Chantal Briet’s superb “The General Store” is a quiet celebration of the quotidian, of the struggling Everyman and Everywoman living in Paris’ decayed suburban housing tracts. Exclusively focused n a humble grocery market run by generous shop owner Ali Zebboudj, doc is attuned to the vicissitudes of everyday life and the clear handiwork of someone as humane as Ali. This masterful onfiction, despite having won a few prizes, has flown under both the Gallic and global fest radar, but deserves greater fest and tube exposure.
Conceived more than seven years ago — and thus, far in advance of the civil disturbances that occurred in the city’s suburbs in 2005 — pic emerged out of a theater workshop devoted to the theme of utopia. Perhaps Briet’s most charming and irrefutable statement in “The General Store” is that utopia is all around us if we care to look and listen, and that it’s in local mom-and-pop markets where ideal orms of community arise and thrive.
The film’s only narrative arcfollows the locals’ ongoing effort to improve the area where Ali’s store and others like it are located, servicing the needy esidents of the Epinay-sur-Seine housing project. The effort leads to a full demolition of the building complex that houses the store and the opening of the new store, revealed in pic’s final minutes. Yt, true to Briet’s disinterest in the conventional story-oriented documaking that has been the rage of late, pic passes over the actual chronology of events, conveying a mood of gradual change rather han dates, names and places.
Opening newsreel prologue from the late 1950s presents the new suburban projects (some of them memorably captured 10 years later in Godard’s “Two or Three Things I Know About Her”) as a beaming city of the future. This former utopia has since become a decayed shell of its former self, but Briet’s attachment to Ali and the store unobtruively observes a little island of sanity, peace, wit, humor and song amid the high-rise slums.Elderly Jeanine chats with Bertho, making a sausage sandwich. Jamaa Hemmou, Ali’s assistant, talks about his threadbare life in between deliveries to customers in the adjacent towers. Ali opeates like a jovial host to his ever-shifting clientele, later receivingsome unlikely services himself: a massage and some singing lessons. (His voice is heard on the soundtrack along with Martin Wheele’s interesting score.)
Briet chose to film the store in the morningand early afternoon, avoiding the more dangerous evening hours. This possibly conveys a slightly cheerier view of the place than the actual reality — the area’s thriving drug trade is never onscree — but it also demonstrates the possibilities inherent in bringing residents together to share each other’s lives. This general store is much like the traditional barber shop in African-American communities: a peaceful respite from the meaner streets, where folks can swap stories and opinions.
Brief inserts of non-doc footage (such as a male chorus singing in four-part harmony, with Ali in the background) never intrude on pic’s gentle capturing of a few years in the life of Epinay. Lensing (in Betacam SP vid) by Sophie Bachelier, Sylvia Calle and Briet is consistently clean and unfussy, with Briet managing to make the camera seem nearly invisible.