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“How Do The French Feel?" — Director Alice Diop's Vision Of A Nation Torn In Two

The death of Nahel, a 17-year-old killed by a police officer in Nanterre, France, and subsequent riots shocked the world. It's familiar territory for acclaimed film director Alice Diop, whose latest project, “Saint Omer,” was France’s nominee for the best foreign language film at the Oscars, examining what it means to be an immigrant, or the child of immigrants, in France.

“How Do The French Feel?" — Director Alice Diop's Vision Of A Nation Torn In Two

Alice Diop poses with the Lion of the Future award for ''Saint Omer'', at the 79th Venice International Film Festival in 2022.

Patrycja Wanat

PARIS — The RER B is a “blue line” of the Paris regional high-speed rail network. Anyone who has been to Paris has sat on this train on their way from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Châtelet-Les Halles, or, one stop further, to Notre Dame, near the center of the city. The train, known by some commuters as the Ligne Bleue, stretches for 80 kilometers, connecting the city’s Northern suburbs with its Southern surroundings.

The railway connects majority white neighborhoods full of single-family homes to the historical, tourist-heavy center, and to the immigrant communities of the Parisian banlieues. Every day, 1 million passengers use it to make their daily commute. Those who enter represent Paris in a nutshell, or even the whole of France. As the train makes its way from North to South, the color of its stations changes, but so does the landscape: faces, color, style, clothes and even sound.

Tourists from central Paris, intimidated by the historic city, take the train together, fatigue in their eyes, their postures slumped. They are surrounded by a mélange of parents with children, wide-eyed newlyweds staring at each other, laughing friends. On this journey through the French capital, fragments of Spanish sentences mix with German words, overlapping with conversations in Chinese. Half of the passengers eventually step off, spreading out between hotels and shopping malls. Their backpacks are slowly substituted by West African boubous and colorful headscarves. The faces grow more tired.

For these passengers, squeezing themselves through Paris at rush hour is not an adventure, but an everyday reality, necessary for their return home. Today, at least, the train is running properly. Yesterday, the delays — and the surrounding crowds— were unbearable. An accident on the train tracks caused traffic to stop entirely for an hour and a half.

Alice Diop knows the compartments of the RER B very well. The French film director grew up not far from the Aulnay-sous-Bois station. This is the infamous département 93, which is often described as one of the least safe in the entire country.

The media, both in France and worldwide, like to write about these immigrant neighborhoods that suits are afraid to enter. They have been examined by sociologists, and explored by documentarians. Most white residents of the area have moved out. Poverty and isolation have reproduced violence, but also over-policing and discrimination. Last year, the police reported over 5,000 crimes and offenses that took place here. These included break-ins, robberies, theft and drug deals. When Diop was nine years old, she saw the body of a man who had suffered an overdose in the stairwell of her building. Her family moved out a year later.

“We, from the suburbs of Paris” 

Alice Diop’s parents came to France from Senegal. On March 16, 1966, her father disembarked from the famous ocean liner, known as the “Ancerville," in Marseille. He then took the train to Paris. The only thing he had in his pocket was a piece of paper with the address of an acquaintance who lived in the neighborhood of Belleville. When Diop’s father arrived in Paris, the man he knew wasn’t home. He had to wait all day for him to return, until he finally got back from work. This is how his new life began, in the country of a wealthy colonizer.

The now-older man recounts this story in his daughter’s documentary film “We, From the Suburbs of Paris," released in 2021. The film was a critical success, and Diop received the best film award at the “Encounters” contest at the Berlin International Film Festival. With the film, Diop wanted to answer the question: “Who are the contemporary French?" She found the film’s angle — and part of her answer— on the RER B.

"I wanted to protect people from disappearing."

Diop films slowly, and her long camera shots allow her audiences to make themselves at home in every scene. She likes the gleaming ribbons of the train tracks in the dark, the nighttime sounds of the city, the distant but present sounds of sirens, the screeches of braking trains, the car horns. This is what the streets that you are so afraid of look like. These are the stations, where you can supposedly easily lose your life — or at the very least, your purse — at nighttime. Look at them. And this is what a person, whose appearance makes you instinctively check for your wallet or your phone, looks like.

Let’s call him Moussa. He wakes up and opens the doors to his home, which for the time being, is a green van. He exits the car — it’ll be time to go to work soon. But before this, he stops for a quick coffee nearby. He needs to wake up and warm up. He sips his coffee alone, unsmiling. He doesn’t speak to anyone.

Moussa fixes cars at a suburban parking lot. Diving under the hoods, he is focused as he replaces cylinders, lubricates the machinery and brings hopeless cases back to life. After work, he removes his mechanics’ clothes and returns to his van. He turns on the engine in order to warm up, listens to some music and watches videos on social media with a friend.

“They stole my papers," he tells his mother over the phone. “I have to get new ones, but they told me that it will take eight months. After that, I will definitely go home. I cannot stay here.” When he left for France, his mother stayed in Mali, in the town of Kati, 15 kilometers away from the capital, Bamako.

Diop has filmed the Parisian banlieues for over 15 years. This wasn’t always obvious to her, but now she understands it well: she needs to save these communities from oblivion, to show people their meaning, to not leave them without a trace.

“When you grow up in France as an immigrant, you get the impression that your history does not have the right to be told — that it isn’t important," Diop says in an interview. “I think that that wound pushed me in the direction of film ... I wanted to protect people from disappearing."

In “We, From the Suburbs of Paris" — its English release simply titled "We" — Diop purposefully uses private recordings made by her own family. “When my mom was rushing to catch the first train to get to work, I was still fast asleep. She cleaned for a living. She died 25 years ag. Her name was Rokhaya," Diop says.

“I always knew there were some home videos in which she appears, but I never watched them before,” Diop says. “I was afraid of what I might see, but even more afraid of what I might not see." Her family has a long history of home videos, which began when Diop’s older sister bought a Hi-8 camera, where she filmed, in Diop’s own words, “the life of our family." But, in all of the tapes, Diop found just 18 minutes which included her mother.

In these home videos, we take a trip around Diop’s family home. The picture is not of the directorial caliber that she will eventually become known for. The images are shaky and out-of-focus; the blurry, random shots are those of a person who is holding a camera for the first time. Her mother appears in a small, narrow kitchen, with short hair and a long, traditional dress. She disappears from the frame to fix her hair. She wants to look good for the camera, even though she does not know that a few decades later, the whole world will see these scenes from her life.

Another memorialized moment comes on a tape recorded on the Dec. 25, 1995. It’s Christmas, the last holiday the family will spend with their mother. “At that point, she didn’t know it yet, but she was sick and she was going to die soon," Diop says.

"It's a pity that she appears on screen so rarely," Diop says. Even when she does appear, “She's just a silhouette in the corner of the frame, ready to disappear,” Diop adds. “I think about all the moments that have not been immortalized, preserved, that have passed without a trace. All that's gone and erased."

Trailer for We (2021) by Alice Diop.

How to become a star

What links a Senegalese family from the north of Paris with believers praying in a Catholic church? What links youth from the suburban community of Saint-Denis with bourgeois hunters in a nearby forest? They live just kilometers away from one another and speak the same language, but their lives don’t intersect in any meaningful way. The everyday world in which they grow up, the words they hear from childhood, the level and the type of attention they receive — all are entirely different.

Steve Tientcheu, the protagonist of Alice Diop’s 2011 film, “Danton’s Death” (La Mort De Danton), knows these differences well. He is one of the many commuters who takes a daily journey on the RER B, traveling from the Aulnay station where Diop grew up, to the prestigious theater school Le Cours Simon.

His presence can be intimidating — he’s a big guy with a perpetual frown etched onto his face. But on screen, he can play anything, from dramatic scenes to comedic ones. His screen presence is astonishing.

In the future, Tientcheu wants to become a star. “Hollywood is the place for me,” he says. “Hollywood, Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and Marrakech." His dream may seem difficult to achieve, but Steve is determined. He makes the journey from the suburbs into central Paris every day to study acting.

This is Paris? Yes, this is Paris. The city of love.

“I’d like to make you laugh," one of Steve’s classmates tells him in a bar. “Why would you say that?" he asks, without any enthusiasm. “Because you are sad," she says. He begins to get irritated: “That isn’t true; you’re mistaken. I am hardened, because life is hard. I don’t pretend not to be. But deep down, I am a nice person," he responds.

Steve doesn't make friends, doesn't socialize and can intimidate others. "I feel out of place at school. They don't like me. We're not alike. We don't live in the same world," he tells Alice Diop in the film, adding that, to his classmates, he is like an feral cat.

He gets angry when people tell him that he is intimidating, or that they are frightened of him. He hears this constantly, and it’s become tiring. He is also upset by the fact that his acting teacher has trouble assigning roles to him. The roles he does get are only those that have been originally written as Black, which can be few and far between, or stereotypical. Steve does not want his only roles to be those of enslaved Americans, or victims of European colonial history. He wanted to play French revolutionary leader Georges Danton, but his teacher did not agree to this casting, saying that Danton wasn’t Black. At the same time, he had no problem suggesting that the white actor's face be painted black to play Steve's partner in one of the scenes.

“There is no space for us! In movies, in the theater — there is no place for Black or Arab actors," he says. "We can be rappers or football players; we can take over our parents’ jobs, cleaning streets and everything, but we are not part of their canon," he continues. "A white actor can play a Black character, but a Black actor can never play a white character."

Tientcheu began his acting program in 2008. His career has progressed, and he has appeared in several films. Recently, he played the role of the mayor of the Montfermeil district in the award-winning company "Les Misérables" by Ladja Ly, a director who also grew up in Parisian suburbs. He knows the riots he talks about in "Les Miserables" from experience.

A nation divided

In her films, Alice Diop talks about two parallel worlds, separated by skin color. Her 2016 documentary On Call begins with a quote from the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa: "I've been told about people, about humanity, but I've never seen people, I've never seen humanity. I've seen individual people, amazingly different from each other, each separated from the next by an unhuman space."

On Call follows a group of individuals, united by their common struggle. The film is unnarrated, and follows visits to the medical clinic on the grounds of the Avicenne General Hospital in Bobigny, which receives immigrants.

The doctor shown in the film helps to assess their state of health, writes prescriptions and certificates, and stamps government documents. He helps the patients not only with their health, sometimes ruined by torture in their home country, and also helps them to navigate French bureaucracy.

What can be born from such loneliness? Only an unfillable void

Every day, people, mostly men, sit in front of him. They live almost in a state of trance from day to day, away from their families and homes. Resigned eyes, tired of life on the street, not understanding, look at the doctor, and thus at the camera set behind his back.

“For sleeping, it’s good?” a doctor asks his patient.

“No. Not good. Because…” the patient tries to explain.

“Ah, your eyes," the doctor says. He notices the man’s corneas are red with infection.

“Have you some news from your family in Bangladesh?” the doctor asks.

“No, because no money. One week, 3-5 minute. My mom, diabetes, no good. My father asthma. Also not good." Even in a foreign language, he manages to clarify the situation.

The doctor leaves the examination room and comes back with a prescription for an ointment to treat conjunctivitis — pink eye.

This is Paris? Yes, this is Paris. The city of love.

In 2016, Alice Diop showed the French public what love looks like. And for it, she received her first César award, the country’s equivalent of an Oscar.

“We sleep with simple girls," says one of the protagonists of her 2016 documentary, Vers la Tendresse (“Towards Tenderness). "Those who have it together, who don’t have problems, don’t interest me," he says, his voice devoid of emotion.

Diop’s idea was to ask young men from the banlieues about their feelings. What she heard was often difficult to hear. But from under the cascade of monologues and words of "real men" emerges a longing for feeling, touch, the film’s titular tenderness.

Francesca De Stefano Versace, Alice Diop, Santo Versace at the "Saint Omer" photocall in Rome.

Stefano Costantino/ZUMA

“Saint Omer” : a Film About Infanticide

Are we born with love built in? Or do we learn it? If we have no one to learn it from, where do we find it?

On Nov. 19, 2013, Fabienne Kabou, a French woman of Senegalese origin, laid her 15-month-old daughter, Adélaide, on the beach. She was arrested and sentenced to 20 years of prison for infanticide. All of France watched the case unfold. The case remains in the public consciousness to this day, since Kabou was recently released early from her sentence after nine years.

This case never left Diop's cosciousness, either. Ever since she saw the photo of the woman pushing the cart, captured by a Gare du Nord surveillance camera, Diop couldn't stop thinking about her. She was of a similar age, had a similar background and had a child of a similar age to her own.

Rarely have I seen stories that portray the complexity of a Black woman.

During the trial, it was revealed that Fabienne was extremely intelligent, but she believed that her Senegalese aunts had cursed her, causing her to kill her young daughter. The case took place in 2016, in Saint Omer, north-west of Lille. Diop herself attended the trial. She herself admits that she doesn’t know why she went, only that she had to. During the trial, Fabienne impressed everyone with her undoubted eloquence, and with the cold, mechanical, emotionless style in which she answered the judge’s questions.

It is from these very powerful experiences that Alice Diop's first feature film, Saint Omer, was born. In 2022, Diop’s court drama won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and the César Award for Best Debut. The film was also France's candidate for the Oscar in the category best foreign language film, and thus Diop was the first Black woman in France to be given that opportunity.

Saint Omer is not an exact reconstruction of the trial that took place. For the film, Diop moved away from her signature documentary style to fiction, to give the film a universal meaning. Not one, but many. In the beginning of the film, the judge asks the accused Laurence Coly (based on Fabienne, and played by Guslagie Malanda), “Why did you kill your daughter?” In response, Laurence answers, “I don’t know, and I hope that this trial will help me to understand why."

Diop’s film does not judge her, nor does it make her into a victim. “She is a powerful Medea, not a poor, downtrodden immigrant," she said. “For me, justice is about giving her – and us – our complexity ... Rarely have I seen stories that portray the complexity of a Black woman. We are always smoothed out in the right way, closed in the eyes of those who have the right to make history for us."

Saint Omer is also a story about motherhood, and the great loneliness it can cause. “I was alone the whole time, along with my child," the accused Laurence Coly says in the film. "My partner didn’t even want to introduce me to his family. He hid me away.” The partner in Diop’s film is a much older, white, French man, and the audience is forced to reckon with the impacts of each of the power imbalances in their relationship. And although her words do not justify murder, they arouse understanding, feeling and pity. Combined with her cold demeanor, they are like icicles that fall into the viewer’s collar, and down through their chest.

What can be born from such loneliness? Only an unfillable void. As Diop explains, "From silence, the emptiness of exile, the emptiness of our mothers' lives, the nothingness of their tears, the nothingness of their violence, we tried to make our lives."

A retrospective of Alice Diop’s films will be playing at the 23rd International mBank New Horizons Film Festival in Wrocław.

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