This article appeared in the June 30, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
We (Alice Diop, 2021)
There’s a moment in Alice Diop’s documentary We when the camera frames an island in the middle of a lake in Parc du Sausset, located in the Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis. A moment later, the crisp, high-definition image is replaced by a shaky, pixelated shot of the same island. Then the camera turns away, seeking other subjects—two swimming birds, people on a jog, a train’s distant passage, and a man we know to be the filmmaker’s father. Moving seamlessly from the impersonal to the familial, these shots question the boundaries between the two.
In We, Diop crafts a highly intimate portrait of the Paris banlieues crossed by the RER B commuter rail line and their inhabitants, which include her own family. Combined with the first-person plural of its title, the film’s premise could be mistaken for a chronicle of the everyman, à la Studs Terkel’s American Dreams: Lost and Found or Brandon Stanton’s photoblog, Humans of New York. But Diop’s film attends to a more subtle form of documentation. As in the shots of Parc du Sausset, We blends observational and autobiographical modes to capture what the writer Georges Perec called the “infra-ordinary”: the typically unnoticed parts of daily life that are neither mundane nor exotic, but which make us aware of our place—in both literal and figurative senses—in the world.
Perec’s own literary foray into the infra-ordinary, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, is a stream of observations from café windows that doubles as a map of the writer’s mental state. Diop similarly frames the film’s vignettes of suburban life with her own narration and home videos. One of the first people We introduces us to is Ismaël, a migrant worker who repairs cars. A routine call he makes to his mother in Mali becomes a link to Diop’s late mother, whom we glimpse in the degraded tapes of Diop’s sister’s old Hi8 camcorder. “I was afraid of what I might see,” says Diop of her hesitancy to revisit these videos. It turns out that there is not much to see at all, as she finds just 18 minutes in which her mother is visible—she is frequently out of frame or at its edge, while spectacles of holidays and family celebrations take center stage. Diop’s lost memories of her mother hang over the film, a reminder of the immensity of all that remains undocumented.
Diop’s father occupies a greater presence in her own home movies, which she filmed shortly before his death. But he is also inaccessible in a different way: when Diop prods him about what he recalls of his immigration to France, he grows reticent. All he confirms is that he came by boat and train and taxi, and that there’s “not much to say” beyond the fact that he was never out of a job until he retired. His early life was a blur of work and transit, but now, in front of the camera, he exudes the placidity of old age. In another sequence, we follow Diop’s sister, N’Deye, a visiting nurse for the elderly, on her calls. A contemplative stillness pervades the homes of her patients, too, though some are more talkative. One woman from Brittany recalls a young love, an Italian immigrant who regularly took her to the cinema, even as he sent most of his wages home. By collecting such stories of migration, displacement, and longing, it’s as if Diop colors in the minor yet potent everyday emotions she cannot directly access in the stories of her parents’ lives.
These emotions sometimes arise in unexpected locations. Diop finds them at a Holocaust museum and memorial in Drancy, barren of visitors, in the letters of victims who were held there before being sent to concentration camps. She finds them at a reading of the will of Louis XVI at the Saint-Denis Basilica, and in the tears of those in its pews who yearn for a pre-1789 France. Juxtaposing the nostalgia of royalists and the diasporic longing of immigrants might seem like a politically naïve provocation, but it is Diop’s way of rejecting both the xenophobic “us-vs.-them” rhetoric and the presumed unity of a society in which basic conversations about race are a nonstarter. The film suggests that for all the people it depicts, the idea of France is forever somewhere else—in a distant past, in the fantasies of a metropole that excludes them, in the failed utopias of housing developments that became wartime internment camps under German occupation.
More than any category of identity, what unites the people captured in We is their loneliness. Diop does not express this as a condition of “alienation,” “antisocial behavior,” “urban decay,” or any of the other sensationalist terms used to stereotype the banlieues after the 2005 French riots and the 2015 terror attacks. What she locates with her camera is the fraternal solitude of the statement “We are lonely,” which drives the desire to belong to the imagined community of a nation. Resisting the sensationalization of mainstream media narratives is, for Diop, also a commitment to filming moments that would be passed over by others. In a key scene, she interviews the French writer Pierre Bergounioux, and says that her goal as a filmmaker has been to memorialize the people and places of the banlieues—“to conserve the existence of ordinary lives,” and to tell a different story about them.
Yet, throughout We, there are moments which tacitly problematize the act of cinematic capture, such as when Diop lingers outside the room as her sister attends to one of her patients, filming only the hallway. Even in her declarative interview with Bergounioux, she complicates more than she reveals. As he waxes hopeful about the potential of digital cinema as a medium for working-class self-documentation, conspicuous jump cuts break up the conversation and Diop’s film crew dangles a microphone over their heads. By foregrounding the artifice of its own construction, the film interrogates itself: is it really a window into the everyday, or just another way of offering up the lives of its subjects for consumption? The scenes of a traditional French hunt in the forest of Fontainebleau that bookend the film suddenly take on new meaning. As We opens, we see wealthy hunters patiently watching deer from afar, settling us into the pace of the film to come. At the end, when the hunting dogs are let loose on the deer, we realize that remaining unseen is also a means of survival. The paradox of the infra-ordinary, which lies at the heart of Diop’s project, is this: by documenting it, one also risks destroying it.
Emerson Goo is a writer from Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. He is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in landscape architecture at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.