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De-essentializing the Banlieues, reframing the nation: documentary cinema in France in the late 1990s

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This article considers the part played by recent documentary cinema in France in constructing an integrated rather than a fragmented image of the French nation. Suggesting that this may be part of an international trend in documentary-making, it starts from the observation that dominant media discourse in France, along with the critically acclaimed fiction film movement of the cinma de banlieue, has perpetuated an image of these cits peripheral to many French cities as threatening spaces adrift of the national community and emblematic of France's postmodern crisis of identity. Focusing on three documentaries about La Courneuve, a typically pilloried cit to the northeast of Paris, it argues that the ordinariness of the lives they convey, along with the documentarists' emphasis on the continuing penetration of cit space by State institutions and processes, and their insertion of supposedly alien spaces into a continuous narrative of memory and culture, effectively treats geography, history and culture in a way that calls into question the externalizing dominant discourse. Although limited by their lack of appeal to a mass audience that prefers the violence and spectacle of narrative cinema complicit with dominant representations of the banlieues as violent, dangerous spaces, these documentaries and French documentary cinema of the late 1990s in general offer images that de-essentialize the banlieue myth and challenge the image of a French nation in continuous crisis.

Keywords: Banlieues; France; documentary; exclusion; nation; representation

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Birmingham.

Publication date: 2008-09-22

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  • The journal aims to provide a platform for the study of new forms of cinematic practice and fresh approaches to cinemas hitherto neglected in western scholarship. It particularly welcomes scholarship that does not take existing paradigms and theoretical conceptualisations as given; rather, it anticipates submissions that are refreshing in approach and exhibit a willingness to tackle cinematic practices that are still in the process of development into something new.
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