The Need for Femme-Powered Films

By Zanji Sinkala

There is an African proverb that says, “The axe forgets what the tree remembers.” In other words, the axe has caused the damage and forgets it in a trice, but the tree, on whom the damage was caused, will remember it forever. Many of us have probably experienced something so painful that led to a string of regrettable events (and those we don’t regret). But this isn’t a mopey story of a woman who wished she hadn’t acted a certain way. Au contraire, it describes a woman who finds satisfaction and healing in her own dark and twisted way.

Unlike societal constraints on what a woman should and shouldn’t do, Black Medusa by ismaël/Youssef Chebbi shatters the traditional expectations of a woman, and offers her a lifeline, however unorthodox, to overcome her grief. Now, before you proceed to reading this review, let me make a tiny disclaimer: There will be some minor spoilers ahead, but I assure you, they will not come anywhere near explaining this very perplexing, film. Let’s move on.

Black Medusa was filmed by Youssef Chebbi and ismaël in 2020, and is a remake of the 1981 American thriller Ms .45 by Abel Ferrara. The two movies couldn’t be any different. Like its inspiration, Black Medusa tells the vengeance tale of Nada, a Tunisian woman called Nada who preys on men with the sole purpose of either raping or killing them. The movie does not clearly give away Nada’s history with men or a specific catalytic event that influences her actions. It does, however, subtly imply a traumatic past experience which leaves the viewer seeking answers as each scene plays out in the span of nine striking nights. 

Black Medusa still

Shot in black and white, the underground film sets a dark atmosphere and begins with a confident Nada walking – no, strutting – through the streets of Tunisia. Unlike the quiet and innocent editor she is by day, she drips of confidence and seduction as she looks for whom to devour by night. 

The protagonist finds her first victim. He ticks all the boxes – drunk, incoherent and lives in an apartment a few blocks away. Bingo. She picks him up and pretends to help him get home safely, but once they arrive, she rapes him mercilessly. Now, according to society today, this wouldn’t be much of a shocking scene if the gender role was reversed. It would draw anger and emotions from people, of course, but not be considered even half as abominable as this. When asked about what reaction the movie would produce from people, Chebbi anticipated “shock” from men, considering how blatant its message of empowerment is. While he is sure it will face some rejection, he undoubtedly believes young people will embrace it.  

Black Medusa still

There are plenty of similarities between Ms .45 and Black Medusa that are quite intriguing. Like Thana, the lead character in Ms .45, Nada becomes thirstier for bloodshed after her first killing. This happens on the third night after she stabs to death a random man she meets at a party. She does this in his home, with his knife, which she immediately collects out of fascination and uses on her next victims. This may not be the .45 calibre pistol Thana collects from her rapist and assailant, but it clearly affirms the deliberate likeness that Chebbi / ismaël seek to make explicit between the two films. 

Now, I’d like to commend the protagonist of Black Medusa, played by Nour Hajri, for her exceptional acting in the movie. In the words of the film director, her incredibly played character is that of a free-minded, free-bodied woman who thrives in her loneliness. She is unfazed by the blockade between herself and the rest of the world, so much that even her nosy workmate, Noura, is just another exasperating human seeking to find a trace of normalcy in her.  Noura attempts to talk to an irritated Nada on a couple of occasions, and isn’t deterred, regardless of her knowledge that Nada is mute. Eventually, her determination pays off when Nada’s sinister deeds catch up with her and she needs her help. In the end, nothing seems to stop Nada from taking what she wants. She begins her cruel cycle again, in another location far away from Noura’s incessant inquisitiveness.

Overall, Black Medusa is a dark film with a complex character who conveys the strong message of empowerment in a society where women are expected to be weak, fearful, submissive and powerless. The scenes in this film transpire in everyday life – with women being the victims mostly. It is necessary for films to show women in their full, realised glory beyond the helpmate or damsel in distress cinema has portrayed them to be for so long.  Films like Black Medusa convey the very important message of the need for femme-powered films that allow women to be complex, strong, badass or whatever they want to be. As American politician Shirley Chisholm once said, “Tremendous amounts of talent are being lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.” I couldn’t agree more.

Zanji Sinkala
Written for the Young Film Critics 2021