In her latest documentary, We, Alice Diop wanders the route of the RER B, following the screeching halts and blinking fluorescence of this creaky, artificially-lit commuter train. While Diop’s camera roams outwards, in Gagarine – the recent debut of Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh – the camera wanders ever upwards, scaling the eponymous tower block while contemplating its residents and anticipating the building’s imminent demolition.
Both films are set in Paris’s banlieue, a word whose literal translation of ‘suburb’ does nothing to convey the images of decay, criminality and distinct non-white presence that the word evokes in the French imagination.
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The terrain has inspired a whole genre of so-called ‘banlieue cinema’, the most famous and formative of which is La Haine (1995). Its formula has been reworked for arthouse audiences in Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014) and Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015), while recent acquisitions of Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables (2019) by Netflix and Cédric Jimenez’s meridional BAC Nord (2020) by Amazon have delivered the genre to a wider audience. These are pugnacious, gritty films, lauded for their unflinching representations and drawing a wide viewership intrigued by the allure of French youth subculture.
With We, Diop explores a wider demographic than such films usually depict. She patiently turns her camera on the elderly generation, including older migrants such as her parents who arrived from Senegal after the country gained independence from France. This group is underrepresented in cinema in general but notably absent altogether from banlieue film. Yet it’s this generation who originally made the decisions and journeys that would come to define this terrain and redefine France’s cultural makeup.
When younger men do make appearances in We, they are free from the stereotypical aggression. These characters are softened – quick to laugh among friends or weary from manual labour and visa complications. Diop appears to have built up a genuine rapport with her subjects – she grew up in Aulnay-sous-Bois, one of the stops along the train’s route. Meanwhile, Gagarine’s lead, Youri (played magnetically by Alseni Bathily), seems poised to fulfil many stereotypes. He’s a Black teen with physical presence and absent parents. Yet he is tender and sensitive – a keen horticulturist and astrologist, who is also competent in morse code.
Despite its teen cast and dreamlike quality, Gagarine tackles the urgent questions of an urbanising world: the housing crisis, state treatment of social housing residents and the impact of demolition, with its young protagonists attempting grassroots housing rights strategies. The literal and momentous deconstruction of their estate (which actually happened during the film’s production) is mirrored by Liatard and Trouilh’s careful deconstruction of the clichés surrounding the banlieues.
Both films centre on vital questions of home. Diop, though more interested in the experiences of others, interrogates her own roots via archival footage of her parents. She struggles with wanting to be buried in France where her children were born, unlike her parents whose bodies have been repatriated to Senegal. In Gagarine, a scene that involves a visit to a ‘funeral for housing’ – the remnants of estates that have previously been demolished – similarly raises questions of final resting places, identity and geography in post-colonial France. In their exploration of shelter and belonging, both films are able to expose the ‘banlieue issue’ for what it really is – one of subpar housing and urban planning rather than morally deficient or culturally incompatible inhabitants.
The directors’ cinematic approaches differ significantly. Where We proceeds naturalistically in depicting mundane, unmomentous snippets of life on the outskirts of Paris, Liatard and Trouilh’s approach is celestial, flirting with the out-of-this-world. Youri’s interest in astronomy (he’s named after the Soviet cosmonaut who became the first man in space) extends to the extraterrestrial, and this examination of aliens cleverly alludes to alienation and tribalism, which the protagonists, who are teens of Roma, Maghrebi and Malian extraction, experience as part of their daily reality.
In Youri’s bedroom a poster emblazoned with ‘la lune et au-delà’ (the moon and beyond) echoes that of La Haine’s motif ‘le monde est à nous’ (the world is ours) – a hopeful suggestion that the aspirations of second-generation youth have moved a step further than was conceivable at the time of release of the 1995 classic.
Banlieue films are important as they make visible a demographic that has been both politically and geographically marginalised. They foreground state failures and, thanks to initiatives like Ladj Ly’s École Kourtrajmé, help diversify cinema both behind and in front of the camera. But they have often focused exclusively on one demographic – young and male – not quite sure whether they want to question or reinforce the stereotypes surrounding them. This sensationalist focus, with a penchant for riots and extreme violence, has left everyday experiences ignored, meaning we’ve only ever had a fraction of the story.
Gagarine and We succeed in broadening this narrative. Through their different approaches, both develop the banlieue subgenre towards a more nuanced portrayal of this mythologised terrain.
Gagarine is currently in selected cinemas and on Curzon On Demand.
We screened at the 65th BFI London Film Festival.
About the LFF Critics Mentorship Scheme
Acknowledging a damaging lack of diversity in film criticism, exacerbated by a lack of opportunities for emerging critics to gain experience and have meaningful engagement with publications, the BFI LFF Critics Mentorship programme returned for a fourth year at the festival, giving a meaningful experience and opportunity to a range of talented emerging film writers.
In the aftermath of last year’s global uprisings in protest at systemic racism and in support of Black Lives Matter, now more than ever there is a need for more tangible actions to be taken in response to racial inequality in the film industry. We are looking at how we can better serve not only Black writers but also writers from other underrepresented communities, by offering mentorship that can pave the way to future opportunities for paid work in the media.
This year, we offered the BFI LFF Critics Mentorship programme to eight mentees, with guaranteed spaces for Black writers and writers who have a disability, impairment, learning difference or long-term condition.
The mentees were invited to experience the BFI London Film Festival as an accredited press delegate with an intensive programme over the first six days of the festival. Journalist, commentator and founder of The British Blacklist, Akua Gyamfi and journalist, former Empire Magazine editor-in-chief and author Terri White were overall mentors to each of the participants who were also individually paired with a mentor from each media partner to support them and produce work. They also had the opportunity to pitch a festival comment piece or review for the BFI website.