Alice Diop • Director of We
“I want to show that societies are changing constantly, just like the collective ‘we’”
by Teresa Vena
- BERLINALE 2021: In her new documentary, shown in the Encounters section, the French filmmaker once again investigates the French banlieue and its inhabitants
In her documentary-essay We [+see also:
interview: Alice Diop
film profile], French director Alice Diop presents a sensitive and diverse portrait of the inhabitants of the French banlieue. Her film had his premiere in the Encounters section of this year's Berlinale. Diop wandered through the carriages of the RER B train line for two months and turned the individuals she encountered on her journey into the protagonists of her film. We talked to her about the concept of the film, her personal connection to the banlieue and her ideas on society.
Cineuropa: How did the project start?
Alice Diop: I read the book Les Passagers du Roissy Express by François Maspero, which was published in 1999 and is very well known in France. The story is a wandering through the carriages of the RER B train line which leads to the banlieues of Paris. This particular line is very symbolic because it retraces the history of migration. In the 1960s, foreigners came to France as a working force and made it their home. But the train line is very diverse, crossing through woodland as well as industrial zones. The book really impressed me because it reveals the history of the banlieue and, in so doing, the history of French society in general. So everything started with this text.
How did it inspire you to embark on your own film project?
It was the first time I’d seen the banlieue described by an author in this way. The banlieue is generally considered to be a very poor area inhabited by very poor people, but mostly it’s seen to be a place of poor cultural and personal interest. The author took the time to observe the people who live there and to preserve their dignity. This is an approach I also wanted to adopt. No land is without history or histories. I wanted to capture moments of everyday life and avoid seeking out one special character or special event. I wanted to take my time and look more closely at my surroundings.
How did you choose the individuals who appear in the film?
I wandered along the train, just like in the book, for two months. This happened two years before we started shooting the film. During this journey, I met people and they inspired me to write about them. I was also inspired by Joyce’s short stories. He writes about seemingly simple people and confers them protagonist status. I didn't want to treat my characters as sociological archetypes, but rather as independent individuals.
Did you have excess material that had to be cut in the editing process?
We shot over a total of 30 days and were well prepared, so the result was pretty accurate.
Could you tell us more about the scene with the hunters, in the very beginning?
This scene is very symbolic but also mysterious, because it's open to interpretation. In my mind, it shows two worlds which are opposed, but which observe one another from a safe distance. I want to cross that border. I want each side to look more closely at the other.
Was it clear from the start that you would include autobiographical elements?
Yes, I wanted to reflect on what makes a society and what makes a community. How is the notion of “we” constructed? I wanted to gather together the stories and memories of those people because they form part of the French “we”. My story and that of my family shapes and transforms this French “we” as much my protagonists’ stories do. This’s why it was important for me to use my personal point of view as well.
You mix material from different sources - audio, newly shot images - with archive footage. Weren't you afraid that the film would become too heterogenous? Or was this your intention from the outset?
I wanted the film to resemble a collage. It’s a collage in terms of its content, but also in terms of its form. I wanted to use the form of a documentary film but also of a fiction film. The cohesion of these different forms and images comes to form a location and, ultimately, a society.
What image of the banlieue do you wish to convey?
My source was the banality of everyday life. People have a lot of fanciful ideas about the banlieue. It’s often stigmatised. But there’s not only drugs, violence and poverty. It’s also home to people who dream, who think and who don't fit into the stereotypes and stories that we’re used to. I want to show that societies are changing constantly, just like the collective “we”.
What was the most difficult part of making the film?
Actually, the entire process was very challenging. The editing was very complicated, I wanted to leave sufficient space for all the protagonists and to work out how each of them was unique. It was important to show who exactly the “we” was.
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