Bad Girls: Into the Hell of a Reformatory

With “Bad Girls”, director Émérance Dubas looks at an episode as painful as it is unknown in the history of violence against women.

How was the project born? Bad Girls ?

Emerance Dubas: The film was born out of my meeting with the historian Véronique Blanchard, who devoted her doctoral thesis, published under the title Vagabondes, voleuses, vicious, to the placement of girls in re-education boarding schools. At the time, I produced portraits of artists in the continuity of my training in Art History. I turned away from it to devote myself to this documentary project and make it exist at all costs. But I would never have thought that it would take me seven years to achieve this! Long is the way to tell what haunts a society.

How many hours of rushes did you have when you entered the editing room?

I had about 35 hours of rushes, which is relatively little in documentary cinema. My location scouting lasted a long time so that at the time of filming, I knew precisely what I wanted to film while being ready to welcome the unexpected.

Did you have the temptation of fiction to tell this story?

Absolutely not ! This film is fully part of a documentary approach.

Watching your film, viewers inevitably think of Peter Mulan’s Magdalene Sisters. Is this one of your references?

Of course, when it was released in France, I had seen Peter Mullan’s film The Magdalene Sisters, which takes place in Catholic Ireland in the 1960s. But I did not know that in France, a multitude of girls from the generation of my mother had suffered the same fate. So I was flabbergasted when I discovered the ordeal of girls ostracized from society behind the high walls of the Congregation of the Good Shepherd. Even though I grew up in Angers, the city where the motherhouse of this religious congregation is located, no one around me talked about it. It was a collective taboo story. A well-kept secret that got the better of these teenage girls. In short, a double injustice since, in the face of shame, the women had no choice but to keep quiet.

How many similar institutions did France have?

The number of re-education boarding schools for girls varies depending on the period, but it amounts to around 70 establishments.

The women have been through the worst – before and after their time in this institution – but none are driven by anger. Their appeasement impresses.

Edith, Michèle, Éveline, Fabienne, as well as Marie-Christine, are indeed remarkable. When writing the film, I chose to work with women who had made an inner journey allowing them to escape anger without being resigned. Faced with the violence and the strength of the stories, my goal was for the viewer to find their place and also be able to deal with this anger.

You film these women marked by their experience. You also film the legacy of the violence of which they are the depositories.

Encouraged by her daughter, Michèle wrote a text for her granddaughters. In a way, she produces an archive for the attention of her family. Michèle thus embodies this intergenerational transmission, which is one of the film’s challenges. The editing is also designed as a puzzle whose pieces resonate with each other until the final scene which seals the words of women for future generations.

At times, the documentary borrows from the horror film. Seeing a ghost appear would not surprise us and these women are like bearers of a curse.

I will not speak of a curse. The women were crushed by a well thought out and orchestrated disciplinary system. But it is true that at the bend of a corridor of the Bon Pasteur de Bourges, while the voice of Edith guides us in this labyrinthine place, the ghosts of the past seem to arise.

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