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Fragility is the only thing I really know about me

Claire Denis

“Fragility is the only thing I really know about me”

PDF, 5 pages


I am not a very balanced person. I am fragile and sad – almost as described in Triste Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss. I feel both those adjectives, I grew up with them. I was aware of my fragility even when I was very young – a baby, learning to walk, living somewhere in Africa and already feeling that the number of white persons was very small compared to the number of black persons and also noticing that most of the black persons that I met were gardeners or maids. I felt – I am sure I am not lying – even at that very young age, not a sense of injustice, but a sort of guilt.

Guilt for what? My parents were nice people, they treated everyone well. My father was avidly learning languages, he spoke many African languages and also Pidgin English very well and he used to speak it to his children. I learned Pidgin English almost before I learned French. So I can say I was well-educated and I was lucky that I was educated far away from France – being able to share different cultures, to have different neighbours. The region I lived in during my early childhood was a Muslim part of the North Region of Cameroon so there were no churches, no Christian presence, the only religion there was Islam. My father got on well with it, but we nevertheless had a pig in our yard. We were saving it for our private meals, because normally we had mutton or chicken. But instead of being strong like an explorer, like a traveller, I lived between two worlds. In one I felt happy – composed of the countries in which I was growing up, the North Region of Cameroon, the South Region of Cameroon, Djibouti and other places. And sometimes for the holidays I stayed for a month or two with my grandparents in France, where I felt a complete stranger, although I noticed I belonged there – because of the colour of my skin, and the similarities between me and the people around me – but there were cultural differences, like having cheese every day which was something I was not used to. So I grew up with that fragility and in a way with a sort of sadness.

When I first read Tristes Tropiques I immediately disliked Lévi-Strauss. I wanted to tell...

  • film d'auteur
  • subjectivity
  • autofiction
  • identity

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Claire Denis

is a Paris-based filmmaker and one of the major artistic voices of contemporary French cinema. She grew up partly in Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Djibouti as daughter of a French colonial official. Claire Denis enrolled in the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (today: La Fémis) where she graduated in 1971. At the beginning of her film career, she worked as an assistant director to Dušan Makavejev, Costa Gavras, Jacques Rivette, Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders. She made her film debut in 1988 with Chocolat, which takes place in an Africa on the brink of anti-colonialism. Her work deals with colonial and anti-colonial themes in West Africa, issues in modern France as well as the subjects of identity, origin and continued destabilisation. Denis’s film Nénette et Boni won the Golden Leopard in 1996 in Locarno, and her film Beau Travail was awarded the Louve d’or in 1999 in Montreal and for this film Denis received the prize for Best Director at the Geneva Festival Tous écrans. In 2009 Denis was invited to the competition of the 66th Venice Film Festival with her film White Material. Claire Denis is professor at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, and at La Fémis in Paris.
Other texts by Claire Denis for DIAPHANES
Kerstin Stakemeier (ed.), Susanne Witzgall (ed.): Fragile Identities

What is the current state of the subject and what about the status of its self-image? In contemporary discourses we encounter more and more “fragile identities,” in artistic works as well as in scientific theories, and those are today much less referring to a critique of the concept of identity, but much rather to the relationship those concepts of identity entertain with the overall precarious state of the subject in current social conditions that are characterized by political upheaval and change.
The book Fragile Identities investigates among other things the chances and also the possible endangerments of such a fragile self and asks for the resurging urgency of a contemporary concept of subjectivity. The publication combines international artistic and scholarly contributions, discussions and project documentations in relation to the second annual theme of the cx centre for interdisciplinary studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich.