“Not Just a Formal Thing, But a Political Ethic”: Alice Diop on We
Alice Diop’s Nous begins with images of a white family looking through binoculars at an apparently uninhabited landscape, then cuts to a shot of the landscape itself, as if inhabiting their point of view. Immediately, then, the film suggests that the act of looking is one worth paying attention to. The question of who gets to look and how the looker reacts to what they see is inscribed, almost wordlessly, onto the film. I thought immediately of W.J.T. Mitchell’s Landscape and Power, which examines the artistic depiction of landscape as a politically charged one central to the formation of national identities and, often, the conquest of new land. As the film proceeded to vignettes on other subjects, mostly African immigrants and people of lower-class backgrounds, it became apparent that the question of what exactly French identity is and who gets to define it is central to Diop.
These are questions raised almost entirely by Diop’s editing rather than dialogue–by her opening scene, by the juxtaposition of her own home movies with a celebration of Louis XVI and by the transition from a Holocaust museum and video to Diop’s reflections on her family’s burial sites, to name just a few. The France that the eponymous “we” inhabit is not the secular, ethnically French one catered to by laws but a more complete one: rich and poor, Black and white, immigrant and native-born.
But Nous does not privilege any one reading or line of inquiry over another. It is also Diop’s contemplation of her own place within France’s immigrant community, a sociological study of the underprivileged and a tour of the RER B, a commuter and transit line extending from Paris into the suburbs. Formally, it is invigoratingly heterogenous: at times Diop’s camera is a fly-on-the-wall, while other times it takes part directly in the action. Archival footage and voiceover are used to varying ends throughout the film, and a few scenes consciously remind us that what we are watching was deliberately staged and framed, with intentionality, by the filmmakers. Nous is concerned as much with questions about filmmaking practices as with political questions.
With the assistance of Nicholas Elliott, who translated, I spoke to Diop about the politics implicit in her editing, how she decided to include her own history in the film, and how her wide range of influences help these political concerns and filmmaking concerns converge. Nous begins streaming on MUBI today.
Filmmaker: I found the first scene to be a bit unsettling and politically charged. W.J.T. Mitchell has talked about the connection between landscape art and colonialism, and as the family looks at this landscape and these animals, I see an implication of hostility, which is realized when the same family joins a hunt at the end.
Diop: Yes, of course. It’s a very political scene, a very dreamlike scene, a very symbolic scene. I’m really happy you saw that, because it’s rather rare for people to perceive how this scene is a confrontation between two worlds, and it really gives you a taste of what is going to follow. There is something both violent and gentle in the way we confront the “other.”
The scene has a real symbolic impact because what we see is these two worlds that come together, and we have someone who is both a watcher and is being watched. Two worlds are bordering on one another. They bring out as much fear as they do desire to meet each other. The film is trying to put aside this border and this fear of getting to know each other.
I should specify that, while the mise-en-scène and the frame are very rigorous, I intentionally made a film that lets the viewer have their own interpretation. The film was not made to emphasize and underline things. I specifically edited the film to allow the viewer to take his or her own journey and add up the elements that made sense to them. It’s a real gift, to me, for you to understand the opening that way.
Filmmaker: Your film posits–and you quote François Maspero saying as such–filming as an act of conservation and affirmation. I think that idea is much more powerful when we have a point of contrast to go with it. Did you always know you wanted to begin the film with that contrast?
Diop: It was actually a suggestion that my editor made to put this scene at the beginning. When I came in one morning she had done that, and it really gave the key to the entire film. As you mentioned, the film is an adaptation of François Maspero’s book [Les passagers du Roissy Express], which is basically a wander along the RER B train line. If I had stuck to that, it would’ve been this sociological ramble, but the film actually has many more layers than that, including the layer you’re referring to as you talk about the opening. Putting that scene at the beginning really raises the question of what in France is known as “Vivre Ensemble,” living together. That is an empty political slogan. It’s a real issue, including all the violence it brings up.
What’s happening with the montage in this film is that we have scenes put together that are antagonistic. When I attend a commemoration of King Louis XVI right after I’ve shown the few archives that I have of my parents, that’s a collision between images that shows a conflict of memory. This first sequence really shows, in a way, the subject of the film. It’s more than a ramble along a train line. It’s an attempt to show the diversity of a country, including all the conflict that can have.
Filmmaker: That really comes through in the scene in the empty Holocaust museum, which is followed by you remembering when you told your dad that you want to be buried in France. It suggests France as a place for more than just the ethnically French, with the Holocaust as a reminder of the end-point of not “living together,” of not seeing France as something diverse.
Diop: This was a concentration and deportation camp that happens to be on an RER B line. Today, it is low-income housing. France has a real problem with historical memory. On the one hand, they can celebrate the memory of Louis XVI for 250 years, but they will erase for 70 years the tragic complicity of the French government in the Holocaust. Shortly after the war, the camp was turned into a low-income housing project, which happens to be one of the poorest in the 93rd arrondissement. Ten years ago they opened this memorial to the camp, which is very little visited. It’s primarily visited by tourists, notably American tourists. In that scene, we are dealing with the problem of commemoration in France, of what is commemorated and how the memory of the Shoah and the Holocaust has been handled. That’s what it is questioning.
There is an ambivalence in this sequence. Every sequence in the movie has many readings. In this one it is that, on one hand, you can have the reading observing the emptiness. But you also see these young people who are the fruits of immigration to France smoking right next door; you see this Sri Lankan or Pakistani man hanging out next to the last train that took people to Auschwitz. What that says to me is that society is a compilation, a layering of stories. The sequence tells us about the Holocaust, but also about Sub-Saharan African immigration to France. The film is my point of view on French society—and other societies as well—as sedimentation, this layering of different stories and memories.
This observation of the diversity of the stories and memories is exactly what is negated by the government in power in France today. They are blind to this layering of memory. It’s as if they have this dreamed France that is eternally Catholic and white. But in fact, France is all these different stories, all these different experiences arriving and composing a diverse, layered place. In that sense, the film is a response to this deadly ideology.
Filmmaker: When did you decide you wanted your own stories and memories to be part of the film?
Diop: I resisted putting them in a great deal. My mom died in 1996, and for 25 years I never watched the images of her that you see in the film. I watched them for the film. It was important to include myself in the film’s Nous. My family history, my personal history, is part of these singular histories that have been made invisible in France. Part of what this film is doing is including traces of people who have historically not been looked at in France, so I included the few archives of my mom because doing so was part of a bigger project that’s looking at the silence and lack of stories that France has in its vision of itself. That’s why I decided to put myself in the film. It’s a way of showing my place, where I come from and why I’m filming.
Filmmaker: One sequence that really struck me is the sequence inside the house, with your sister and the patient. The camera is looking down a hall, and we hear them conversing off camera. How did you approach setting up this shot?
Diop: I could have filmed that elderly woman, because she had given me permission. She was in end-of-life care, in a bed in her home, when she should’ve been in palliative care in a public hospital, but the crisis in French hospitals is such that she died at home being visited exclusively by my sister, the nurse who would visit a few times a day to bring her something to eat and take care of her. It was important to film my sister because she allows us into these homes, to see this population that is also silent, white people in economically fragile situations who live in their pavilions in the suburbs. That’s not what we think about when we think of the suburbs, but if I wanted to film the suburb in its full diversity I couldn’t just film young Black and Arab guys in baseball caps and sweatpants committing petty crimes. That’s the dominant vision, but there’s so much more, including this white working class that is quite anonymous. Following my sister allowed me to give that part of the population visibility as well.
The choice not to film that woman was a moral and ethical one. I didn’t want to expose her vulnerability at that moment, but by filming how I did I think it expresses something about her solitude. The house, its walls, its objects, reveals a life on the verge of disappearing. It’s visible without accessing her end-of-life misery.
Filmmaker: There is a great deal of heterogeneity in your film—the way you shoot different scenes, use of archival footage, your voiceover—and in other interviews you have talked about a great diversity of influences, including Duras, Joyce and Carver. Is there a link between that range of influences and your own heterodox approach to filmmaking?
Diop: That’s why it was such a pleasure for me to make this film. I make films in a permanent search, permanent experimentation. I make forms coexist in my films, which are always political films but always different. I never made wrote, directed, and edited a film in the same way as another. That’s why I love Marguerite Duras and Chantal Akerman: they’re not just formalists; they are people who are searching, who are inventing. That’s what I love, to really be searching formally. This film gave me that possibility with each segment. That’s where Dubliners and Raymond Carver’s stories were so important to me. I thought of each segment as a story and tried for each to invent its own form that expresses something specific to that story. I was able to have, in one film, this diversity of documentary film, the documentary that I love from direct cinema to Akerman to Duras to Jean Rouch, all in one film, trying all the forms and a plurality of approaches and narratives.
Filmmaker: I know that Les Mains Negatives is important to you, and I see in your off-screen space and sound something akin with both Duras’s and Akerman’s films. Is that something you pull from or admire in their work?
Diop: Both were formalists, searchers. Someone who can move from Jeanne Dielman to Sud to The Other Side reassures me in my desire to move between documentary and fiction. The skill with which she did that, her ability to invent new forms, the way she went from a relatively “poor” cinema to a more heavily written, more mise-en-scène driven film—I’m thinking of Almayer’s Folly—is why she’s the filmmaker who most inspires me in my trust and faith in this constant searching that I want in my work. I think I’ll never make the same film twice, and I think that’s a good thing.
Duras was primarily a writer, but she made extraordinarily formally inventive modern films which still stun me. I recently did a series of films that inspired me at the Centre Pompidou and I presented Le Camion. It’s such an original, avant-garde film about the relationship between literature and film. The other thing that’s important for me about Akerman and Duras is the relationship in their work between text and literature. I’m someone who is extremely nourished by literature, sometimes more than film—in the case of Nous, definitely more by literature than by film.
I want to read you a sentence by Marguerite Duras that I came across five years ago and that I keep in the notes on my phone: “I love whoever will hear that I am crying out.” That goes beyond the formal aspect. It’s a political project to make heard the cry of those who are not heard. When I encountered that it made me think of Ismael, of that project and of my entire film work, which wants to make heard those who are not. So with Duras, it’s not just a formal thing, but a political ethic.