hotdocs: Alimentation Générale

Those of you who know me as a transit advocate and policy critic don’t often get to see one of my other hats, that of an avid supporter, consumer and commentator on the performing arts.  In the Reviews section of this site, I have posted my Toronto Film Festival reviews going back to the dawn of time.  [Friends kept asking, and I tired of sending emails.]

This year, for the first time, I managed to keep the week of the hotdocs (see http://www.hotdocs.ca/) documentary festival more or less clear of conflicting engagements, and will be attending several screenings.  Here’s the first of my reviews. (These will be collected together in one document at the end of the festival.)

Alimentation Générale

Chantal Briet, France, 2005

Chantal Briet’s film follows the day-to-day activities in and around a store in a mind-numbing Parisian suburb.  This is one of the banlieux of recent rioting, although little happened in this particular neighbourhood.  These are the poor and disenfranchised communities for whom the modern France of the postcards is far, far away.

We are in Epinay-sur-Seine in a complex called La Source.  What was once a typical low-rise European town with active streets full of shops, traffic and pedestrians was transformed into a block of high-rises.  3,000 people, over two dozen nationalities, live in buildings that have not been painted, where the elevators work only sometimes, where the city clearly doesn’t care about the condition of the tenants.  The Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame are visible in the distance, but there is no charm in this neighbourhood.

Surrounded by the towers is a small building holding the store.  This building has its own problems with a leaking roof that threatens its future, but it is the centre of a community. Ali, the proprietor, has been there for years and knows everyone. A cast of regulars pass through the store and through them we glimpse what life is like in this modern housing.  Some are pensioners, some are children, one can only function in the limited scope of his neighbourhood.

Nothing really happens in the dramatic sense.  We’re just watching people and feel a part of their community as, indeed, Briet did while she researched and then shoot her film.

Near the end, the store is threatened with closing because the building is crumbling.  If this happened, this island, a “Utopia” as Briet calls it, would disappear.  Luckily for everyone, attitudes change, and two years later Ali gets a new store.  A happy ending.

Watching Alimentation Générale, I couldn’t help thinking about Jane Jacobs, who died this week, and her focus on how neighbourhoods work.  La Source was a victim of planning ideals of the 1950s and 60s when urban renewal meant tearing down everything old, destroying in moments a fabric that had evolved for generations.

The title translates roughly as “General Store”, but this obscures a subtle double-meaning.  One bit of humanity, the store, managed to grow and survive in the middle of this disaster, and residents of La Source came to it for far more than their groceries.

Repeats Tuesday May 2 at 3:45 pm at the ROM theatre.