Who We Are:
An Interview with Alice Diop
By Caitlin Quinlan
A family of three stands on the edge of a tree-shaded field, watching. A stag emerges in the distance, faintly lit by a fading pink sun, and the child of the family peers through binoculars under the guidance of his father: “You see? Over there.” Then night falls, and the deer returns to the depths of the woods, safe from sight. At the end of Alice Diop’s We (Nous), the same family embarks on a hunting expedition. Dogs tumble out of a van in hordes, hungry for the chase. In this film, the act of watching carries a power of contingency, of respectful observation, and a volatile potential.
A documentary about the varieties of life along the RER B, a Parisian train line that bisects the city, We weaves together several short stories in a mode inspired by the filmmaker’s reading of French author François Maspero’s Roissy Express: A Journey Through the Paris Suburbs. As viewers we are invited to occupy a transient space, that of the train itself perhaps, and to pass through the towns and boroughs for a glimpse at the different lives therein. There is Ismaël, a mechanic from Mali, who hasn’t been able to return home for nearly two decades, a group of young people whiling away the summer in their own outdoor milieu, the parks and open spaces of the suburbs, and notably members of Diop’s own family. A documentary filmmaker who has explored French societal dynamics and life in the banlieue where she grew up in three features and two short films, Diop offers a particular insight into communities familiar to her and, in placing her own history in front of the camera, firmly declares herself a proud member of the “nous.”
Such a declaration forms part of the film’s overarching search—to probe, as well as to reveal, the meaning of the title. Who is made to feel included in this “we”? Where do the fractures in French society still create a feeling of exclusion? Crucially the film navigates what history has done to the excluded, asking whose testimonies have been ignored. Diop uses her own archival footage—surviving home movies of her family—to illustrate this point. Clips of her mother suddenly fizzle out to white noise and are replaced by images of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, an accidental taping over of history that signifies just what has been lost.
Reverse Shot: What do you remember about reading François Maspero’s book for the first time?
Alice Diop: Well, it's strange—the first time I read Maspero was 20 years ago, and I was struck immediately by a photograph of an eight-year-old Black girl that was taken near the shopping mall I grew up next to. This photo led me to a kind of floating sensation where I thought this girl might actually be me, and I was so overwhelmed by this that I closed the book. I think the reason I was so overwhelmed, so moved, was that I was not ready to see or to understand what was there. I was still being driven by the kind of social displacement that I was undergoing when I was doing my studies and entering the world of film.
I think this is a very important fact that I'm mentioning because in 1989 when Maspero wrote the book, he came to my neighborhood of Aubervilliers. He photographed and met people I knew, like my brother. But when I initially encountered the book, I did not want to read that because I wanted to be accepted—and that's something very specific to French society. French society educates you to leave these areas. If you are to succeed in French society you are to leave these areas behind you, to desert them. They’re places you don't return to, which carry a kind of social shame. Everything is done in French society to assimilate, which is a term that I absolutely hate. French society pushes you to educate yourself to mask these places that you come from, in order to be accepted.
All of my films really reside in this guilt that I feel of having, for a time, integrated this French injunction of separating myself from working class neighborhoods, so called “popular neighborhoods.” And so in all of my films—and I think this film is the culmination of this—I return to these neighborhoods in order to make visible the people who I have been conditioned to reject, and that I have been made to believe were not worthy of being represented in film. So, when I re-read Maspero, some 15 years later, I actually wound up using the method that he used for writing his book as the driving engine for my film.
RS: What was the point at which the idea of the “nous” in Paris and in France became something you felt compelled to explore further?
AD: When the terrorist attacks happened in Paris in 2015, it's strange to say this, but these terrorists had the same trajectory and background as me. They were descendants of postcolonial immigration, they grew up in the same neighborhoods as I did, and while I didn't know these people, there was something about them that I recognized. It's not that I identify with them, or that I recognize myself in them, it's just that I recognize them. So, it's strange when you grow up in these particular neighborhoods and you integrate these expectations. When you travel through different worlds you get a really vast view of French society. Someone from my neighborhood who sees both the heart of Paris and the outer suburbs of Paris—in a way many of us with this background saw what was coming—which is to say a society that was fragmenting, that was fracturing.
And so, the attacks were a point of arrival of something that we saw coming for 40 years, which is a society that is made up of people from different backgrounds, different horizons, but it is hard for all these people to actually make up a “we.” Following the attacks, I realized that I wanted to make a film not to answer, but to ask what is the “we”? A film that would not be an answer but a doubt, a provocation. There are some people that are shown in the film that don't want to be part of the same “we” as, for instance, Ismaël does, or my father. So, the film is a questioning of a reality that is already at work.
RS: I’m really interested by that idea of doubt, especially as depicted through the two scenes that bookend the film. In the opening scene, the family members seem to watch the stag with curiosity and affection, but by the end of the film they are involved in the hunt, which threatens the very habitat we've seen them admire. It seems that tension also threatens the idea of the “nous.”
AD: I very much agree with you. That scene is very symbolic of everything that's going to follow, and that's why we placed it at the beginning. It kind of sets how you're going to look at the whole film. It's two worlds that ignore each other, in a sense, that are looking at each other, kind of on the border of something. They desire each other, but they also fear each other. And so, the film is like a prolongation of that initial scene. It's like the film is bringing these worlds closer together, worlds that are in proximity, but that ignore each other. The film is like looking at something very, very closely, that generally you look at from far away. There's this whole question of what do you know of people who live in proximity to you? So, by putting that scene at the beginning I think that we really set up how we look at the whole film.
RS: The act of watching has multiple possibilities, whether it’s enacted with care or used more dangerously, as with surveillance or voyeurism. It feels like something an audience unfamiliar with this environment also has to be considerate of.
AD: I was very inspired for this film by the collections of short stories by Raymond Carver and also by James Joyce, the description he gives to the city of Dublin in Dubliners. What I liked in those stories is that they talk about small things, they talk about people. Both of these writers succeed in talking about people in a way that manages to make us feel very close to them, even if they're people who are very far from us. They managed to reveal the part of them that is their humanity, and what is revealed ultimately is something universal. So that was fundamental to me in making the film, that I didn't want to look at people with any judgment, including people who are quite different from me, people who don't vote the way I do, people on the right or the extreme right, like the people in the cathedral scene who go to cry over Louis XVI. It doesn't always work, of course; there are some people that I’m going to look at with more curiosity, whereas with Ismaël I’m really in osmosis. But even with the people that I looked at with curiosity, I tried to avoid having this top to bottom gaze, this predatory approach. I tried to approach each group, each life, with a curiosity that allowed me to try to identify what we had in common.
RS: I wanted to ask about your desire to focus in the film on lost histories of forgotten people, and on filming and watching as an act of contingency and preservation. I was reminded of Marguerite Duras’s Les Mains négatives, her story of the imprints of hands in prehistoric caves below Paris.
AD: I’m going to start with a preamble: the fact that you asked me this question about Les Mains négatives is extremely important because this would never happen in France. Very few French critics, if any at all, because I'm a Black filmmaker, and I'm from the banlieue could possibly imagine that Marguerite Duras and Les Mains négatives are part of my Pantheon, so I’m not only very moved that you asked me that question which is absolutely accurate, but also I need to tell you that in my phone I have a sentence from Les Mains negatives, which is “I will love whoever hears that I am screaming.” And so, when I saw that film five years ago, I said to myself, that's Ismaël. And that what I should do for him is to have people hear his scream. And in a sense, those negative hands that are in a prehistoric cave, that have been there for 2000 years, that's my mother. Les Mains négatives and Marguerite Duras, that's like the entire subtext of the film. When I film these women going to work that no one sees, that's what’s so extraordinary about what Marguerite Duras did. She filmed a sunrise, and she shows the silhouettes of Portuguese women going to work, these women that no one sees.
Now to answer your question directly about the traces: indeed this is the crucial subject of the film, and it's something that's done in the name of my missing archives, in the name of all the stories that have not been told, in the name of all the faces that were not filmed, in the name of my parents who died 20 years ago. They left nothing except what we carry in our hearts. It's in the name of these tragedies, because my parents, like thousands and thousands of others, have been forgotten in France. So, when I'm filming Ismaël, when I’m filming my sister, when I’m filming the various people in the film, when I’m filming these faces it’s to save their memory and that's really the essence of this film. It’s what I realized I’ve been doing for 20 years with all of my films, but this film is really the culmination of the process. It’s to deal with the fact that I don’t have traces of my parents, and this is where the personal becomes political, because in France it is a political issue of whose story we tell, whose story gets to be told, whose story is legitimate.
RS: Is this a hopeful film for you? Did you feel a sense of catharsis in making it?
AD: In terms of catharsis, in some ways, yes, because for me this film closed a cycle—a cycle that I've been working on for 15 years around this territory of the familiar, the social, the intimate, that is the French banlieue, the French suburbs. Now I think I have to renew my way of working with documentary film, and this particular film is really, again, a culmination of certain questions that I've been asking that in this film are spoken. They're uttered in particular in the interview that I have in the film with the French writer Pierre Bergounioux. who is someone I've been reading for 20 years.
Then in terms of the question of hope, yes, I think it is a hopeful film, both in utopian terms, and in terms of the reality. It's a reality that is hard to see in France, but it's there. The film shows this reality that we may have difficulty accepting but it’s already there. There’s this utopia of adding or laying memories in the film. I’m adding together all these memories of vastly different people: monarchists, hunters, an undocumented worker, a middle-class nurse who’s taking care of little white kids. All of this is what French society is. It’s showing the creolization of French society. And I know that some people won’t agree with that, but to me that’s a utopian, beautiful thing, creolization. It’s hopeful because the film shows a real France that should not be afraid of itself.
Interview interpreter: Nicholas Elliott.