First-person documentaries immersed in family archives can at times feel claustrophobic, even when they achieve great dramatic ends. Fortunately, Alice Diop’s nonfiction feature, We, is quite the opposite. Like a thread unspooling, Diop delicately, with generosity, repeatedly links her family’s immigration from Senegal and subsequent life in France to the stories of strangers. Not all are immigrants; some are French-born but live far from their places of birth, or their lives have been marked by that other significant, often hidden displacement—of belonging to a lower class. In this sense, Diop uses cinema to expand what the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls one’s immediate circle of concern.
Diop begins her film commenting in the voiceover on how little footage she has of her mother: 18 minutes, in which her mother appears “only fleetingly.” Diop shows a sample of these brief ordinary moments, such as when her mother is complimented on her beauty—a motif that she subtly repeats with other women.
Key images are missing from Diop’s family archive, and so she fills in gaps by filming strangers: a Black émigré mechanic or her own sister visiting the infirm, then the elderly themselves. The theme of aging resurfaces when Diop includes the footage of her father that she shot a few years before his death. In it, he takes in sunlight, lugs heavy bottles of Avian, visits a park, commenting that he loves how it gathers birds from all the world. This sense of tenderness, of here always being amplified to there—be it Senegal, or more abstractly, a hidden ache, a longing—permeates the entire film.
A mini-manifesto on why cinema matters nestles in the brief scene in which Diop visits Pierre Bergounioux, an elderly writer whose diary she loves because, even though it depicts a life her family could have never had, it nevertheless feels as if she’s lived it; such is the transport of literature. The other raison d’être instance is slightly more opaque: The film’s opening and closing vignettes show an elderly hunter, first with a young boy, at night, and then during an elaborate preparation for a hunt, where suddenly the cleavage between the hunter as an employee, and the wealthy who employ him, is rather keen. As the hunt scenes unfold, we’re suddenly in memorable cinematic terrain: it’s Jean Renoir, The Rules of the Game, but also pure Diop—class and cinema histories cojoin, in the best Godardian sense.