The purpose of the African Women in Cinema Blog is to provide a space to discuss diverse topics relating to African women in cinema--filmmakers, actors, producers, and all film professionals. The blog is a public forum of the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema.

Le Blog sur les femmes africaines dans le cinéma est un espace pour l'échange d'informations concernant les réalisatrices, comédiennes, productrices, critiques et toutes professionnelles dans ce domaine. Ceci sert de forum public du Centre pour l'étude et la recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinémas.

25 May 2016

Alice Diop : Addressing political issues through sensitivity and empathy | Les questions politiques par le biais de la sensibilité et de l’empathie

Image: Alice Diop - © Lou Dangla / Cinema du Reel
Alice Diop : Addressing political issues through sensitivity and empathy | Les questions politiques par le biais de la sensibilité et de l’empathie.

Interview by | Entretien mené par Bastien Landier (Blog 

Image: Alice Diop - © Lou Dangla / Cinema du Reel
Translation from French by Beti Ellerson

[English] Français ci-après

Two recent films, presented in two different festivals, receiving awards the same day... Alice Diop is increasingly establishing herself on the documentary landscape. After La mort de Danton (The Death of Danton) she returns with Towards Tenderness and On Call.  

Le Blog documentaire : Your film On Call is shot in closed sessions in the medical practice of Dr. Gerraert. Why did you choose to show only this setting?

Alice Diop: Actually, it happened quite naturally. I was on location for the preparation of a story about equal access to healthcare and I spent an afternoon in the office of Dr. Gerraert. I was completely captivated by what was happening in this place, by the faces of his patients. For me, it was never a question of being elsewhere than in this place, it arose quite naturally as it was the only possible filming location. This is a film about the pain of exile, but it is told through the contemplation of the faces of these men. What grabbed me when I started working on this subject was the images of these undifferentiated and anonymous masses who flock to our doors. While initially, this image was not negative in its intent, it produced something that can be experienced as threatening. For me it was important to put faces, to put names and specific stories on what is often treated as an all-encompassing problem.

What place is the viewer situated in your film? What do you want to convey as message?

I'm not trying to convey a message; I am not an activist. What I want is that the viewers work with these faces, with the reality of the lives of those who are presented in this film. I want the political issues to be felt through the sensitivity and empathy that can rise from the exhibition of its faces and its extreme dramatic stories. These men that I have filmed, they are the men who we all pass by on the streets without necessarily seeing them, they are the Bengali street vendors of flowers, or who sell chestnuts at the entrance of the metro. For me it is important to give them a face, give them flesh and a body; that is what I want the viewer to experience while watching my film.

In this film, we see that there is a majority of men and very few women... Why did you choose to show the testimony of so many men and very few women?

The choice was not mine, that is the reality. There are many more men who frequent this place than women. At the same time women's stories were often extremely difficult, often related to arduous migratory journeys. They had fled their country and family conflicts where they had been victims of rape. So I was not interested in exposing their faces directly in front of the camera. I did not want to provoke this voyeurism or this sensationalism. This is also why I intuitively filmed them from behind. The stories of the women were so terrible that there was no possible representation, suddenly we found ourselves caught up in the reality of the violence that revealed nothing other than itself. I did not want to expose them in this way and encourage this type of reaction, or fascination.

Regarding the conditions of filming, how did you inhabit the space with your camera? One feels that the place is quite small, quite intimate... How did you define your position?

I explored the space for an entire year before filming. I positioned myself behind the shoulder of Dr. Gerraert and I was drawn in by this contemplation of faces that paraded in and out day after day. Very naturally my filming position was established at this location. The fact that I took the camera, that I filmed these men, was a natural extension of all that work during the year’s exploration. I think there was no other place for me to be. It was very instinctive in fact, for me it was clear that I was going to do a closed session, that I was going to position myself in that space, and that I was not going to change angles in the middle of the medical visit, because what is happening is something extremely fragile and extremely personal.

How was the transition from your presence without the camera and your presence with the camera made? How did the patients react?

The camera was not an intrusion in the sense that it was introduced very slowly, very gradually in this space. After a year, I dared to take some photos and it was these photos that informed me about the power of faces and the need for close-ups. I was less interested in wide shots; I did not want to be in the "social space" of the room, but in this very direct relationship with the personal.  It was a year before I took any photographs and a year and a half before I dared to introduce a camera to film. It was done very slowly. The people welcomed me because there was a kind of tacit agreement between us, and they understood what I was doing. It was a long process because I don’t think that one can film these individuals with their face uncovered, in such an intimate way, if there is no preparation in advance.

This type of framing, with tight close-ups of the faces, is also found in La mort de Danton with the face of Steve Tientch Tientcheu. Is it your individual way of filming, or does it depend on a particular feeling?

It is rather the feeling. I'm quite fascinated by faces. But of the faces of people who tell much more than what one thinks one knows about them. I have never theorised about it, never thought about it, but there is this unity of form from La mort de Danton to On Call and Towards Tenderness.

In La mort de Danton, there are strong contrasts, in terms of the space between the banlieues and the imposing Parisian theatres, in terms of language between rehearsals and moments when Steve converses with you. Is it also a film about rupture?

This is more so a film about the sociology of the journey. The journey from one language to another, from one social class to another, it is about our ability to be able to move about and how it produces violence, conquest, victory, doubts, anguish. In La mort de Danton, Steve does not break; he navigates from one place to another.

In this film, you do a portrait of Steve with a beginning and an end. In On Call, you film a phenomenon that started before you arrive and then continues afterwards. How were you able to extract a story from it?

In On Call, there is no story, in fact. I had a hundred hours of footage for editing. I filmed a lot of individuals who did not necessarily come back, and I could not know in advance which of them I would be able to focus on, as they were walk-in visits without an appointment. I built this film as an architecture between situations that exist in and of themselves, and those that tell something more universal about exile. It is an architecture that intertwines the characters that are seen returning, and that also allows us to establish time. It's very difficult to ascertain time when you're in the same place. This is the permanency of situations, the permanency of things. After them, others will arrive. There is this idea of ​​renewal and the attempt to construct the film as a loop... There is this idea of continuous ​​waves, as a kind of surf.

In La mort de Danton, there are many moments in the film where you are heard speaking, asking questions, talking with Steve, how do you manage the influence you have on the subjects of your film?

In La mort de Danton, I film a relationship; I do not do interviews or journalistic exchanges. This is a conversation in which I give my opinion, it is a give-and-take that we have. Afterwards I think, of course, of the reality that is transformed by the very fact of filming.

For you, must a documentarian assume that her presence will inevitably change the situations that she films?

Yes I think so, because even in On Call where I am not at all present, the fact of posing the camera at this particular place with these particular men creates a highly visible space and a point of focus that they automatically seize upon. Perhaps they said things that they would not have said in this way. I think the presence of the camera and the fact of looking at this camera, to play with it, is a component of the therapeutic process. Being watched and recognised in one’s individuality is in some way a part of the way one cares for another.

For you is there a connection between On Call and La mort de Danton?

The only connection I can make consciously is to give voice to the invisible, to those who do not have loud speakers to the media, to those who we see very little and never hear, and who can sometimes be extremely stigmatized.

Link: Alice Diop: "It is up to us to work on our own complexes" by Olivier Barlet

Deux films récents, présentés dans deux festivals différents, et primés le même jour… Une moisson assez remarquable pour que l’on parte enfin à la rencontre d’Alice Diop. La cinéaste s’impose de plus en plus dans le paysage documentaire. Après « La mort de Danton », elle revient donc avec « Vers la tendresse » et « La Permanence ». LIRE l’article en intégralité sur

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