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January 4 2020
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French filmmaker Ladj Ly, whose Cannes Jury Prize–winning Les Misérables opens this month in the U.S.

It is a point of honor for the French filmmaker Ladj Ly to still be living in Les Bosquets, one of the most impoverished housing projects in the Paris suburbs. The neighborhood, which Ly refers to as a “ghetto,” was at the epicenter of the French riots that erupted in 2005 following the accidental deaths by electrocution of two teenagers. Les Bosquets is also the setting of Ly’s debut feature film, Les Misérables, which is the French entry for best international feature film at this year’s Academy Awards.

It is the first time a black French director has had a film nominated by France’s Oscar committee. Les Misérables will open in the U.S. on January 10, after being acquired by Amazon Studios at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize (tying with the Brazilian film Bacurau). The film’s title is a bold hat tip to Victor Hugo’s sweeping 1862 novel about social injustice in post-revolutionary France. “We all felt like Gavroches when we were growing up,” Ly told me in a recent interview.

In Ly’s film, a racist police officer points out to a new recruit that Gavroche, the street urchin in Hugo’s novel, came from Montfermeil, the northeastern Paris suburb where Les Bosquets is located. “Quite a lot of Hugo’s book is set in the place where I live and grew up,” Ly said. “I read it for the first time when I was very young, so it became part of my cultural baggage.” The 39-year-old director, who co-wrote the screenplay for Les Misérables, added that everything depicted in the film was based on real-life events he had witnessed or, indeed, often filmed.

It is the first time a black French director has had a film nominated by France’s Oscar committee.

The incident that inspired the film occurred in 2008, when Ly shot footage of a handcuffed young man being pistol-whipped by a pair of police officers in the hallway of his building. Over the next four years, Ly learned to “copwatch”—basically, filming the police whenever they ventured into his neighborhood. Thanks to his footage, the two policemen each got a four-month suspended jail sentence, and the young man who was beaten did not go to prison. “It was at that moment I realized the powerful impact images like this could have,” Ly said. “So I decided to make a movie that would give an idea of that.”

Ladj Ly (center) and the cast of Les Misérables at the Cannes Film Festival, May 2019.

In Les Misérables, this real-life episode gets a modern-day spin when a geeky young kid called Buzz (played by Ly’s son, Al-Hassan Ly) uses his drone to film a policeman shooting a delinquent in the face with a Flash-Ball. The ensuing scramble to get hold of the drone’s memory card drives much of the action in Ly’s movie. Les Misérables begins with footage that Ly shot of people spilling out of bars into the streets of Paris to celebrate France’s victory in the 2018 soccer World Cup. It then switches to a new cop’s first day at work in Les Bosquets, as he is shown the ropes by his two more experienced and cynical colleagues. There are shades of Antoine Fuqua’s Hollywood movie Training Day, but Ly’s style of filming is less glossy and more akin to cinéma vérité.

Ly learned his craft making documentaries, notably 365 Days in Clichy Montfermeil, which he shot during the 2005 riots. As a teenager, he helped to found a collective of young French filmmakers known as Kourtrajmé, which included the directors Kim Chapiron and Romain Gavras (son of Costa-Gavras), and, later on, the photographer and director JR. “Compared to them, I was an unidentified flying object,” Ly said. “When you come from the bottom of the social ladder, you have to fight twice as hard as everyone else. What kept me going was focusing on the work. I saw that by working hard you can eventually succeed.”

Shades of Antoine Fuqua’s Hollywood movie Training Day.

Ly began to develop Les Misérables after he was approached by two independent French producers who admired his documentary work. Toufik Ayadi and Christophe Barral asked him if he’d be interested in making a short film. “Something we thought was strange was that Ly had been part of Kourtrajmé for something like 20 years, but his career had remained under the radar, unlike the other members,” Barral said. “I think they had better connections within the French film industry than Ly did.”

Ly’s short film won several awards, yet when he applied for financial support from France’s state-run National Center for Cinema (C.N.C.) to make a feature-length version, he was turned down. “When we approached the C.N.C. with Les Misérables there was a breakdown in communication,” explained Barral. “We thought that our screenplay was very strong, but they didn’t seem to think so. I think they felt it was a bit gratuitous and too violent, but without taking into account Ly’s own story and his affinity for the material.”

Many of the scenes in Les Misérables were inspired by real confrontations that Ly had filmed as a “copwatcher.”

Twenty-five years earlier, another French film with a similar focus on the tinderbox situation in the Paris banlieues also fell foul of the C.N.C. Upon its release, in 1995, La Haine, which was directed by Mathieu Kassovitz in stark black-and-white, received critical acclaim both at home and abroad. Like Les Misérables, it was mostly funded by the leading French pay-per-view channel Canal Plus, after the C.N.C. rejected its screenplay because Kassovitz refused to re-write dialogue they labeled implausible. Kassovitz has said that his inspiration for La Haine was a real-life incident of police brutality that occurred in 1993, when a young African man, Makome M’Bowole, was shot dead at point-blank range after being handcuffed by French police.

Ly says that he was 10 years old when he was first stopped and searched by police—something that has happened to him many times since. Yet he insists that his film is “neither pro-criminal, nor pro-cops.” What it is, though, is an indictment of successive generations of French politicians who have washed their hands of improving the infrastructure of the banlieues. At the end of his film, Ly quotes Hugo’s famous line in Les Misérables: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”

An indictment of successive generations of French politicians.

Ly’s film has picked up some notable American fans, including Michael Mann and Spike Lee, who presented it to his class at New York University. Ly particularly noticed the reaction of Lee’s students. “When they think of France, they think of a country that is a symbol of human rights, the Champs-Élysées, good wine and cheese,” he said. “They are shocked to see that there are ghettos in France and people who have been abandoned by the state. The end of the film is a reference to Gavroche and other youngsters who rise up and take to the barricades in Les Misérables. They are revolting against all the different forms of authority that have been put in place to stifle them.”

Ly’s intention for Les Misérables is that it is the first part of a trilogy of films about the banlieues. The second part, which he plans to start shooting next year, will be a biopic about the former Socialist mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, Claude Dilain, which will be set in 2005. The third part will be set during the 1990s. Taken together, each part will look at what’s happened in the Parisian banlieues over the last 30 years. The most notable difference between La Haine and Les Misérables is that, unlike the former, the latter was actually made by someone who comes from the banlieues and still resides there. It’s a trend that Ly hopes will grow.

“I think it’s important because there’s long been a tendency for others to tell our stories for us,” he said. “It’s about time we tell our own stories. That way they will be authentic and avoid the clichés that we hear time and again about the banlieues.”

Tobias Grey is a writer and book critic based in Gloucestershire

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