The consulting service is located in the Avicenne Hospital in Bobigny. It’s an outpost that seems abandoned at the end of a corridor. A large, dingy, run-down room where sick men show up, bearing physical scars, and whose pain seems closely linked to the suffering of exile. They keep coming back here because they still harbor hopes that this place will give them the means to stay afloat, to survive the turmoil of their lives hitting rock bottom.
- The Institut français/Louis Marcorelles Award - Cinéma Du Réel
- Alice Diop
- Alice Diop
- Amrita David
I discovered the duty health care service at the Avicenne Hospital, known as the PASS, quite by chance. I was working on a film about healthcare for the destitute, and this free health service was a necessary stop as part of my investigation. I was supposed to spend a few hours there. I ended up spending several months. At the invitation of Dr Geeraert, I attended the general medical consultations he and psychiatrist Dr Vaysse held for immigrants without official papers. On the first day, a man came in and sat down opposite us. I remember his name, Mohammed Sawkat, just as I remember all of those whom we subsequently met. He was a young Pakistani who had been in France for one month. He had a face I will never forget, eyes which glowed with an incandescent flame. If poverty, fear and anguish had a face, they would look like Mohammed Sawkat did on that day. He’d come to see the doctor because he’d been having such strong heart palpitations that they left him collapsed on the floor. He kept repeating that he was going to die. He was convinced he had a serious heart problem. In the course of the consultation, we gradually pieced together his story. He’d been living alone on the streets since he arrived in France. He’d left Pakistan shortly after his father was murdered in front of his eyes. His mother had mortgaged the family home to get together the money for him to flee to Europe. He was an only child. He didn’t know anyone in Paris, and before this, had no doubt never gone hungry or thirsty. Now he had to look after himself. He wasn’t crying, but he seemed to be almost hallucinating with anxiety. After listening to him in a religious silence, the doctor tried to explain to him that his palpitations were probably due to anxiety, and that sadly, there was nothing to be done. He just had to wait. I refrained from asking, “Wait for what?” Once he realized that they couldn’t do anything much for him here either, he started to cry. He pleaded with the doctor to come to his aid, then he turned to me with his piercing eyes. I felt that he was imploring me, too. He kept saying that he was going to die. After a long pause, Dr Geeraert stood up, delicately placed a hand on his back and handed him a pack of Xanax, before showing him out. He asked him to come back next week. The doctor closed the door. I remember the deathly silence between us. I ventured to say, “It’s crazy, but I feel like I saw death on that man’s face.” To which Dr Geeraert replied: “You’re right. I’m not sure that that young man will make it through the winter.” Then another man came in, followed by another, then another, and another. For weeks, I couldn’t forget the expression on Mohammed Sawkat’s face. I was overwhelmed by this man’s anxiety. It was as if I recognized something about the vulnerabaility of a man facing the abyss, humanity in its naked reality. I felt the need to return to the PASS. I saw Mohammed Sawkat many more times. He had survived. He had made it through the winter; Dr Geeraert was no stranger to this kind of victory. I then knew that I had to make a film about this place.
No land is without history or histories. I want to capture moments of everyday life and avoid seeking out one special character or special event.
Alice Diop was born in 1979 in Aulnay-sous-Bois, France to Senegalese parents. She studied at the Fémis and works as a documentary filmmaker. In 2011, she was awarded at Cinéma du Réel for her feature LA MORT DE DANTON (2011). She returned to the festival with ON CALL (2016), which won the Institut Français-Louis Marcorelles Award. Her latest film WE (2021) premiered at Berlinale Encounters, winning the Best Film award.