Over the last decade, Alice Diop has established herself as one of the leading voices in French cinema. Her documentary films include On Call (La permanence, 2016), an immersion in the consulting room of the only general practitioner in the greater Paris region to regularly treat undocumented migrants, and Towards Tenderness (Vers la tendresse, 2016), which uses a group of young Black and Arab men’s startlingly intimate conversations about romance and desire to question stereotypes about the youth of the Paris banlieue. In her most recent documentary, We (Nous, 2021), Alice wanders along the commuter rail line that extends from the north of Paris to the south, encountering Ismael, a Malian immigrant living in a truck; a visiting nurse and her elderly patients; fast-talking teenagers; participants in a traditional fox hunt; acclaimed French writer Pierre Bergounioux; and monarchists celebrating the memory of Louis XVI. Combining these encounters with her own experience as a French woman whose parents were immigrants from Senegal, Diop creates a deceptively serene, complex portrait of a society in transition, mining the present for an uneasy history and signs of the future. She recently directed her first fiction feature, Saint Omer, which won the Grand Jury Prize and the prize for best debut feature at the 2022 Venice Film Festival.
I met Alice by serving as her French–English interpreter in New York. Like many who get to know her, I remain in awe of the intensity of her commitment to her art. I am also drawn to her warmth, a quality that carries over into her films, imbuing their rigorous form with a singular sensibility that is not only the vision of the filmmaker but the sense of her presence, whether or not she appears on screen. As I learned in this conversation held on a park bench in Brooklyn last July, presence is also a matter of how you look at the people you film. In talking to Alice about the gaze, I understood why her films feel so unexpectedly sensual, and why I was so eager to interview her for Extra Extra.
Nicholas Elliott: You were immediately receptive when I suggested we have a conversation about sensuality in the urban environment. How come?
Alice Diop: Sensuality is at the heart of my practice of filmmaking. For many reasons. I often say that Claire Denis’ films are an important reference for me, specifically because she is the filmmaker of sensuality and the one who has best shown sensuality in the urban space, notably with Black bodies that had not previously been represented that way, without condescension. I was drawn to Claire Denis’ films because I sensed something political about that sensuality, in that she looked at these Black men without reducing them to a social state or a subordinate body. She doesn’t resort to a form of objectification that wouldn’t allow them to exist as singular individuals. That’s what I took from her films.
With my academic background, I have a very cerebral, intellectual approach to research and working on film. Yet film is a tool that allows me to use the senses and perception to express this cerebral side, this obsession with realising a project in the most accurate way possible. After university, I decided to be a filmmaker rather than to pursue an academic career, precisely because I thought that the discoveries I could make in my studies of history and sociology were cold, closed and extremely restricted in their reach, while film, in its approach to sensuality and its sensitivity, seemed a far more accessible tool, with greater reach and more democratic potential. That lesson of sensuality is what I’m looking for in my films. It’s not necessarily what comes first, but it’s what translates and brings to life the ideas I have constructed beforehand through a very intellectual process.
Nicholas: Yet your documentary films are not sensual in an obvious manner. With the exception of Towards Tenderness, for instance, they don’t directly deal with desire. Sensuality is not sexuality, or eroticism.
Alice: No. Sensuality can be the way you film a face, or a very specific attention to the frame and the way you make someone or something – I wouldn’t say ‘beautiful’ because that can be a very surface-value, demagogic notion, since beauty belongs to no one and can’t be defined … For example, when I film a railroad landscape near Drancy in We, with the setting sun shining on the rails, I’m trying to capture something extremely sensual. For me, it’s no longer an urban setting we pass through without noticing. Suddenly, I see something there, in this undefined non-place that hasn’t been described, looked at, filmed or painted. I see something that deserves to be filmed but that could also be described by a writer or a poet. So maybe it’s a question of putting sensuality in places where you wouldn’t suspect it exists. That’s what sensuality is to me: making certain people, bodies and places desirable. It’s making them present, in fact. It’s making them exist.
Nicholas: It’s paradoxical to think of your film On Call as a sensual film, given that it takes place exclusively in the office of Jean-Pierre Geeraert, a doctor who sees people in great distress, most of whom are undocumented migrants. Yet I experience that sensuality through my awareness of the presence of their bodies.
Alice: For me, the sensuality in On Call is in the faces. It’s in the quality of Jean-Pierre’s gaze and in his hands. It’s Jean-Pierre touching these damaged bodies. It’s the tired face of a 75-year-old Roma woman showing Jean-Pierre her hands, telling him they’re damaged because they’re old, and he replies by showing her his own hands and saying he’s old too. The kind of equality among humans that is exercised in that specific place seemed sensual to me. It’s the face of the undocumented migrant Joginder Singh as he watches Jean-Pierre, waiting for him to write him a medical certificate that will allow him to get documents. It’s his extremely concentrated, magnificent face. These are very handsome men, who I enormously enjoyed filming because I wanted my way of filming them to restore their dignity as men, through the sensuality of my gaze, and to not confine them to a victim status. I see them as heroes. The reason the film exclusively takes place inside the doctor’s office is that these bodies seemed so fragile and frail outside in the urban space that I didn’t want to go outside with them. But when I looked at them inside – I was directly behind Jean-Pierre, with the camera at the same height as him – their faces were the film’s landscape. Those faces carry so much emotion. Yes, it’s a sensual film. Their faces and the presence of their bodies in that space is sensual.
Nicholas: Their bodies also carry a history of oppression and exile that manifests in their physical pain. We hear Jean-Pierre tell his patients, ‘Your head aches because your children are far away from you.’
Alice: Of course. I made this film to go against discourse. I get really stuck in a very cerebral, intellectual approach in the research that precedes the films, but I have a deep faith in cinema’s sensuality and the way that sensuality can raise eminently political questions by abstracting itself from any discourse. I don’t have faith in discourse: On Call and We are films constructed against discourse. Discourse can be met with counter-discourse. But when you see Mamadou Diallo’s face and hear his demand to have his human dignity recognised, you could never tell him that France ‘cannot welcome the world’s poor and suffering’ (to quote an infamous statement by the late French statesman Michel Rocard). I hold a shot on this man’s face for close to twenty minutes, without moving the camera, as an extremely brutal manner of summoning the viewer, of forbidding viewers the opportunity to remove themselves from the violence of being confronted with the face of a suffering man asking for nothing but to be recognised as a man by being granted asylum after surviving countless abuses. That face thwarts all the political, ideological discourse you hear all day long about immigration. It simply defeats it. I find On Call is an extremely violent film, but also an extremely gentle one. And it’s that gentleness that can be really violent, in the sense that it captures the viewer. It’s a film that captures viewers and forces them to look at those faces, to look at those men, and, through a forced empathy, to experience what it is to be an exile.
Nicholas: Your films make me see sensuality where I least expect it. When I rewatched We, I was struck by how drawn I was to the elderly woman whose stories about her youth are so full of passion.
Alice: Perhaps sensuality is simply being comfortable with the idea of taking the time to look at the other. I truly want to look at and listen to this woman. I experience a real physical pleasure doing it, just as I experience real physical pleasure in looking at and listening to Ismael in his little truck, though it’s really tough: he lives in a truck, on a parking lot on the edge of the railroad in Aubervilliers. I filmed him in December, when it was –5oC outside. It’s really harsh, yet suddenly there’s something soft-edged, gentle and welcoming when I’m with him in his passenger compartment, seeing the obvious pleasure he and his friend get from looking at his smart phone to watch a series that reminds him of the Bamako he left twenty-five years ago. I enjoy experiencing this moment of tenderness and pleasure practically stolen from all the violence that surround them. It’s like a little bubble, a small refuge in a hugely difficult world. And I try to match it by putting a tremendous amount of care into the treatment of his skin both while filming and in colour correction, working on the lustre of the reflection of light on his Black skin to make it glowing and radiant. That’s a real sensual pleasure.
Nicholas: It’s interesting to think of you proceeding like a painter to work on your subjects’ skin in colour correction.
Alice: I’m always there for the colour correction, though many filmmakers take no interest in what can be a very technical stage of filmmaking. I see it as a really political stage that deals with the question of the rendering of skin, especially since I film a lot of Black skin, and Black people have been filmed comparatively little. We spent three hours on the shots of Ismael’s hands working on a car’s engine to get a proper rendering of the grain of his skin. That makes me think of a painting I saw the first time I came to New York: I practically had a Stendhal syndrome episode when I saw this late Rembrandt self-portrait. It’s so wildly sensual in its colours, in the rendering of the mouth, the glistening of his lips, the quality of his skin … Rembrandt’s work on skin moved me so deeply. I think what touched me about the portrait of this man painting himself near the end of his life is that it makes desirable a skin and a body that are not meant to be desirable, or in any case not meant to provoke desire. That’s what I find in Rembrandt’s paintings. Everything is rendered in such a sensual way – I don’t know how else to say it. Or there’s this Andrew Wyeth portrait of a vagrant who looks like he’s in a Titian painting. His mouth and face are eminently sensual. Sensuality endows this homeless guy with a kind of dignity and nearly mythological status. The man in the Rembrandt self-portrait is here in front of us: he’s old, but he’s present, he exists. We want to see him, we want to spend time looking at him. I enjoy looking at him. When sensuality reaches its political dimension, it succeeds in making us enjoy taking the time to look at these men and women we don’t see much.
Nicholas: I once heard the Burkinabè filmmaker Idrissa Ouédraogo talk about the challenges he faced because celluloid film stock was not made to film Black skin. Has that problem carried over to digital?
Alice: Absolutely. The measuring instruments built into digital cameras are configured for the amount of light reflected by white skin. They are not conceived for Black skin. That’s another thing to Claire Denis’ credit: the sensuality with which she filmed Black skin made that skin desirable to me. Before her, I had rarely seen that way of looking at, caring for and representing Black skin in cinema. Her way of rendering the beauty of those bodies was in stark contrast to the dominant way of filming Black bodies like furniture. Maybe you could see it in Spike Lee and Melvin Van Peebles’ films, but those films reached me late. In European cinema, I had never seen the Black body as anything but the streetcleaner or some other subordinate crossing the frame.
I just received this archival footage from a researcher working on a future film project. The footage was shot in the 1920s by missionaries and people in the colonies playing at ethnology in their down time by filming Africans’ rites and customs. What strikes me is that the bodies are filmed like objects. The most frustrating thing is that the images of faces are extremely short. You can’t see anything – they last two seconds. In most of the footage, the shots of a river or a baobab are much longer than those of people. You see no one because ultimately these people are treated as objects. The person filming does not have the desire to take the time to look and be looked at, to be welcomed, to converse.
Nicholas: Those are two principles at the core of your filmmaking: taking the time to look and being engaged in a relationship that goes beyond the one-way filmer/filmed paradigm. It makes me think of the beginning of your film Towards Tenderness, in which a young man heard in voiceover expresses crude, not to say stereotypical, perceptions of women. Yet the way your camera lingers on the faces of young men from the Paris banlieue while we hear these harsh words is full of tenderness.
Alice: In everyday life I’m a very talkative person. But when I’m shooting, my way of talking with people is in how I look at them. It rarely happens through speech. For example, the way I’m in conversation with those young men, the way I tell them how I see them, is by taking the time to look at their faces. And honestly, I find them magnificent. I find them handsome, sensual, desirable. I feel like the way I see them defeats the entire mass discourse and violent fantasy that film and media in France have constructed around the bodies of these young Black and Arab men of the banlieue. I don’t see them as a mass. I don’t see them as potential aggressors. I see them as my brothers, as potential lovers, as people I enjoy looking at. And the power I have to look at them doesn’t put me in a superior position to them. I’m very careful about that – to never be in a superior position and to allow the possibility for me to be looked at too. In On Call, for example, I made sure to include every time someone looked into the camera in the final cut. Because in a way those looks at the camera honoured me. It’s not a machine looking at them, it’s me. Looking at me is a way of saying that we’re in dialogue. We don’t need to talk to know we’re in dialogue. I think that for those who are willing to see it, the way I shoot reveals that film is a dialogue and that I was able to be there recording because the people on screen gave me permission. Permission isn’t something you get through an administrative contract. It’s a kind of dialogue that may not be formulated through words, but through those glances, through the way these people let me look at them and the way the camera took the time to get close to them. For me, it’s a really rich but very quiet dialogue.
Nicholas: How do you engage people in that dialogue?
Alice: There are many people who I talk to by taking the time to look at them when I film them. My father told me things he never would have told me if I hadn’t filmed him. My thesis film at film school, Mon père ici et là, was about my father. There are a few excerpts of it in We. He told me so much about himself without putting it into words, just in the way he allowed me to film him. He was happy I was filming him but at the same time he kept eluding my gaze. Yet he also softened. There’s something beautiful about how he was intimidated by the way I looked at him, because I think that my way of looking at him was telling him how much I loved him. I think he could feel that, and that embarrassed him because he was very reserved. But he let me film him. So, there’s an unspoken dialogue between us. I’m so happy I was able to tell my father I loved him through the way I filmed him. My father died a few months after I finished that first film. At that point, I intuitively connected the act of filming with the idea of bringing back the dead. I became a filmmaker, on some level, to make people immortal. Not just people who are close to me, but also those I consider to have been mistreated by history, life and the present. Filming them is probably a very narcissistic way of making them immortal. To say: something of you will not die.
Nicholas: I want to insist on the mystery of cinema. The shots of the young men at the beginning of Towards Tenderness are so full of feeling and sensuality, but technically there’s nothing extraordinary about the filming. If I set up the exact same shot, it would probably be banal. How do you explain that?
Alice: It really has to do with looking. I’ve encountered directors of photography who are far more concerned with the machine and tools of filmmaking than with the people being filmed. They really need to be reminded to truly look at the person in front of them. Claire Mathon, the director of photography of my first fiction feature Saint Omer, is the opposite: she’s a reserved person, but the moment she has a camera in hand she becomes the most sensual, empathetic, generous person. I’ve never seen such intelligence, sensuality and generosity in framing.
Nicholas: How did you choose to work with her?
Alice: For the light and sensuality in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (2013), which she shot. For the way they turned this cruising zone that could have been so absolutely vulgar into a political Eden full of love for the other and of community. Again, it’s these bodies that aren’t supposed to be desirable. Raphaël Thiéry is magnificent in the role of the shepherd in Staying Vertical (2016) – I find him so attractive, though he’s not a conventionally hand-some man, because he’s filmed with such love and tenderness. And the scene when the old man is euthanised by sodomy is just majestic. You can’t go any further than a scene of jouissance and death, of sodomy between an old body like that one and a young man. It’s so audacious and sensual. I wanted to work with the director of photography who participated in that. Claire Mathon is a great director of photography in that she adapts to the person directing. In Saint Omer, the images are simultaneously sensual, warm, vibrant and at the same time well-defined and precise. I made the film using my emotions as a guide. It worked with Claire because with her rigorous ability to listen and look she’s able to frame that intuitive and emotional material.
Nicholas: Is it possible for you to film people you don’t find magnificent?
Alice: I think I need to find them magnificent in some way. They need to touch me. I can’t film just anyone. Because there’s something very erotic about it, which isn’t necessarily sexual. I don’t know how one would define this term of ‘erotic.’ In any case, something happens to me when I’m filming, that’s for sure. I don’t think I could film someone I don’t want. When I filmed the fox hunt in We, I wanted the hunter Marcel, though it’s not like I think it’s necessary that his presence in the world be celebrated. There’s something about him I like, but I couldn’t tell you what. Or the woman crying in the cathedral during the memorial to Louis XVI in We. There’s undeniably something about her that moves me. I’m not just looking at her in a sarcastic, caustic way. I’m definitely telling myself the people at the memorial are nuts, but there’s still something about her that moves me enough to take the time to look at her.
Nicholas: Like you, I find these grieving monarchists insane, but I’m moved by their emotion.
Alice: I welcome that emotion into the film. I certainly don’t share it or necessarily understand it, but I give it a place. It’s a political statement to give them the same place as the other faces I gleaned for this film. Neither more nor less. They don’t have the same place as Ismael in my heart or in my life, but I welcome them. And I put a lot of care into working on their skin in the colour correction too. That’s meaningful.