Berlinale 2021 review: We (Alice Diop)

Paris. City of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Notre Dame. Paris. City of the banlieus, of riots and burning cars. Both incarnations of the City of Light have been the subject of many films, yet French-Senegalese director Alice Diop chooses to show a different side of Paris, and in particular its suburbs and edges. The sections of Paris that are traversed by the RER B, a commuter train that crosses the city north to south. On the surface a straightforward observational film of some of the people that live in these environs, We combines subtle messaging with a personal story to paint a picture of a Paris almost never seen and to give a voice to the voiceless.

This subtle messaging begins and ends at the film’s bookends. In the opening scene we observe a white family scouting for game for a hunt that will take place at the end of the film. As they watch a stag through binoculars, the film jumps into its first longer portrait, that of Malian car mechanic Ismael who sleeps in his van when he is not working. It’s as if the hunters are spying him from a distance. There will be more portraits, of youngsters unexpectedly listening to Edith Piaf while chilling in lawn chairs, of Saint-Denis’ Basilica full of people listening to a public reading of the will of Louis XVI that moves them to tears, of the holocaust memorial in Drancy, and of Alice Diop’s sister N’Deye, a home caretaker for elderly and mostly white people.

N’Deye is one aspect of the director’s personal link to the story We tells, but interspersed into the film are home videos from Diop’s youth, where she filmed her mother, now deceased, and later clips in which she filmed and interviewed her father, now also dead. These are a link to her family, but also to the place where she grew up. And not just her, but many immigrants and children of immigrants. They are just as much part of the ‘we’ the title refers to as those people in Saint-Denis are, yet those are given a history while immigrants are given a bad rap. The insertion of her family videos is a way to give these anonymous people a history of their own too, in a deft and touching move. We also gives a history to some of the people whose journey to the death camps of the Nazis started in Drancy, as evidenced by an authentic boxcar on display in between its housing blocks.

The film also cleverly shows that the ‘we’ in reality is more than just white people, and in fact France is more of a diverse collective than its history shows, just by who Diop films and in what surroundings. Her sister is shown in the kitchen of an elderly white woman, while a North African woman is behind the stove cooking. The three ladies chatter away as if there were no differences in pigmentation and culture. The youths listening to Piaf are likewise a mixed crowd, as are the young kids playing in another scene. France is diverse, and the message We conveys through these images is disarmingly hopeful in a similar way to how Mr Bachmann and His Class was hopeful about Germany.

Late in the film Diop also has an interview with Pierre Bergounioux, an author who has written about his life in one of the poorest regions in France, and who feels a certain kinship with the nameless people along the tracks of the RER B train because his stories were also never deemed interesting enough when compared to the authors and histories that we now know, and which are predominantly of one class and color.

And thus we end We with the hunt. A pastime of a certain class, and as evidenced by the images a certain ethnicity as well. It would go too far to see a literal suggestion by Diop in this hunt, because for that these people seem too friendly, but in a metaphorical sense they have always been the hunters, and the people We portrays the prey.