Still, as important as the subject matter is, Paris Stalingrad leaves the viewer wanting. The antidote to seeing people being dehumanized is to humanize them through letting them tell their own story. But Meddeb seems mostly uninterested in people’s personal journeys. Maddeningly, just as people start to reveal themselves, the interview is cut short, and we never hear from them again. Perhaps this is because of the chaotic nature of life on the streets that she is trying to document, but it is still frustrating to the viewer, and it makes it harder to connect.
This would be understandable if the film instead took a deep dive into the factors that led to the situation. Was it colonialism, racism, ill-prepared bureaucrats, politicians serving a heartless electorate, or something else? Yet the film gives us no details about any of these things. Even though there are no easy answers, it would be nice to have some context about the French refugee system in general, and the backdrop of the politics that created it, as North American viewers are not intimately familiar with the details.
“The more empathy you develop, the more you experience the suffering of the subjects…”
Much of the screen time of Paris Stalingrad just follows people around as they wander the city with nowhere to go and nothing to do but try to find a place to sleep and food to eat. That’s not the most exciting thing to watch, but it is effective at putting you in their shoes. In that sense, it is even difficult to watch. The more empathy you develop, the more you experience the suffering the subjects are going through. There’s no narrative arc to provide a sense of redemption, and no superhero who comes in to save the day. Paris Stalingrad isn’t escapist entertainment you enjoy on a Saturday night with a bucket of popcorn. But if more of us faced and confronted the difficult realities by watching a film like this, we could be real-life heroes providing an escape route to those who desperately need it.
Paris Stalingrad screened at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.