18 minutes of family life, that’s all that’s left of cinematic traces of one’s own childhood. And the footage barely matches the memory, documentary filmmaker Alice Diop remarks from the off as we see grainy images of a banquet. Years later, when Diop picks up a camera for the first time, she films her father as he talks about his arrival in Marseille after crossing from Senegal and about the countless jobs he has made in France since then.
Make films so people don’t disappear
The recordings of the family and the first video interview of his own are part of Diop’s latest documentary film, which was awarded best film in the Encounters series at the Berlinale and also won the documentary film prize. And yet “Nous” is not a meticulous reconstruction of her family history, not a mere autobiography. Rather, one’s own parents are examples of all those who usually leave no trace in history.
They are filmed, Diop once said, so that they don’t disappear. Diop uses the RER B railway line, which runs from the north-east of Paris across the city to the south-west, as the starting point for her search for clues. Along this route, “Nous” portrays places and people. A car mechanic who fled Mali and calls home from under the hood. Or Diop’s sister, a nurse who pays home visits to her patients. But also a cathedral in which a memorial service for Louis XVI. takes place that moves the all-white audience to tears. Finally, there was the Drancy prison camp, from which around 65,000 French Jews were taken to the German extermination camps during the German occupation.
Like Diop’s earlier films, “Nous” is primarily devoted to the northern suburbs of Paris, but it doesn’t just aim for experience and recognition from a specific community. Less a “Who are we?” than a “Who is we?” asks the film title. Who is in the national consciousness? With her juxtaposition of disparate elements of French history and the present, Diop focuses on a post-migrant, or in her words: creolized France, in which monarchy and revolution, collaboration and annihilation, colonialism and labor migration overlap.
The regional train as a French symbol
For the we that emerges, the train actually seems a more appropriate symbol than a flag, anthem or revolutionary myth. Diop was inspired by François Maspero’s 1989 report “The Passengers of the Roissy Express”. With this book in hand, Diop researched along the railway line and met people whom she revisited two years later with her camera crew and a clear plan. Probably also because of this mixture of intensive research and a short shoot, “Nous” feels both concentrated and open at the same time, like an essay film without a central narrative instance, even if Diop himself can sometimes be heard on the soundtrack.
(The Arsenal is showing a retrospective of Alice Diop’s documentaries from November 25th to 30th. Her debut feature film “Saint Omer” will be screened on November 30th, for which Diop received two awards in Venice in September.)
In the last part, the director herself appears. Diop sits at the table of writer Pierre Bergounioux, who, at her request, reads from his diaries, another inspiration for the film. “Her life could not be further from mine, and yet it moves me as if it were my own,” Diop marvels. Bergounioux, whose work tells of the people of the rural Corrèze region, seems less surprised: “Of course there is a connection between a young girl from the northern suburbs and a rural cretin like me.”
Here at the table, where the literary collector of traces from the often derided provinces talks about collecting traces with the cinematic collector of traces from the often demonized banlieues, “Nous” finds himself. Diop’s film is patchwork and at the same time a theory of patchwork. In its heart, however, it carries the people that Diop saves from disappearing: the young girls, for example, who play cards and gossip about boys, or the boys who sit in camping chairs and ironically but fervently sing along to an old Piaf chanson.
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