Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri May 07, 2021 3:43 pm 
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A search for unity in diversity - along the rail line

Documentary filmmaker Alice Diop grew up in the banlieue of Paris as the daughter of African immigrants. For years they made payments to arrange to have their remains returned to their native Senegal upon their demise. But when they asked her as a teenager to start making such payments for herself, she had to tell them that she had no desire to do that; she would stay in France, in death as in life.

But how much is she "intégrée" in the contemporary "multicultural" France? How much is it really multicultural? These are questions that probably hovered as she made this subtle, observational new documentary film, shot, she says, obsessively "en banlieue" (in the suburbs) and about people living nearby and around but not in Paris along the dividing RER B intra-city train line as she shot everyone, from a mechanic living out of his van to people who still hunt in a lush preserve with wild game. (The RER is a hybrid commuter and raid transit line that cuts through the middle of Paris from north to south, like a deeper spine that overlays the vertebrae of the Métro.) The result is a doc that as the reviewer for Variety wrote, quietly morphs into an "epic interrogation of France's multicultural project."

The mechanic who works on cars here and there comes originally from Mali. As he works on a car, he tells his mom using earbuds and mike that he would really like to return, but he has not done so - for twenty years, so it doesn't seem likely. We follow the filmmaker's sister, who visits people confined to their houses, some of them sprightly talkers. Her father, now retired, says he is satisfied with what fifty years of life in France have brought him. He never had trouble finding work, and he could buy a house. It is enough.

Suddenly it's a service to honor the memory of a king of France and we are studying faces in the congregation of the Basilica of Saint Denis, where French royalty is buried. These are parishioners who are all white and look as if they themselves may very well identify with royalty. Suddenly, the camera eye roams through the eery Drancy center, also on the RER B line. It commemorates the 10,000 children (and 50,000 adults) held at the internment camp here who were denounced, arrested, detained, and sent to Germany where they died. We hear excerpts from their plaintive, deeply saddening letters. Drancy is a dramatic sign of an earlier, total, lack of "integration" for part of the population, the Jews of France.

Alice's camera roams on: Teenagers and young adults hanging out in the summertime; people watching 14th of July fireworks. Finally Alice herself, who has not minded occasionally answering questions from behind the camera, appears talking with Pierre Bergounioux, a French writer, white, who has been an inspiration to her and whom she sought out after reading one of his articles, because she discovered he has long written himself about the sort of poor and under-noticed "banlieue" locations and their inhabitants that she has made it her aim to film.

While this scene and the far-ranging conversation that Bergounioux and Alice hold light up and connect all the segments that have come before, there is intentionally no clearcut point of view. She has shifted from on scene to behind camera, to fly-on-the-wall, to interactive, because by its nature the subject Alice touches on here is always a moving target, with conclusions remaining undrawn. But she chooses the title intentionally: "nous," we. Everyone here is part of the picture.

If this works better than it may sound, it's partly because of editing that creates a rhythm and inserts interstices that bind unlike things, even to the bookending of the aristocratic French people who go on an historic formal-dress "hunt', but who, also, strictly, live on the RER B line. Likewise, the young men of color along the water with their shirts off who listen with a mocking air to an old Édith Piaf song on the radio outdoors but are till listening to it, and still know the words and savor certain parts. Alice Diop is showing that French culture has a surprising power to bind people, even those from all the new places who distance themselves from it. The closing song is Jean Ferrat's "Ma France," part of which goes:

My France
From lowlands to forests, from vales to hills
From the spring to be born to your dead seasons
From what I lived to what I imagine
I shall not stop writing your song
My France

Rather than seeking to be revolutionary or contrarian, Diop consciously joins an established tradition of continuing to write France's changing song. But it's work. . "'We' is what happens when 'I' opens up," she says. Orla Smith in Seventh Row likes this film but thinks it just skims the surface and would like something as long as a Frederick Wiseman documentary. She has a point. Alice Diop should certainly continue her project of chronicling France's "nous." But not everyone needs to push as hard and relentlessly as Frederick Wiseman. There is a place for delicate touches.

Nous/We, 116 mins., debuted in the Berlinale Mar. 2021, showed at Paris' Cinéma du réel, and was screened at home for this review as part of the MoMA/Film at Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films (Apr. 28-May 8, 2021).

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