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By Claudia Mäder (Feuilleton Neue Zürcher Zeitung)

In one of his essays, French author Michel Houellebecq reports on a strange practice: in a village in southern France, retired men have been commissioned by the municipality to regularly play pétanque, drink pastis and sit around in the village square. The municipality even gave them money for this, but in return the old men had to reach for the pastis at fixed times. Namely, whenever the buses of a tour operator drove through the village and took a short break: The pensioners had the job of giving the tourists an authentic impression of life in Provence.

At first glance, this anecdote could not be further from what Susanne Regina Meures shows in her film GIRL GANG. Instead of being about old men in a sleepy village, it‘s about a young woman living in Berlin and on the social networks. But in principle, one is faced with one and the same phenomenon in Provence and in the Berlin net world: people who pretend to other people an authentic life.


Of course, Leonie, the teenage protagonist, doesn‘t drink pastis. She does homework, laps up ice cream, removes her makeup and tries on new shoes. And while the Provençal pensioners show themselves in the village square, Leonie can only be found in the virtual world. But just as the tourists think they are observing the normal everyday life of the old men, the teenager‘s fans believe they are looking straight into the life of their idol.


This life is perfect, the fan girls say admiringly, wishing they could bite into chicken nuggets or test a new makeup removal puff as cheerfully as Leonie. From the point of view of her fans, the camera Leonie uses to film herself is a mirror of life: it hangs above the young woman, in front of her, beside her or behind her, and always shows what she is doing and saying at any given moment; it provides insight into everything she experiences around the clock.


The camera Susanne Regina Meures uses to film young Leonie shatters this mirror, or at least the idea that Leonie‘s cell phone camera functions like a mirror: for an hour and a half, viewers can follow in the documentary how hard the teenager works to stage her normal life as such.


In this, the young influencer from Berlin differs from the old men in Provence. These don‘t have to do very much to do their job and come across as genuinely Provençal. However, their salaries are also quite modest. In the influencer business, on the other hand, there‘s a lot of money to be made - provided that the person who demonstrates the various products to his fans also comes across as really authentic in his commercials. But this effect can only be achieved with considerable effort.


„You need to become more authentic, you need to work on yourself,“ a social media manager tells young Leonie, adding, „No one wants to see theater.“ That‘s a sentence ready for the stage. Because the greatest theater is obviously staged around authenticity: It has to be rehearsed with great effort, and Meures‘ film lets you look at the rehearsal stage, so to speak.


We see and hear sentences being tweaked until they really sound like Leonie, we follow how the wind disturbs the perfect setting, how the use of appropriate music is discussed, and how Leonie and her parents film and bicker, cut, time, edit and organize.


Through the broken illusion of the mirror, one thus enters a disturbing cabinet of pretenses. We are watching a documentary: a film that captures the reality of a life. But the reality of this life consists to a large extent of staging, playing and producing a reality of life - and selling this art product to an audience of millions as an insight into everyday life. What is real, and what is play, what is role, what is life, what is work, and what is leisure? In the theater of authenticity, all these things become blurred, nothing can be distinguished anymore.


But perhaps the biggest question that arises with regard to the great theater is that of freedom: to what extent does the protagonist choose her role, which becomes more solidified with each video, entailing assignment after assignment and filling the teenager‘s agenda beyond the edge of what is bearable? It is this question, the one about the freedom of the individual, that connects the film to the earlier works of Susanne Regina Meures. At first glance, GIRL GANG seems to have as little to do with Meures‘ last films as the old pétanque players do with the young influencer. While RAVING IRAN was about the escape of two DJs from the God‘s state and SAUDI RUNAWAY documented the escape of a woman from Saudi Arabia, GIRL GANG is set in the liberal West. But all the films are essentially about young people and their chances for a self-determined life.


In the process, the protagonists move in opposite directions, and it is precisely this that can make you think. The Iranian DJ and Muna from Saudi Arabia are not prepared to take on the roles into which they are forced by their repressive states. Meures‘ films show how these people strive to shape their own lives away from patronizing controlling authorities. The young influencer, on the other hand, is watched as she gets caught up in the ever tighter corset of her own role-playing in a country that guarantees her the greatest freedom imaginable. Where one struggles with all her might for freedom, the other 8 seems to lose it between makeup tips and McDonald‘s promos.

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