'Paris Stalingrad': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
A raw and troubling account of immigration in France.

Hind Meddeb's documentary depicts events that took place in the titular Paris neighborhood back in 2016, when refugees were forcibly removed from the area.

Far, but not that far, from the gilded center of Paris sits the eponymous neighborhood of Hind Meddeb’s immersive documentary, which follows the ordeal of illegal immigrants — or sans-papiers, as they are called in France — surviving on the edge of the city.

Shot in the summer of 2016, Paris Stalingrad depicts the chaotic period when thousands of refugees poured into town after their camp in Calais was shut down, seeking shelter in the parks, streets and under the metro tracks, of an area located along the Canal St. Martin and northeast of the Gare du Nord train station.

Sleeping in tents or simply on mattresses out in the open, the men (they are mostly men), who hail from Africa, North Africa or the Middle East, attempt to navigate a Kafkaesque bureaucracy and obtain legal status for themselves, all the while avoiding constant raids by the police. If you thought the situation at the Mexican border was bad, the one here hardly seems better, although a semi-happy ending hints at France’s rather humane efforts to deal with its refugee crisis, especially when it comes to minors.

Along with co-director and co-cameraman Thim Naccache, Meddeb documents the daily plight of those refugees who live out on the street, where they scrounge for food — sometimes given to them in open-air soup kitchens — try to take care of their few belongings or line up outside an immigration center whose doors rarely open. Soon enough, the forces of order are upon them, sent in to destroy their makeshift encampments and to detain anyone fit for deportation. The filmmakers get right in the thick of several clashes between the cops and the crowd, some of which turn violent, with French activists and volunteers trying to intermediate between the two.

The movie gradually centers on one refugee, a 17-year-old named Souleymane whose father and brother were killed in Darfur, as he attempts to make France his home. Both taciturn and mystical, with a talent for improvising poetry, Souleymane is caught in a tenuous situation he can barely understand. And yet, like other young men in his position, he has nowhere else to go. It thus comes us a relief when we follow up with him several months later after he’s been relocated to the city of Nancy, where the authorities have found him a job and an apartment. Seeing Souleymane cook a meal on his own stove, like any normal person, offers up some comfort in an otherwise disquieting chronicle.

Meddeb doesn’t offer much background context for the incidents depicted, nor do we fully grasp how the immigration laws in France work. The effect can be a bit jarring at times, as it’s not always clear what’s happening or why, but the film is nonetheless a vital on-the-ground document that shows how the sans-papiers were treated at the time — and how, in the months that followed, the city government erected fences, playgrounds and other structures to prevent them from settling back in the Stalingrad area. (One element not mentioned is that this section of Paris is, like Bushwick in Brooklyn, considered one of the hippest and edgiest. The shots of Souleymane and his friends bathing out in the open as Parisians pleasantly stroll around them speak volumes about the inequality inherent in such contemporary urban living.)

Editing by Sophie Pouleau (Mrs. B., a North Korean Woman) organizes the footage into a coherent, if not always clear, whole, while an intermittent voiceover (in English in the version viewed) tries to guide the viewer through events as they unravel.   

Production companies: Les Films du Sillage, Echo Films
Director: Hind Meddeb
Co-director: Thim Naccache
Producer: Sylvie Brenet
Directors of photography: Hind Meddeb, Thim Naccache
Editor: Sophie Pouleau
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs); Cinéma du Réel

In French, Arabic, English
86 minutes