Alice Diop is clearly a major filmmaker. I should know more about her and I do feel late to the party. MUBI has been responsible I think for making her documentary films available in the UK. ‘Nous‘ is her latest documentary showing in My French Festival online as well as on MUBI, but her first fiction feature Saint Omer is due for a UK release this week and is clocking up festival appearances, award wins and nominations. Alice Diop was interviewed in the Observer by Jonathan Romney on 29th January. In other words she has ‘arrived’ in the UK. So, what have we been missing?
As far as I can see, Alice Diop has followed a path that is not unfamiliar for similar second generation members of migrant families in the UK. Born and brought up in the early 1980s in les banlieues, specifically the ‘Cité des 3000’ estate of high rises in Aulnay-sous-Bois, she left her roots to study in Central Paris and returned fifteen years later to look again at the area she had known in her childhood. Her need was wrapped up in questions of identity and how French society had changed since her parents arrived from Senegal in the 1960s. She began to make documentary films of varying lengths from 1 minute to the 115 minutes of Nous, in each case trying to say something about the people with whom she has shared space along the RER B railway line which runs North East to South West across Paris. Interestingly, she offers a contrast to Mati Diop the actress-filmmaker who has a family connection to the one of the leading figures of Senegalese cinema. Alice Diop is not related to that Diop family, doesn’t speak any Senegalese languages and feels herself “very French”. But this doesn’t mean she is ‘unaware’. She studied African colonial history at the Sorbonne, followed by a masters in ‘visual sociology’ and then attended La fémis, the Paris film school. She says she has a ‘need’ to make films about the people and the districts who are under-represented on screen in France.
Nous does indeed cover many settings and individuals and groups of people who we don’t usually see on screens – or if we do, it is as heavily typed characters presented in generic ways. As a documentary, Nous is also a mix of different ‘modes’ (i.e. as derived from the initial work of Bill Nichols in 1991) and at certain points introduces a mix of archive and ‘found’ material. Overall, it follows a distanced observer, but Diop also introduces herself into some scenes and explores aspects of her own family history, including following her sister, who appears to be a care worker for a number of older people, on her ’rounds’. I did attempt to log all the different segments, but after seven I gave up and became more interested in thinking about her choices along the railway line. Because she includes various aspects of signage, I was able to follow the rail line on a Paris map and to see which parts of the route she chose to cover. I should explain here one of the issues that arise with a film like this reviewed from a UK perspective. As we move from French to English and then consider American English and British English, some terms can carry different meanings. Most French films when subtitled in English are translated into American English, simply because that is the largest anglophone market. So when Diop says she was born in a ‘housing project’, I know to re-translate this to what I would have called a ‘council estate’, though now perhaps I should refer to ‘social housing’. Alongside this, however, les banlieues is often translated as ‘the suburbs’ and in English there is an adjective ‘suburban’ which has connotations that are more difficult to translate into French. (I studied this in some detail as part of writing on La Haine (France 1995).) Housing stock is often a marker of socio-economic status and social class. ‘Suburban’ suggests a self-contained lower middle-class or middle-class in the UK. The kinds of high rise blocks that house many of the migrant groups in Paris are in some (most?) cases on the outer edge of the metropolis. In the UK, similar estates have been described as being in the ‘Inner city’ – as distinct from the suburbs. But although London and Paris are different in this respect, there are also similarities and both cities have juxtaposed districts of rich and poor housing. The RER B Line runs from Charles De Gaulle Airport in the North East of Paris towards Versailles in the South West (Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse to be precise).
‘Observational’ documentaries attempt to to suggest that that the camera is in the position of an unobtrusive observer. This will usually mean images are framed and composed as long shots, although sometimes the camera may get closer to really see what is happening. The filmmaker does not provide a voiceover or engage with any of the people in shot. This is often defined as ‘Direct Cinema’, i.e. nothing gets in the way of presenting the action before the camera ‘as is’. Very different is the ‘performative’ mode, when the filmmaker seeks out subjects and engages with them, often appearing in front of the camera or providing a kind of commentary or a personal viewpoint. Alice Diop utilises both these modes. Much of the time she simply observes, though sometimes the shot sizes are quite close (i.e. close-ups) and the subjects seem to be under investigation in some way. This is particularly the case when a congregation is listening to a priest reading a statement by Louis XVI at the point where he was being held by the Republicans in 1792. This is in the Basilica of Saint-Denis where French monarchs were buried in Central Paris and the congregation is primarily white, older and seemingly middle-class. Is Diop interested in the stoicism of these people, especially some of the older women? When she’s showing us Ismael a car mechanic, working on a vehicle and talking on his phone to his mother in Mali or quietly having a coffee for his breakfast, the camera is sometimes closer but doesn’t seem to be putting him under pressure. Ismael is in les banlieues, as are the young women talking and looking at their phones or the young men lounging in the sun and listening to some surprising music. “Put on the Jacques Brel” someone shouts.
Diop’s family footage is strikingly different. She finds some old video footage of her mother who is fleetingly caught at a family gathering. This seems to have been recorded over a clip from Marlon Brando in The Wild One. The change in aspect ratio and the almost forgotten white noise on the videotape is a contrast to the clinical digital film of most of the other footage. But in another section we meet her father on an archive recording, discussing coming to France in 1966. We will see him cropping up again later in a park near the Seine where he liked to go to see a variety of bird species. Diop’s sister visits several older women and men, organising their medications and generally chatting to them. Some of them won’t meet many people and a daily basis and the interaction is important. Here the documentary sometimes moves over to the ‘reflexive’ mode, drawing attention to its own construction. One of the old people asks why the sister is being filmed and she replies: “Because I’m famous!”. I should point out that Alice Diop is not necessarily behind the camera herself. The camerawork is credited to Sarah Blum, Sylvain Verdet and Clement Alline. Sometimes Diop will comment on the footage of her family members and this then becomes the ‘expository’ mode in the sense that Diop’s voiceover ‘fixes’ something about the narrative of her parents. Much later in the film Diop visits the writer Pierre Bergounioux who lives in what seems like a quiet rural area towards the end of the railway line where he walks locally and then retires to his book-lined study. Diop is keen to get him to read from Carnet de notes: Journal 1991-2000 (published in 2007). His work in this case is simply recording his daily life and in a sense it mirrors what Diop is attempting to achieve with her film. This sequence is again performative and Diop appears in the frame. We see her sitting at the writer’s table as he reads and she includes the preparation for the shoot so this is also ‘reflexive’ – we watch the sound operator testing the microphone and then, for a few moments, the microphone boom is in shot.
Documentaries always have a narrative structure of sorts and Alice Diop begins and ends her film with the same characters. As the film opens we see a man and a woman and a small boy, possibly their grandson, waiting behind a gate. They are looking out a cross a field to the edge of a fairly dense wood. It is possibly early morning. The man has a pair of binoculars and my first thought was that they were naturalists looking for wildlife. Eventually a deer appears the edge of the wood. It’s a tiny figure that moves along the edge of the wood, just in sight. The trio are quiet and attentive. At the end of the film, the man and the boy appear again in a more clearly defined context and I was taken a little by surprise by what transpired in the woods South West of Paris. I’m not sure if this is making a point about a group of people – like those remembering Louis XVI, predominately white, older and more associated with a middle-class life style – or whether this is a kind of formal exercise in ‘bookending’ the narrative. Later I saw that in the Press Notes, Diop explained that the opening is symbolic of what is happening across the film in that the trio look at the deer, which knows that it is being watched. Diop’s aim is to bring the two closer together, so that they see each other more clearly.
I haven’t mentioned every section of the documentary but I’ve covered enough to give an idea of what happens across the whole 115 minutes. This is a very good documentary, clearly made with a great deal of care and approached with real purpose and preparation. It flows beautifully with fluid camerawork and excellent editing by Amrita David. Diop is dealing with the Paris she knows and she follows the railway line closely to reveal the different housing stock, facilities and resources and communities across the city. In 2017 she made a 1 minute short, RER B, in which the camera captures the artist Benoît Peyrucq adding touches to a watercolour painting of the railway tracks of the goods sorting yard at Drancy, one of the stations on the RER B line which runs beside the yard. We see the painting and then realise the artist is working on a bridge overlooking the yard. Drancy is included in Nous and an eerie sequence takes the camera around the Holocaust Museum – Drancy was the location from which thousands of Jews were transported to extermination camps after being rounded up and held in the Drancy internment camp. Diop first became interested in using the concept of the railway line as cutting across the various different communities of Paris when she read François Maspero’s book Roissy Express: A Journey Through the Paris Suburbs early in the 2000s. Maspero’s journey by foot along the path of the RER B line shocked Diop when she saw a Black girl like herself in a photograph taken near where she had lived as a child. She shut the book but returned to it later in 2015 when she began to realise that she could make a film in which she could explore her own sense of what living in Paris as a French woman means in terms of identity and what she could achieve by juxtaposing, for example, memories of her Senegalese father and the commemoration of Louis XVI’s death 230 years ago. So who is the ‘Nous’ of the title? It should be everybody we see. I did feel that there didn’t seem to be as many Maghrebi communities as I might have expected and I think it is the case that apart from the Basilica, there aren’t as many Central Paris locations as might be justified, but I think I need to watch the film several times before making such assertions. Diop’s Nous makes me wish I was still teaching and could explore this wonderful film in detail with students. As well as MUBI, Nous is also available to stream/download on Amazon and Apple.
Saint Omer was shown once at Vue last week ago in the occasional BFI Presents strand that has also included ‘Triangle of Sadness’ and ‘Tori and Lokita’ and ‘Corsage’ all of which I emjoyed very much. Alice Diop’s film was a bit more challenging, particularly in the motivations of the various characters involved, several of them with a Senegalese background. It did not offer up any easy answers, a bit like ‘Aftersun’ though I would be very surprised if it did as well since it concerns the matter of a mother who has killed her child.
Yes, I suspect it is a much more challenging watch than the other three titles you mention. I’m looking forward to it. I’m not that bothered about ‘Triangle of Sadness’ and I did see ‘Corsage’ but I’m sorry I missed ‘Tori and Lokita’ which doesn’t seem to have had much exposure anywhere. Though it’s great for you, I wonder what the BFI plan is with these previews? I’m not sure that showing the film before the release date does much to make it more visible. Wouldn’t it be better to support the actual release?
Yes, it is a bit odd as both ‘Corsage’ and ‘Triangle of Sadness’ went on to a wider release, if ‘Tori and Lokita’ didn’t. I suspect ‘Saint Omer’ will fall into the latter camp here. Another point here : I am watching these BFI Presents from Vue in the quiet backwater of Halifax. Even though these films get more exposure at Vue in Leeds they will not locally unless the struggling Square Chapel picks them up. I saw ‘Rimini’ there today in an audience of four which was rather typical.