November 13: Attack on Paris — Naudet brothers foreground personal stories of loss in Netflix documentary

Anupam Kant Verma

Aug 30, 2018 15:57:11 IST


In Shoah, his iconic nine-hour-long documentary account of The Holocaust, filmmaker Claude Lanzmann stubbornly decided to forgo any archival footage. Instead, he chose to rely on the survivors’ oral accounts of their time at Nazi camps. However, despite its length, and unconventional structure, Lanzmann’s film remains one of the finest achievements in filmmaking. It is a sobering account that foregrounds the people and their stories, thus revealing the humanity that was threatened, attacked yet managed to emerge triumphant from a dark period in history.

A still from November 13: Attack on Paris

A still from November 13: Attack on Paris. Image via Twitter/@litratonijuan

Jules and Gédéon Naudet’s three-hour account of the events that unfolded on the night of 13 November in Paris largely sticks to the same format. The Naudets put the camera in front of the hostages, the emergency response teams, police and the French President in an attempt to provide a chronological account of a dreadful night. Using a time code that helps the viewer keep track of the events, it pushes the narrative forward through the testimonies of these people. Chunks of footage are strewn in between, more often than not cellphone videos again captured by ordinary Parisians. The plan is simple: people first. Perhaps because it is the ordinary people who are targeted by terrorists in order to wreak havoc.

The film begins with accounts of the attacks outside the Stade de France that was hosting a friendly football match. Bombs go off and shooting rends the air of the Parisian streets. The story of the proprietor of Le Belle Equipe, a bar, is particularly heart-wrenching. He lost his wife in the attacks. No archival footage can possibly replace the images of him reading out his account of the night from his little journal.

There is no fathoming the courage it must take to surmount such grief and relive the night in front of the camera. That becomes clearer once we move to the Bataclan, where hundreds of people attending a metal concert were targeted by the terrorists. Multiple accounts intertwine in the most highlighted and terrifying portion of the attacks. The survivors’ faces, as they speak, can by themselves count amongst the most eloquent images of the attacks. It is a mapping of fear, grief, hopelessness and eventual relief. One of the survivors points out how she often wishes she could remove those images from her head for a while. But that she would never agree, if such an opportunity ever presented itself, to have these images permanently removed. They are a testament to the courage, humanity and resilience of people in the darkest of times.

November 13: Attack on Paris is full of moments where these seemingly ordinary people summoned extraordinary strength, both mental and physical, to push back against the gathering darkness. While it seldom dwells on the politics that led to the attacks in the first place, it may be argued that it never set out to do so in the first place. This is simply a bunch of people reacting to something massive that threatened to tear their lives apart. The documentary could have been considerably shorter. But then again, it could have ended up being a less than substantial account of the night in doing so.

At its current runtime and its stubborn resilience to forgo footage, it can appear long. But its narrative is kept afloat by the sheer volume of stories that emerged from the night. That, and their poignance. These are people we are listening to. Sometimes, you can even find yourselves forgetting that they belong to a particular city far, far away from yours. In that lies the great triumph of the Naudets. There is no unnecessary manipulation of narrative to create emotion. Cinema relies heavily on the seemingly magical tricks of editing to conjure an emotional response in the viewer. The Naudets try their hardest to remain as objective as possible while using the most basic tool of the cinematic art.

We come out of November 13 without having been witness to any mudslinging or ravenous anger. The passage of time has given the survivors opportunity to reflect and come to terms with the night in their own separate ways. By the time the text dedicating the film to the people who bore the brunt of the attacks appears on the screen, we become aware of the toll hate can take on the world. But, as Valerie, one of the survivors, says while fighting tears and with with great belief, “In the end, love will always win, and it must stay that way.”

Updated Date: Aug 30, 2018 15:57:11 IST