In Alice Diop’s La Permanence, patients unveil the traumas that forced them from their homes and led them to France’s suburbs.
Alice Diop’s 2016 documentary, La Permanence, or “On Call”, begins with a quatrain by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa:
They spoke to me of people, and of humanity.
But I've never seen people, or humanity.
I've seen various people, astonishingly dissimilar.
Each separated from the next by an unpeopled space.
The film manages to convey precisely what Pessoa’s words describe, exploring individual stories, heartache and hope. It’s a work of unusual and often uncomfortable intimacy, putting faces, names, and feelings on people all too often dismissed as “migrants” or “refugees.”
Diop’s latest work is one of desperation, helplessness, and sheer survival. The 97-minute film takes place inside the shabby office of Jean-Pierre Geeraert, a doctor working at a walk-in health clinic for people without official papers, at the Avicenne Hospital in Bobigny, a town in the northeast suburbs of Paris. The ultimate effect of over an hour and a half in this cramped office is not one of claustrophobia but of excruciating frustration.
Most of the patients shown in the film are still grappling with the trauma that made them leave home. Many of them are also dealing with the additional trauma of a long and arduous journey to France. Without legal status, daily life has its own problems: where to sleep, how to eat, and how to understand and overcome the tangled and often Kafkian aspects of French administration.
Dr. Geeraert works in tandem with a psychiatrist, and together they face their own challenges, including severe lack of funding (at one point the doctor complains of a shortage of prescription pads) and complicated bureaucracy. The social worker in the film, Djamila Ammame, working in an adjacent office, is an intimidating and symbolic reminder of the limits and lengthiness of the French government in dealing with asylum cases. At one point in the film, a patient cries and gasps for air as he describes his various challenges: coping with panic attacks, diabetes, confusion regarding various administrative offices and papers, and trying to live on €200 per month. "There's no need to over-dramatize," says Ammame. "The administrative process is long but it will be solved."
Patients tell stories of family who have died or were left behind, of sleeping in parks, of hunger and cold. The stories, as well as their eyes, stay with you long after the film is over. Some eyes look almost dead, others burn bright with pain or longing. We hear all of their stories, along with Dr. Geeraert and the psychiatrist, and feel a sympathy and helplessness that can only be a small fraction of what the doctors feel on a daily basis. Sometimes the best they can do is listen and give a patient a bottle of Xanax to help with nightmares and panic attacks.
Dr. Geeraert has a dry humor and is never overtly emotional in the film, yet it is clear he has a deep level of trust and communication with the patients — perhaps because he is one of the few who has actually taken time to listen. Yet he, too, is a complicated character, at times gruff or sarcastic. This complexity is what Diop strove to explore in the film, she says. “My films are very political, but not in the sense of some discourse or ideology. It’s important for me to show the reality, the complexity of the experience I’m showing. I want the viewers to ask questions about what they see.”
La Permanence, like Diop’s other four films, explores “French identity as seen from the periphery.” The French-Senegalese filmmaker was born in Aulnay-sous-Bois, northeast of Paris, and currently lives in Montreuil, an eastern suburb of the capital.
“To explore these questions is also to explore and reexamine the cliches we have about the suburbs,” says Diop. “It bothers me that the founding principles (of France) are magnificent, but the concrete reality of racism and and classism in society give the impression that certain things are difficult to talk about and to confront.”
Diop manages to confront these aspects of society in a way that is intimate without being voyeuristic. The filmmaker spent a year visiting and observing consultations before picking up her camera, and then spent every Friday for a year and half in the doctor’s office filming. “I had to find my place, to maintain distance, and not do a ‘pornographic’ depiction of suffering,” she says.
One of the first patients Diop met in the course of filming was Mohammed Sawkat, a young man from Pakistan who had arrived in France one month earlier. He had come to the hospital complaining of severe heart palpitations, and during the course of his appointment we come to understand why. He describes leaving Pakistan after witnessing the murder of his father; his mother mortgaging the family home to raise money for him to leave; his present life of precarity and grief, hunger and thirst.
“It’s much easier to talk about things in a general way, to speak in ideological terms about the refugee crisis, but when we see a face and hear personal stories, and learn the risks people take just to reach a safe place, it’s much stronger,” says Diop. “La Permanence resists these images of mass, where individuals don’t exist.”