News  ·  15 | 03 | 2024

A Cinema of Reparations: Alice Diop in Conversation with Kevin B. Lee and Libertad Gills

This year’s L’immagine e la parola – curated by Giona A. Nazzaro and Daniela Persico – is titled “Noi e gli altri” (We and Others) and is clearly inspired by your work. In Nous (2021) you give a memorable statement of purpose: “to conserve the existence of ordinary lives which would have disappeared without a trace if I hadn’t filmed them.” At the same time, we live in an era marked by the hypervisibility of social media and hyperproduction of images. How do you relate your work to such a contemporary context in which there is too much to see?

Well, I’m a filmmaker who produces images amidst this regime of images that’s all around us. But for me, in fact, images are not all the same, and the images that remain are those images we make, the images we sense, the images we have as a point of reference, the images that allow us to “see” the world or transform the way we see the world. I'm not at all sure about social networks; I don't have Facebook or Instagram. I can’t say it was a conscious political choice, but I think it does allow me to keep a form of innocence about that and a certain awareness of the importance of an image.

So I make cinema out of this mad belief in the political importance of making people visible, making them appear. These are people who no one expects to see, who no one has seen, who no one knows, who no one is looking for, and to make them appear like that, and in fact to build a whole device, a whole staging, a whole statement, a whole commitment around the idea that making them appear in the image is something that has power. I think I’m doing so very much against the kind of image that inundates us and blurs our perception and our vision. I believe that the images from films that remain with me are powerful images that are there, that are addressed and that profoundly resist erasure, oblivion. When you’re drowning in images, you can’t see anything anymore. I think that cinema is the opposite of an image – it’s a multiplication of images that resist this way of no longer knowing how to look.

In anticipation of your visit, our SNSF research team and students have made video essays to study and appreciate your films. As video essayists, we are particularly interested in your decision to include fragments from other films in your work, both from film history and home movies. How did the reemployment of excerpts from films make its way into your work and what do you think it allows you to do in your films that would not be possible otherwise?

In Nous and Saint Omer (2022), the use of archives – the presence of archives and fragments of other works – have two very different statuses respectively in the two films. In Nous it was archives that I hadn’t myself been able to look at – which is to say, personal archives, the archives of the only traces left of my mother’s and my father’s lives. Very, very little trace of their existence. My first graduation film was dedicated to [my father], a 15-minute film, so I was already more aware of the need to mark this trace in the work. I’m obsessed by the question of the trace and the need to imprint it, such that people who haven’t previously been filmed or watched can no longer disappear. In Nous, the idea was to construct a narrative and a project from the few traces left of my mother’s existence, and to give her a mythic status that goes beyond my own personal archives. It was a way of proposing a more global reflection on our collective memory, a memory that overlooks tiny lives like these, lives that people don’t look at. And also on the deficit of memory of the people who are not looking. So it’s a project that’s both very political and very intimate at the same time, based on a wound I carry with me that comes from the pain of not having been able to preserve any meaningful trace of my parents’ existence – I have very few photos, very few videos. For me, this personal wound goes hand in hand with a political question regarding who has the right to a narrative, and who makes a trace and who archives it. These are very important questions in France at the moment.

And in Saint Omer it’s completely different. It is – consciously or unconsciously – referring to [Marguerite] Duras or [Pier Paolo] Pasolini, meaning to inscribe these bodies in a continuity, in a kind of cinematic heritage where the presence of these black bodies was very little present – or was absent completely. And to give them an almost mythological dimension, i.e., to refer to Pasolini, to the story of Medea, is also to detach oneself completely from the anecdotal and to allow these black bodies to say something about the universal. For me it’s a political stance to assert this.

As part of L’immagine e la parola you will give a masterclass and a workshop with young filmmakers on how to work with actors in creating protagonists. How does your background in Visual Sociology and your documentarian approach to filmmaking influence your directing style in fiction (including casting, direction of actors, subject matter)?

I realize that my cinematic practice is influenced not only by documentaries - in other words, by a kind of approach that explores reality - but also by my studies in the humanities and social sciences – visual sociology, yes, but also history. I can see this now, as I’m working on my next film, which is about colonial history. I’m really at the intersection of academic research, which comes from my heritage as a sociologist and historian, and which runs through my work as a documentary filmmaker, meaning that I draw heavily on reality, on photos, on archives – I work a lot with documentary archives. At the same time, I transform all this with the project of using fiction, of using the actors’ bodies to transform this research into something else. So it’s not just documentary, it’s really a kind of work that mixes these different points of reference. I can talk about it now, because I’m really in the thick of it. But I’ve been working in archives for a year, working with researchers who specialize in colonial history. I’m going to use documentary resources such as photos, archives, and so on, to write the screenplay for a fiction film. All this I transform into dramaturgy, into a fictional narrative.

It was the same for Saint Omer. It’s a film based on political questions that come from my reflections on French society, the colonial era, the place of minorities, violence and systemic racism – to use the big words that obviously come from a more academic vocabulary. These questions run through me, and it’s these questions that I have been working on almost in the manner of a researcher. It’s as if, in making the film, I’m giving them an outlet and a form that will, through cinema, make these same questions tangible. It really starts with this work. For me, cinema is a way of giving the questions that I’ve been working on for years a kind of intellectual and theoretical precision. I give them a cinematographic form through the bodies of the actors, whom I’m not going to ask – for Saint Omer, because it’s my only experience of fiction – to perform something. But I’m going to work with a kind of porousness, between their documentary presence – the person they are – and the way they interpret a character. I’ll always work between the two, and I think the choice of actors, in my opinion, is based on the intuition of the very, very deep connection between the person as they are and what I’m going to ask them to perform. And to build out, as a performer, from that connection.

Saint Omer (2022) Saint Omer (2022)

Additionally, we are using techniques of embodiment to study your films. The way your films present bodies on screen is powerful, especially in Vers la tendresse (2016) and Saint Omer. Your films make us regard these bodies closely, to understand how our own bodies occupy space. It confronts us with our own gaze in looking at others. When you work, how self-conscious is your own gaze? What thoughts cross your mind as you frame a body for the camera?

It’s funny because it depends on the film. I can talk about Saint Omer, since it’s the most recent example. For me, the question of embodiment is inseparable from the political question of the representation of these bodies in a space, in a medium, where until now they haven’t been looked at in this way. For example: my references for Saint Omer, more than films, were paintings, particularly from the Italian Renaissance, paintings by Titian, or this painting I had on display, La Belle Ferronnière by Leonardo da Vinci. There was a great awareness of the fact that the cinema I want to make is a cinema of reparations, a cinema that places certain bodies where they’ve never been looked at before. And for me, the case of Saint Omer is a case in point – it is eminently political. This black woman whom no one has ever seen is at the center of the image: the shot is composed like a painting. So for me, the long take was a political act in every sense of the word that led me to compose this image. It’s not just an aesthetic reflection, it’s a reflection that mixes an eminently political question – to question the absence of representation of the body from the history of representation, from Giotto to the present day. When you go through the museums of the world, these bodies don’t exist. Neither do these bodies otherwise exist in the cinema – with this political power – without being hurt by our gaze, without being depreciated by our gaze, without being shrunk by our gaze. In Saint Omer, they take up the frame, they’re looked at with the same visual power as a Renaissance painting, and instead of a white woman, it’s a black woman we're going to take the time to look at and listen to. For me, the question of representation, the question of the image, is inseparable from a political reflection on the absence of these bodies and their representations, and on what this produces in us – me as a black woman, but us as spectators. How does it feel to have composed without it, in the absence of these others? What does it produce, and how can cinema repair this, and what does it have to tell us aesthetically about this process of reparation?

How did you come to understand listening as a central theme and method for your filmmaking and what have been some of the challenges for you to get audiences to listen? How did you negotiate (with yourself perhaps) the space for your voice to come through – for example in Vers la tendresse?

It’s more a question of the storytelling, of restoring the singularity of these characters, and thus proposing an extremely intimate connection with underrepresented characters, people and individuals. In other words, offering the audience the chance to meet them in a kind of intimate dialogue, and to take the time to listen to the other person and their story, and to listen to the singularity of all these characters – in a way, restoring their singularity by listening to their lives in a hyper-intimate way. Thus, it’s also through me and the intimate connection I’m able to forge with these people that they can share something extremely precious with me: that is, very intimate access to their lives, based on the trust in this encounter that we have forged together. I have the impression that in these films I take on the role of a mediator, in this possibility of listening to the intimacy of others. I’m connected to their intimacy, and it’s because I’m connected to the intimacy of these people that I can give the audience access to their intimacy too. This implies being very present: these are people who speak to me because we’ve managed to connect on something extremely precious. If they offer me something precious, it’s because of this encounter. Then from what they offer me, I give something back to the spectators so that they too can have intimate access to the singularity of these lives that they’ve otherwise had little opportunity to encounter. It’s a matter of not erasing my own involvement in the process.

Our students’ deep immersion in your work has encouraged them to seek out other films. Which films or filmmakers do you find your work most in conversation with, that you would recommend?

The name that comes to mind the most obviously now is perhaps Pedro Costa. In any case, I know that a film like Vitalina Varela (2019) was very powerful for me and really helped me write Saint Omer, but the two films are very, very different. I’ve just received the boxset of a filmmaker I discovered recently called Michael Roemer – extraordinary – and in fact I took part in a DVD bonus feature of his first film Nothing But a Man (1964), a film set in Alabama in the early 60s. It stars Abbey Lincoln, and also mixes non-professional actors and real actors – in any case, I think for Abbey Lincoln it was her first film, since she was more of a jazz singer – but it’s magnificent, about the condition of black Americans in a way I’d never seen before, because it’s so precise, and really comes from great observation of this community, in a form that is completely fictional. It’s a film that’s almost 60 years old that I like a lot, that continues to inspire me. As for more recent things, well, as I said there’s Pedro Costa. I also feel a kindred spirit with El Pampero Cine, the collective of filmmakers in Argentina – Laura Citarella with Trenque Lauquen (2022) or Mariano Llinás with La flor (2018), who also inspire me. Lucrecia Martel, Kelly Reichardt, Claire Denis. In short, these are the people whose films I look forward to seeing and whose thoughts on the personal crafting of cinema profoundly influence my own work.