The strange thing about the banlieues that surround Paris is that none of them are technically considered to actually constitute the city proper. Never-mind the fact that the city itself is largely made up of people commuting into the centre from these suburbs each day; popular outskirts such as Seine Saint Denis are counted as their own departments.
Even more curious is the make-up of Paris. Once when coming in from Charles De Gaulle, I noticed that the majority of people on the train were black; but when finally reaching my friend in Montmartre, almost everyone in the famed district was white. There seems to be a fundamental disconnect between the different ethnicities in the city, with the prospect of moving up the economic food chain an almost impossible task.
We examines this interesting make-up of Paris’ outskirts — which still reveal the fault-lines at the heart of French society — using the urban RER B train as a connective tissue between the different people one can expect in director Alice Diop’s hometown. She has Senegalese roots, but her observations are not tied towards one race or people, taking an all-encompassing look at the different types of people that make up the larger metropolitan area.
Stretching from a Malian garage-worker who hasn’t been home since the early ’00s, to young girls teasing each other on a housing estate, to the residents of an old-person’s home, the film is effectively a collection of self-contained portraits in search of a larger picture, Diop a modern flaneur, taking in the panoramic city scene. Traditional stereotypes of the banlieue are completely dispelled here, with the film beginning and ending with rural scenes; first spotting a stag in the far distance, later accompanying affluent residents on a fox hunt. Those who expect Parisian banlieue to still resemble the scenes of La Haine will be surprised by its diversity.
Often the most compelling images are those of her own family; such as her departed mother, glimpsed enigmatically through home footage, and her father, proudly talking of how he traversed from Senegal to make a better life for himself. But these moments, touching in and of themselves, can’t intersect with the film’s otherwise observational approach in a satisfying way.
Additionally, several of the film’s aesthetic choices and elongated scenes test the patience of a digital festival-goer, who may have been more generous in the stringent atmosphere of a cinema screening. With no central thematic point, rather than simply a loose geographical tissue, holding the disparate scenes together, its anthology approach seems to strain its ideas rather than focus them. Coming in at a significant two hour runtime, one imagines the tighter, more effective film lurking within a second or third edit. Diop has a noble aim; to survey that, like her mother, which she feels has been forgotten to the sands of time — notably spelled out during a visit with a local historian — but the execution is often painfully academic. The title We is meant to stand for everyone, but without really honing in on anyone at all, this ‘we’ remains rather vague.
We played in the Encounters section of the Berlin Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. It shows in October at the BFI London Film Festival.