Cutting across Paris from the north to the south, the RER B is a commuter rail that shuttles passengers to and from the city center, moving between the northern Mitry-Mory commune and the southern Saint-Rémy-de-Provence commune. It is also the axis that Alice Diop’s documentary Nous moves along, the director alighting from the train at different suburban intervals — metropolitan Paris is but a structuring absence — to conduct interviews with the denizens of these far-flung townships, while rooting through her own memories associated with the RER B: as a child, her mother would leave for her job as a cleaning woman aboard the train before Diop was even awake.
There’s an ostensible interview structure at work in Nous, but also a refreshing lack of formalities, and Diop’s journey along the RER B is like a slipstream of past, present, and future, with personal and political histories swirling together — in this regard, her form feels beholden to Chantal Akerman’s similarly empirical documentaries. The filmmaking is largely contemporaneous, although there are dispatches from the past, manifesting as home videos of Diop’s family, stories told by interview subjects, museum exhibitions, and the like. Diop posits that a tenacious grip on memory is something that can be strengthened by privilege, and conversely, weakened by discrimination. An African man struggles with WhatsApp to call his mother who’s still back home; a group of wealthy, white Parisians enact a humorously archaic hunting ceremony, replete with bugles, feathered caps, and scores of bloodhounds. The former struggles to maintain living contact, the latter are gifted comparatively unlimited resources to preserve tradition the way they see fit.
Diop’s visuals are as rich as they are rigorous, locating warm humanity within otherwise impersonal spaces. Armed with a purely observational tone, the incisiveness of the ways in which specific scenes relate to one another is on the viewer to deduce. Those two aforementioned passages come near the beginning and at the end of the film, respectively, rewarding those who’ve internalized what a less than willing participant may call “mundane.” The length (115 minutes) is felt, perhaps too much so, but Diop utilizes the time to display a consummate reconciliation of her proclivities as a documentarian, and as an artist.
Published as part of Berlin Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 3.