“Sisterhood” screened as part of The 59th Chicago International Film Festival, learn more about this film!

Nora El Hourch’s feature debut “Sisterhood” (french title: “HLM Pussy”) is an emboldened dossier of how girlhood prematurely, and often violently, transitions into womanhood. Amina (Leah Aubet), Djeneba (Médina Diarra), and Zineb (Salma Takaline) are a close-knit, fiery trio of best friends that occupy their own universe until the borders of their relationship are tested by racial and sexual hostilities. “Sisterhood” tasks itself with following these three girls amid a microcosmic environment of France’s larger issues with discriminatory violence.

Zak (Oscar Al Hafiane) is the friend of Zineb’s older brother, and his long-held fixation on her boils over when he forcibly kisses her in the bathroom at a party. Distraught from the assault, Zineb tells her friends, who scheme a plan to catch him in the act and document proof. While Amina and Djeneba hide in the bathroom, cameras ready, Zineb lures Zak in to turn him down, but also of course to capture anything he might do. Zak tries to get physical with her, yet when she pushes him away, he pivots by verbally detailing his desires, as well as proposing that he’ll snitch on the drug dealer he works for in order to financially provide for her.

The combination of her vulnerability as the subject of the video, as well as the proposed danger of having mentioned the dealer, makes Zineb uncomfortable with releasing the video. However, Amina, frustrated by the assault and emboldened by the #MeToo content she regularly views on social media, takes ownership of the situation and posts the video to Instagram anyway, blurring the faces and uploading it to a burner account titled “HLM Pussy.”

Amina’s decision to go around her friends, and the consequences that ensue, open up the floodgates on a conversation about agency, consent, and the dynamics of power that contribute to them. While El Hourch as the writer-director takes these factors into account, their inclusion fumbles, lacking nuance in their expression and frequency, cheapening much of the point. The ideas don’t fall on deaf ears, but the brutish way they are worked into the script becomes fatiguing.

Amina comes from a wealthy French-Moroccan family, while Djeneba and Zineb reside in the HLM projects (where the film’s French title originates). We see her struggle with her immigrant father’s hamfisted discipline on respectability politics, but even more so, she is constantly trying to utilize her own nepotism to guarantee that she and her friends are granted an internship in Paris, even as they both make it clear they are not interested. Amina as a central character, with this throughline as well as her posting of the video, show the self-absorption of her class status, even as she has good intentions. She views herself as a heroine while failing to acknowledge that she is not the victim, and that by proxy, her exploitation of her friend’s assault makes her a secondary perpetrator. 

This rift between the girls causes Djeneba and Zineb to split from Amina, and the latter is still forced to encounter Zak every day. His threats increase as he demands the video be taken down, and as he closes in on Zineb and Djeneba, Amina remains indignant and ignorant, transferring schools as her parents ensure her safety. Meanwhile, Zineb withdraws from the situation, having, realistically, the least to say. Her assault has been co-opted by her friends as a footnote in their participation in a movement. Takaline gives the best performance of the bunch, with a level of emotiveness in her eyes that strikes with every shot.

Djeneba is afforded the least exploration by the script, which hyperfixates on her Blackness almost exclusively via the way she is seen by others and her constant defense of her character. In transient acts, like Zak referring to her as “slave girl,” as well as vapid sequences, like her classroom spat with an Arab classmate over anti-Blackness, the film often treats Djeneba as a symbol rather than a character. When she’s not defending herself, she’s an accessory to the stories of Zineb and Amina, who are provided far more care in their crafting. 

The naivety of the characters is central. Yet while their imperfectness in navigating their incredibly complex dilemma rings as a genuine cornerstone of the film’s emotional core, “Sisterhood” struggles alongside the girls’ muddled values, adopting a similarly confounding ethos. El Hourch’s script is clumsy, taking far too many asides from its central trio to pop in incongruent dialogue for politics’ sake. For this, it loses narrative traction far more than it holds it by the reins. “Sisterhood” is undoubtedly well-intentioned and thoughtful, concerned so deeply with the intersectionality of its feminist thesis that it starts to throw a checklist of dogma at the wall in the hopes all of it will stick. Most of it doesn’t, and the film is flimsy and blatant, even with social loyalty and nuanced truthfulness on its side. 

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