Ladj Ly talks about his politically charged feature debut Les Misérables

Les Misérables is inspired by the Ladj Ly’s own experiences as the son of a Malian immigrant and inspired by 2005 Paris riots that erupted at the foot of the filmmaker’s building.It’s a film that’s at least 15 years in the making, with roots that stretch back to Ly’s activist teenage years.

Inspired by Ly’s short film of the same name, Les Misérables is a provocative insight into the tensions between neighborhood residents and police and probes the tensions between Paris’ anti-crime police and the poor Muslim population they torment and suppress — revisits the French suburb of Montfermeil in the present day, and finds that little has changed in the 150 years since Hugo first characterized the strife he saw through his bedroom window.

Ly grew up in the harshness of the banlieues, in a commune east of Paris, called Montfermeil.

Ly, who still lives there, said his Montfermeil isn’t all that different from Victor Hugo’s, whose 1862 novel is a source of inspiration. It remains grim, comprised of poor and disenfranchised people — primarily African immigrants — who often clash with the authorities. Ly said he hoped that volatile state would change, and has been chasing that goal with the best tool at his disposal: his camera.

The filmmaker set out to capture the realities of that world, in an effort to both counter incomplete narratives, and to inspire revolution. “The entire film is from my life, my history, so it’s like my autobiography,” he said. “Hugo’s time was a different era, but poverty and social misery remain in the area. I could have just taken the book and made it contemporary, but with my film, I wanted to portray how we live in these very policed ghettos today, and the consistent threats of violence we face.”

At the center of “Les Misérables” are three members of an anti-crime brigade who are overrun by youth while trying to make an arrest. When a drone captures the encounter, it threatens to expose the truths of everyday life in the community.

Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) has recently joined the Anti-Crime Squad in Montfermeil, in the suburbs of Paris, France, where, Victor Hugo set his famed novel “Les Miserables”. Alongside his new colleagues Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga) – both experienced members of the team – he quickly discovers tensions running high between local gangs. When the trio finds themselves overrun during the course of an arrest, a drone captures the encounter, threatening to expose the reality of everyday life.

As a teenager, Ly could always be found with a video camera, capturing life in his community. He gained a reputation as a burgeoning guerrilla journalist, and would be called on by locals at any signs of skirmishes with law enforcement, so that he could document anything that happened.

His first introduction to the idea that he could become a filmmaker was around the age of 15 when he had a chance encounter with Costa-Gavras’ son. Ly soon began making short films with his friends in a collective they called Kourtrajmé; the collective still exists today, as a free film school that Ly spearheads, training youth of Montfermeil to tell their own stories, as he has did with the short documentaries he made that prepared him to direct “Les Misérables.”

The film’s themes remain extremely relevant, especially in France today. Ly makes comparisons between the 2005 Montfermeil riots that inspired him, and the current “yellow vest” protests that have shaken France. Initially erupting in November 2018, the protests began over several grievances, including stagnating wages and economic inequality. They were meant to send a message to President Emmanuel Macron, whose government has been accused of ignoring the needs of everyday French citizens.

“Before all of this, we in the suburbs were the original ‘yellow vests’, even though maybe we haven’t received the same kind of international press, but we’ve been fighting for the same basic rights for more than 20 years,” he said.

Ly stressed that the film’s themes are not unique to France, acknowledging similar conditions around the world. “You will find this everywhere, not just in Paris, and it that sense, it’s a universal movie,” he said.

As the son of a Malian immigrant, he’s especially passionate about the ongoing African refugee crisis, which other young, contemporary French filmmakers of African descent — like fellow Cannes 2019 prize winner and Oscar hopeful Mati Diop (“Atlantics”) — have tackled in their work.

“You can’t complain about immigrants coming into your country without taking the time to really think about why they are so desperate, that some risk their lives,” Ly said. “When you investigate the history of colonialism, neo-colonialism, the looting of Africa’s natural resources, and Europe and the West’s responsibility, then you will begin to understand. I want to be optimistic about the future, but sadly, it would not surprise me if in another 15 years, some other filmmaker makes their own ‘Les Miserables’ because little would have changed.”

In a competitive year for French cinema, “Les Misérables” has been a standout. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes, where it received mostly rave reviews, and was selected as France’s Best International Feature Film Oscar submission — marking the first time that France has chosen a film by a black filmmaker to represent the country at the Academy Awards.

It even drew the attention of President Macron, who said he was “shaken by the accuracy” of Ly’s portrait, and called on his administration to find solutions and take action to improve living conditions in neighborhoods like Montfermeil.

For his part, while Ly might appear generally pessimistic about a harmonious multicultural future in France, he said he was hopeful that his film would resonate as a wakeup call for the country. “I left the ending of the film open, because I wanted it to inspire thought and conversation around the issues, and for people who see it to leave with the feeling that, yes, the rebellious sequence with the police is disturbing, and so now let’s talk about it and the environment that led to it,” he said. “Then maybe some real understanding can begin.”

Interview with Ladj Ly

Les Misérables is your first feature film, but you’ve been working in film for about 15 years. How did you get started?

When I was eight or nine years old, I was friends with Kim Chapiron (French screenwriter and director). During the holidays he’d come to the activity club in Montfermeil – that’s how we met. At the age of 15, he created a collective called Kourtrajmé, with directors Romain Gavras and Toumani Sangaré. I was 17 at the time, and it was the early days of digital, I bought my first camera and I’ve never stopped shooting since. I filmed everything. We learned everything as we went along. We were young and crazy. Today we might be a little less crazy, but you always have to keep a bit of madness. We don’t want to be stuck inside a box, which is unfortunately sometimes the case in the world of cinema.

You were inspired by the violent 2005 Paris riots, which involved youth of African descent, in a three-week uprising stoked by increased unemployment, poor housing conditions, and routine harassment at the hands of the police.

These areas where the jobless rate is very high were abandoned by the authorities decades ago, and nothing changes,” Ly said. “We talk of the left and the right political parties, but for the youth in my community, neither one speaks to them, which leads to frustration and desperation, and then revolt. They are the wretched, and so they must rebel against a system that continues to oppress and exploit them.

I believe in the power of cinema as a tool to inspire revolution to challenge the status quo, and bring real lasting change. Some people might be confused or uncomfortable by that sequence, but I hope that in their confusion, they will stop and think about why.

You’ve made web documentaries that drew a lot of attention, such as 365 Days in Clichy-Montfermeil and 365 Days in Mali. Can you describe these experiences?

I quickly gravitated to documentaries, with 365 Days in Clichy-Montfermeil, which was shot during the 2005 riots. The riots erupted, right at the bottom of my building, and since I was always filming, I had about 100 hours of rushes. I had offers from the media to buy my images as they were the only ones with an insider’s point of view. However, I decided not to sell anything and to make my own film. All our Kourtrajmé films were available for free on the Internet – we started doing that before YouTube or Dailymotion.
Some years later I made 365 Days in Mali based on the same principles. The papers were saying that Mali had become the most dangerous place on earth because of Al Qaïda and the so-called Islamic State, however I knew the country well and it just didn’t fit with the image conveyed by the media. I decided to go there and started filming haphazardly. I came home and proposed it to broadcasters, but none of them were prepared to show it as it was, so I put it on the Internet.

Then there came Go Fast Connection and A Voix Haute, co-directed with Stéphane de Freitas, which both received a lot of attention…

Go Fast is a docu-fiction made three years after the riots, where I broached the subject of the media’s treatment of the suburbs. A Voix Haute was initially an indie project that France Television eventually joined. They gave us complete freedom: we shot it and they liked it – so much so that they offered to release it in theatres. This film shows that there’s still hope in the suburbs, despite all the problems, that the people of these neighborhoods have talent and don’t always fit with the clichés they’re labelled with. This has always been my approach: to show the realities.

Les Misérables is your first classically produced feature film. Is it a culmination of all your experiences?

I’m not sure it’s a culmination. I hope it’s more a departure then an arrival. But it is true that in this film I talk a little about my life, my experiences and those of my relatives. Everything in it is based on actual events: the jubilation of the World Cup victory of course, the arrival of the new cop in the neighborhood, the drone, even the stolen lion and the gypsies. For five years I filmed everything that went on in my neighborhood, particularly the cops. The minute they’d turn up, I’d grab my camera and film them, until the day I filmed a real police blunder. I wanted to show the incredible diversity of these neighborhoods. I still live there: it’s my life and I love filming there. It’s my set!

You tend to view all the protagonists without preconceptions or judgements?

Of course, because reality is always complex. There is bad and good on both sides. I try to film each character without judgement. We operate in such a complex world that it’s difficult to make quick and definitive judgments. The neighborhoods are powder kegs, there are clans, and despite all this we all try to live together and to avoid everything spinning out of control. I show this in the film – the daily accommodations everyone makes to get by.

It seems everything happens against a backdrop of unemployment and poverty – the root of all the problems?

It’s easy to live with each other when you have money. When you don’t, it’s a lot more complicated: you need compromises, arrangements, little deals… it’s a matter of survival. For the cops too, they are in survival mode, things are tough for them too. Les Misérables is neither pro-lowlife nor pro-cops, I’ve tried to be as fair as possible. I was 10 years old when I was first stopped and searched by the police, which tells you how well I know cops, how long I’ve lived close by them. Most of these cops aren’t well-educated – they themselves live in difficult conditions, and in the same neighborhood.

Could we call Les Misérables a humanist, political film, in the sense that you don’t judge individuals but implicitly denounce a system in which everyone ends up being a victim, residents and cops alike?

That’s exactly it, and responsibility falls to the politicians. You could almost say things are going from bad to worse. Despite everything, we’ve all learned to live together in these neighborhoods – with 30 different nationalities living side to side.
Life in the suburbs is light years away from what the media shows you. How could the politicians ever be able to bring solve our problems when they don’t actually know us or how we live?

Another reality shown in the film, which contrasts with the usual clichés, is the depiction of ethnicities. Can you discuss?

Yes, because that is how things are. People from everywhere hanging out together. Between Chris – a white racist cop – and ‘The Mayor’ – a black neighborhood figure – things are also complex: they hate each other but have little “arrangements” because they need each other. The cops are often obliged to make compromises with the residents, or else it would be permanent war.

Your direction also goes against what’s expected – you avoid video-promo editing, the stereotypical hip-hop music. Was it important for you to let the narrative and the shots speak for themselves?

I wanted the first forty minutes of the film to be a calm immersion into the neighborhood. I wanted to bring the audience into my world first, before going into the action. It’s like you’re strolling along, familiarising yourselves with the characters and the fabric of the neighborhood. Indeed, the music is more electro than hip-hop. Even the way they speak, I wanted to avoid all the predictable suburb-film clichés.

The title refers to Victor Hugo, and the film begins with French flags during the night following the World Cup victory. Did you want to make a film not only about the suburbs, but about France too?

I’m French. At times we have been told that perhaps we weren’t French, but we’ve always felt French. I’m a little older than the characters of the film, and the 12th of July, 1998 marked me for life. I remember it to this day – I was 18 and it was magical!
Football managed to unite us: no more skin colour, no more social classes, we were simply French. We felt that again during the last World Cup, as if only football had the power to bring us together. It’s a pity there is no other bond for the people but at the same time, those are incredible moments to experience, and to film. The film starts with this, before shifting back to the bleaker reality of daily life, where each person lives their lives according to skin colour, religion, social class.