'Les Misérables': A stark warning from Paris' angry suburbs

'Les Misérables': A stark warning from Paris' angry suburbs
Comment: The simmering tension in Ladj Ly's new film 'Les Misérables' perfectly captures the powder keg atmosphere on the streets of a Paris suburb, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
17 Jan, 2020
'In the banlieues, we've been 'gilets jaunes' for 20 years', says director Ladj Ly [Getty]
Since its release in France, Ladj Ly's film Les Misérables (2019), has captured the attention of cinephiles around the world and, having already won the Jury Prize at Cannes, has now also secured an Academy Award nomination for best international film.

The film is also making waves at the Elysée. Macron is reported to have been "so moved" by the movie - the first in a trilogy - that he called on his ministers to rapidly develop ideas to address the realities it depicts.

Perhaps more likely, is that it terrified the president to be reminded, with such precision, of the powder keg on which the Republic's cities sit. 

Malian-French director Ly's cinematic debut aptly borrows the title of Victor Hugo's famous novel and, in many ways, continues to tell the same tale of poverty, inequality, injustice and revolt, despite the book and the film being separated by over a century. France was on the brink of revolution then, the film asks us to consider what of it today? 

Set in the Montfermeil district of Paris - an area which also features in Hugo's 1862 novel - the film follows three police officers on duty in the neighbourhood for 24 hours.

While it initially feels like a relatively uneventful ride for the audience, the tension between the characters, and the feeling that something is about to happen, is difficult to shake as we are driven further into the lives of those living in the banlieue.

As officers Gwada (Djibril Zonga) and Chris (Alexis Manenti) show newly transferred Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) the ropes, we witness their fake pleasantries with some locals, and the attempts the trio makes to assert power over particular characters within the community, such as "The Mayor" (Steve Tientcheu), who seems to also serve as an informant for them. The officers also often find themselves in violent interactions with children in the neighbourhood. 

Everything could blow, everywhere, all the time. The question is when, and from whom the spark will come

Twenty-five years since the release of Mathieu Kassovitz' 'La Haine' (1995), a black and white epic which leads the viewer through the life of three young men in the Parisian ghetto in the aftermath of the 1995 riots, some have described Ly's movie as its sequel, because of the film's setting and the issues it touches on.

Both portray riots that took place in response to police brutality, and both films explore the continued repression of poor, black, Arab and migrant communities. It is understandable that given the huge international success of 'La Haine', that any film which attempts to explore the complex political reality of the banlieues, will be measured against it.

However, as Ly states in response to the question about the similarities, 'Les Misérables' talks of the state of France a quarter of a century on. Riots, racism and repression are of course still a reality for the poor and racialised in France, but much has happened politically, as well as with the movement of communities both physically and socio-economically.

The aftermath of the 2005 riots which followed the death of two children of African descent being chased by the police in the suburbs of Paris (Clichy-sous-Bois), continues to haunt the adults of the banlieues. In the film, the memory serves as a tool to quell unrest, as officers remind residents that the consequences of the last uprisings meant destruction and repression of the suburbs. The striking generational divide in the film shows us a new generation that holds no fear, just the daily reality of inequality, injustice and repression. 

Ladj Ly also delves into an area which was largely overlooked in 'La Haine' - Islam. The role of Islam and the so called "Muslim brotherhood" in the neighbourhood is portrayed as offering a semblance of order in the community. Through their successful anti-drugs activities for example - though it is never fully clear whether their power and influence is one which is imposed, or given by the people. 

Ly explores the fine line between respect and fear through the now religious conservative, former bad-boy, Salah (Almamy Kanouté) who is considered one of the most important local actors in the neighbourhood, and the least collaborative with the police.

Brilliantly, none of Salah's scenes take place in the expected local mosque, religious building or even on the streets; they are all shot in a kebab shop which also ends up representing the only refuge from violence, police repression, and corruption in the cité.

Brilliantly, none of Salah's scenes take place in the expected local mosque; they are all shot in a kebab shop

In many ways, there are few heroes in this film, but certainly many victims. The children, as always hold the future in their hands but are constantly trodden on and betrayed by all of the 'authorities'.

From the state-enforced police officers to the self-appointed "mayor", his orange vest wearing volunteer informants, and the opportunistic local gangs, they all play a role in the children's dire and depressing environment.

Centred around a police patrol, the film's structure also serves as an inspired way to centre the role of the state in imposing, controlling, and organising this entire system of violence.

Not once is the state asked to intervene at points of violent escalation by the community - often because it is involved in causing them.

The police are in fact filmed by a drone in a confrontation with a group of children, and all their energy is put into discarding the footage for fear that it will lead to a local uprisings, which - they keep repeating - could easily spill over to the rest of the country.

Read more: In 2020, Muslims in Boris' Britain have an important choice to make

The build-up to whether the officers are able to suppress the evidence for their actions or not, and the non-stop tension captures perfectly the feeling that those facing the brunt of the state's violence are ready to unleash their anger at any point. Everything could blow, everywhere, all the time. The question is when, and from whom the spark will come. 

'Les Misérables' is a warning, the director makes that clear. Ly warns the French government, state forces, and those in bed with power seeking a seat at the table or profit over their community's liberation, that tensions are only getting worse because of the hardship and violence faced by poor, migrant and Global South communities. 

Ly poignantly states in an interview "In the banlieues, we've been the gilets jaunes for 20 years; we have been fighting for our rights for 20 years; we have endured police violence for twenty years".

And it is difficult not to see the director's own warning to the system as a whole, in Salah's words to the police: whatever you do, "you won't avoid their rage".

The UK release of 'Les Misérables' is expected on 24 April, and is in US cinemas now. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.