A Movie Torn From the Pages of His Life
PARIS — From barren territory on the outskirts of Paris, Ladj Ly hit movie theaters last month with an urgent message: Multicultural France is here, it is real and it is not in good shape.
The message comes directly from his own experience. Mr. Ly, 39, the son of a garbage collector from Mali, has put his whole life into a sharp-edged film that depicts the harshness of the French capital’s immigrant suburbs — the banlieues — that has won applause from French film critics of all political stripes, made President Emmanuel Macron sit up and take notice, garnered Mr. Ly a top prize at Cannes and is France’s candidate for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.
What sets apart Mr. Ly’s film, “Les Misérables,” is its intimacy. He is part of this ill-understood world, grew up in it and still lives there. Authentic films about the banlieues are rare in France. The last major one, Mathieu Kassovitz’s “La Haine” (Hatred”), in 1995, was made by an outsider.
Mr. Ly’s film is different.
Before becoming a professional filmmaker, Mr. Ly was the child with the video camera in his pocket, filming rough police “interventions,” partly to protect the banlieues’ inhabitants and often suffering the consequences.
“I was inspired by my own history,” he said in an interview. “Everything in the film comes from my life, from beginning to end.”
“It’s a sort of autobiography, and a witnessing,” he added. “I tried to make a film that resembles us. To live in these towers — it’s violent, it’s degrading.”
“You can only be in revolt,” Mr. Ly said, using the French word — révolté — that since Camus has come to mean a permanent state of insubordination against one’s surroundings.
In “Les Misérables,” he brings the Paris suburbs crashing into the viewer’s head, using some traditional narrative techniques — the rookie cop’s initiation, the police chase, the buddy-movie, the long crescendo of violence.
But these are only vehicles to help project the thought that drives Mr. Ly’s vision, along with his use of neighborhood residents in supporting roles.
The thought: Everybody in this grim world of fraying housing blocks — surly cops, troubled children and bewildered parents — is in trouble. It is a universe of dilapidated stairwells, cramped apartments and barren concrete plazas, and all are in the misère, as the French would say. Hence the film’s title, which is a nod to Victor Hugo, who wrote his famous novel of the same name in the foreboding suburb where the film is set, Montfermeil.
Mr. Ly’s childhood there was hardly cosseted, he said, but it was not unhappy. And his family was close-knit. “My father’s job was tough, but he was able to earn a good living,” he said. “We didn’t even realize that the neighborhood was dangerous.”
Yet the harshness intruded. The film’s fiery final scenes, in which the police are ambushed in a stairwell, comes directly from his experience. “I lived that ambush,” he said. “It was horribly intense.”
Early on, at around 14, chance contact with the son of the director Costa-Gavras inspired a filmmaking ambition in Mr. Ly. At school, like so many children of the banlieues, he was destined for a mechanical vocation, as an electrical technician.
That held zero interest. At 17, he bought his first video camera and began making short films with his friends. The partnership survives as a free film school largely under Mr. Ly’s direction called Kourtrajmé, from the name of the original collective.
The reality of where he lived, the tough projects called Les Bosquets (The Groves), quickly converged with his budding passion. “I filmed what was around me,” he said.
It was with the camera that he gained his identity in the neighborhood. “I started filming the police in 2002-3,” Mr. Ly said. “I was the only one with a camera. As soon as the cops arrived and things began to heat up, they would call me,” he said of the young people in the neighborhood.
Everyone knew him. “His camera is his weapon,” said Jean-Riad Kechaou, a teacher in the district who wrote a book about Les Bosquets.
He has known Mr. Ly for nearly 20 years, and in his book calls him “the symbol of the neighborhood.”
“He’s always denounced the injustices the residents were subjected to,” Mr. Kechaou said. “It would be, ‘Ladj Ly is here. We’ve got to stop.’ He scared the police. He had the power to expose their ‘interventions.’ He was the precursor, before smartphones.”
“I became super-powerful,” Mr. Ly said, laughing. “I would never stop. I knew I had a redoubtable weapon.”
He added: “It was unconscionable what they would do. They were the only whites we saw, and they treated us like monkeys.”
In 2005, he filmed riots that shook France, eventually making a movie about them that was too tough for French television. In 2008, he filmed an act of police brutality that was picked up by the television stations and briefly made him famous.
A bundle of nervous energy, he barely sat still during an interview. Startled critics in France have noted the intensity — an unusual quality in the tame, static world of well-behaved contemporary French cinema — that pulses through his work. His camera is nervous, jumping tautly from scene to scene.
“Les Misérables” has struck a chord in France, inside and outside the projects. “It’s overwhelming,” said Mr. Kechaou, the teacher. “It gives the authentic picture of the banlieues that we are not used to seeing.”
The film’s title hints at the sympathy and ambiguity that Mr. Ly projects on all of its characters, including the most repugnant.
The racist police officer, Chris, is a nervous wreck with a dysfunctional family life. The immigrant youth with the angelic face, Issa — the victim at the center of the story, and Mr. Ly’s version of the child hero Gavroche in the Hugo novel — has demonic reserves of violence. The police officer who brutalizes him in the film’s central incident is a Franco-African, Gwada, at the edge of a breakdown. And the understated hero, Pento — a reference to an old French hair gel and synonymous with “Greaser” — is a confused white police officer who tries to do the right thing in a mean world, without immediately understanding what he is seeing.
“I wouldn’t say I was sympathetic — I would just say fair,” Mr. Ly said of the film’s antiheroes, particularly Chris, the racist officer. “Everyone’s had to deal with him.”
The film proceeds as a series of tense confrontations, all overhung by an atmosphere of menace: between the police and young people, between the police and the local Muslim Brothers, between the police and community advocates, and among the officers themselves.
Mr. Ly captures the tension of these encounters with exactitude, because he knows them intimately. “I can’t count the number of times I was taken into custody,” he said, laughing.
The police would come to his apartment block and fill the corridor with tear gas, just to make him angry, he said. Once they came “and broke everything,” he said. “And I filmed everything.”
He is not particularly hopeful about the future of integration in his country, though he says that incidents with the police are perhaps less frequent than they once were. “The young people today tell me, ‘The best moment of my life was 2005,’” when the riots broke out in immigrant suburbs throughout France.
Still, he insists that France “has changed,” whether the older inhabitants acknowledge it or not.
“When you look a little more closely, France is multicultural,” he said. That is why he made the central figure of his film, the boy Issa, of mixed race.
“It was important,” Mr. Ly said. “Because that is the France of today.”
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