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BERLINALE 2021 Encounters

Review: We

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- BERLINALE 2021: Alice Diop pieces together an ambitious patchwork documentary on Paris’s deprived suburbs, crafting an interlacing which questions humanity, time and modern-day collective identity

Review: We

On the morning of the World Cup Final in France, in 1998, mayors from multiple working-class areas of the Paris region spoke smilingly about how scores of French flags had been stolen from the pediments of public buildings. But almost 23 years on from this collective jubilation, taken at the time to represent a united "black-white-Arab" mindset, shoring up the blue-white-red banner, the perception of Paris’s deprived suburbs remains an open and thorny question, with these areas often forming the focus of caricatures which feed into populism and extremist divisions.

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In We [+see also:
trailer
interview: Alice Diop
film profile
]
, which was unveiled in the 71st Berlinale’s Encounters competition, French documentary-maker Alice Diop (who has a personal interest in the matter, having grown up in an Aulnay-sous-Bois housing project) tries her hand at definition, at building bridges, at forging paths and establishing links between two worlds which observe one another from a distance but also up-close, amidst a complex fog of mistrust and empathy. It’s a patchwork film loosely set in the vast region surrounding the RER B train line (which crosses the Paris region north-south-north), revolving around "little lives", which form the focus of the director’s talent for capturing all things human (as displayed in her previous work On Call [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
). But, ultimately, her suggestive intentions raise just as many contrasting questions as they do answers on what has come to pass and what is currently going on, and on the potential options we have for building a common life together.

Traces, silhouettes, fleeting appearances, a whole shadow theatre hastily making its way towards nameless railway stations; memories, reflections and a "silence full of things which can’t be said"… Travelling from one character to another, from the present to the past, from a basilica to the Grand Stade stadium, from housing projects to detached homes, from a car scrap yard to a hunt in Fontainebleau, from a Malian immigrant sleeping in a van and slaving away all day to a woman’s tears during a public reading of King Louis XVI’s will, written on 25 December 1792 from the royal Temple prison, from the Holocaust memorial in Drancy to young people today who kill time talking and listening to music together in the shadow of tower blocks, We interweaves immersive sequence after immersive sequence and leaves it to the viewers to draw their own conclusions based on the connections the film creates and the general picture that emerges.

Driven by an (explicit) desire to lift from obscurity all those individuals who have been prevented access to symbolic representations (not to mention physical access to town centres) by the dominants castes, Alice Diop crafts a highly ambitious and formally restrained documentary (revealing an instinctive gift for expressing emotions and atmospheres, as well as sophisticated editing), injecting material from her own personal life (her Senegalese father retraces his own experience in France, having moved there in 1966, while her carer sister pays some very moving home visits to various elderly people) into a vast field of exploration. Though it doesn’t detract from the quality of the film or the director’s obvious (and ever growing) potential, the mosaic aspect of the film does raise several fundamental questions as regards what is intentionally left off-camera and the juxtaposition of certain sequences which might lead the viewer to believe that there really is an Us and Them, a conclusion which is ultimately wholly defensible, but which is broached so elliptically that it upsets the overall coherence and harmony of the work.

We is produced by Athénaïse together with Arte France, and is sold worldwide by Totem Films.

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(Translated from French)

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