Rita Banerjee and David Shields are currently in post-production for their documentary Burning Down the Louvre (2022), a film about race, intimacy, and tribalism in the United States and in France. Read more about the film below:
Shortly before the November 2015 terrorist attacks, David Shields, who is Jewish, and Rita Banerjee, who is Bengali, come to Paris to try to understand the current American racial cataclysm from a French perspective (as so many African-American artists and intellectuals have done for at least a century). But in the city of liberté, egalité, fraternité, Shields and Banerjee discuss skin color, class, gender, privilege, and art, and discover that they disagree about everything. They can’t seem to advance the conversation.
Profoundly antagonistic toward each other, they turn their focus to Barbès, a neighborhood in the northern quadrant of Paris populated mainly by Africans and Muslims. Wandering the streets, David and Rita interview locals, seeking insight. Instead they hear mainly received wisdom: “Nothing changes; we evolve a bit and we fall a bit,” says one young man, in a fit of anger and resignation. “I am not a victim of racism, no,” says a woman wearing a leopard-print shirt and pushing a stroller; “everyone has treated me well in France, whether white or black or red or yellow.” There’s hypocrisy in France, but racism in the U.S. is more “barbaric,” says a middle-aged man, his head shaved smooth and shiny, a silver necklace shiny at his throat. A few weeks later come the Paris bombings, and it’s impossible to deny that even in France, a safe haven of sorts for African-Americans since the Louisiana Purchase, there is something profoundly wrong. We human beings do not seem to know how to coexist.
After filming in Paris, David and Rita weave archival material into the fabric of the story: Foucault and Chomsky arguing (because they seem like archetypes of David and Rita); Yuval Noah Harari defending his controversial theory of race based on genetic coding; scenes from Indian art house film; and installments of an interview with political theorist Hannah Arendt. “I love only my friends, and I’m incapable of any other kind of love,” says Arendt, a German Jew who lived through the Second World War and distrusted groups and collectives of any kind (she had a life-long correspondence and relationship with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, an unapologetic active member of the Nazi party).
It is Arendt’s philosophy of intimacy and friendship that this movie celebrates and catalyzes around: Back in the States, David and Rita seek the counsel of renowned documentary filmmaker Guy Maddin about their rough cut, now entitled Burning Down the Louvre (Apollinaire: “The only way for French art to move forward is for us to first burn down the Louvre”), but Maddin believes that the film’s real subject is David and Rita’s thwarted “romance.” At the end of the film, David and Rita finally connect; it’s not sexual, but it is curiosity-filled, empathy-filled, love-filled. That is what the film is driving toward—this insight—the scariness of two people actually connecting. Rita and David learn that the space between any two people is the source of all hate and all love.