant in a lucrative trade, Baartman has some control over her destiny. But after moving to Paris her exposure becomes increasingly cruel and humiliating and she dies as a prostitute.

After her death, French scientists pored over her remains, preserving her brain and genitals for posterity and theorising that she was closer to apes than European humans and therefore from an inferior race.


For Kechiche, the story of cruelty and intolerance has repercussions today.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the theories of the scientists of the past are echoed and have been echoed very recently, at the dawn of Fascism in Europe, for example,” Kechiche told reporters in Venice.

“I felt it a sort of moral duty to bear witness to these things that are happening up to today,” he added.

“At this particular point in time, I find myself very concerned, indeed anguished by the images that I see of the expulsions,” he said, an apparent reference to the recent repatriation of Roma to eastern Europe by France.

“I would like to say, unfortunately, the film is part of contemporary society. It’s very relevant to contemporary society.”

Kechiche was first drawn to making a movie about Baartman when South Africa asked France to return her remains, which had been on display at the Musee de l’Hommme in Paris until the mid-1970s.

They were returned to South Africa in 2002 and buried in the Cape Province where she was born.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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