By Monica Delgado

As part of the special screenings, the documentary Songs of the Living (Les Chant des vivant, 2021) by French director Cécile Allegra was seen in the inaugural and online setting of the 52nd edition of the Swiss festival Visions du Réel. This new work adheres to the interests expressed by the filmmaker in her previous documentaries, insofar as it addresses social issues with a clear political and commitment component. These previous works are follow-ups or inquiries that possibly cover a particular territory, and that address vulnerable or socially and politically disadvantaged characters: the trauma after the earthquake in Haiti, child survivors of torture camps in Sinai in Egypt or sexual violence in the Libyan war. In this recent film, her gaze stops on a group of African migrants who live in a shelter run by a church in the town of Conques, in France.

Allegra’s bet here is linked to the folk or blues compositions of Mathias Duplessy, a French musician, since the testimonies or situations experienced by this group of surviving Africans are accompanied by musical scenes, like video clips, of songs that they themselves characters write from their feelings, memories and experiences. The vision that Allegra offers is given from the climate or quality of the bonding of the migrants in this community that welcomes them, in the processes that accompany this warm and empathetic stay, directed by a group of therapists, musicians, artists, who thanks to the Support from a church or parish, and its priests, help heal the traces of the trauma of violent migration, expulsion and war experienced especially in Libya. Rehearsals, workshops, lunches, after-meals, phone calls, friendly walks in the woods and heartfelt conversations with a psychologist are interspersed with moments in which the characters reveal themselves through songs composed by Duplessy, who also appears on stage. Thus, the film would seem to do justice to so much ignominy, and at the same time denounce these extreme situations of inequality and violence. However, it is inevitable that some questions arise, especially due to the treatment that is made of the figure of the characters, or what they (re) present.

Although good intentions emerge in the approach and approach to this community of migrants, displaced and excluded, there are narrative sub-layers that allow me to talk about this type of experiences where the characters (this human group) are objectified, and they become a matter of observation or auscultation rather than subjects of a reality. Allegra chooses a marked territorial and geopolitical perspective, that of a fierce, cruel and extreme Africa, that of the prisons of Tripoli, that of the voracious deserts of Libya, that of civil wars and human trafficking, but where there is no self-criticism European migration and racist policies, which are almost out of the question. It is as if this arcade of healing supplies any possibility of colonial criticism. It seems that the evil is Africa and it is urgent to generate conditions for salvation, it is urgent that there are sensitive and conscious shelters, perhaps that is the main demand. And this space where hippie songs, curative performances and choreographies, empathetic listening come together, comes hand in hand with faith in the other, love of neighbor and redemption and the possibility of freedom.

In Songs of the Living, there are no protagonists, since Allegra chooses to show a panorama from the voices of the migrants and from their possibilities of insertion, however, each character would reach a personal and intimate catharsis or curative process when she manages to sing the song that corresponds to it, recorded in the studio and recreated as a video clip, as is the formulaic and compositional formula of musicals. This element of the musical generates a quota of reverie or escapism (or reflection also in this case), which perhaps is not found in reality (in the European subject who films, composes and chooses), seasoned with the usual and hackneyed poetics of the arts as transforming keys.

There is a sequence in which we see all Africans go out for a ride in a minivan and sing a kind of communal hymn of freedom, in the middle of the road of curves and forests. The empowered voices announce at least a little joy, after the previous songs that rather reveal darkness, sadness, uprooting and loneliness. The possibility that there is an opportunity, a new beginning, appears, however the plane of the driver appears, white, blond and European, who drives the vehicle and takes them for a ride. It seems that in this way the absence of autonomy is affirmed, and that these processes must be led by others, so that they are happy and successful.