Les Misérables: The French Banlieues in American Theaters

The first feature-length movie by Ladj Ly, out in U.S. theaters on Friday, sounds the alarm on the explosive situation in the French projects and could represent France at the Oscars.
© Rodrigue Huart

The film follows a dramatic day in the life of three police officers patrolling Montfermeil (Seine-Saint-Denis) near Paris, where the 39-year-old director was born and still lives. In the movie, an act of police violence filmed by a local child sparks outrage. Released fifteen years after the 2005 riots in France, Les Misérables had a major impact in France and garnered generally positive reviews. It also won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year and Amazon has already acquired the rights to the film in the U.S.

France-Amérique: Les Misérables is a reference to Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. Why?

Ladj Ly: I had the title in mind for a long time. It just so happens that part of Les Misérables takes place in Montfermeil [Jean Valjean hides in this “peaceful and charming place, which was not on the road to anywhere”]. Poverty still hangs over the town. Parallels can be drawn between Gavroche in the novel and Issa in the movie. It’s a nod to Hugo.

The movie is rooted in a French social reality. How do you expect American audiences to react?

This is a patriotic movie that shows an image of a new, multicultural France. It is realistic, as everything is inspired by true events. Above all, I wanted to offer a perspective of the situation in these neighborhoods. The media and politicians talk about them at length, but few people know what it is like. The movie has been screened some 20 times abroad. People identify with the story, the social poverty, the police violence, and the theme of childhood. I wanted to be as fair and unbiased as possible.

Cop movies are a popular genre in U.S. television and cinema. Did they influence you?

I don’t watch television. Spike Lee [a director specialized in African-American history and culture] is of course a reference. He saw the movie three times and loved it. We gave a masterclass together at New York University, and he is supporting us for the Oscars. The two movies that inspired me the most before writing the screenplay were Training Day by Antoine Fuqua (2001) and Detroit by Kathryn Bigelow (2017), particularly the claustrophobic scene in the motel with the police and the group of young people.

JR, Braquage, Ladj Ly, Les Bosquets, Montfermeil, 2004 © JR

You appear in the film in a wall photograph by JR, your camera pointed at a police check. What is the meaning behind this cameo?

I bought my first camera when I was 17, and I haven’t stopped filming this area since. I spent ten years cop watching [the filming of police interventions to document any misconduct or brutality]. I started before I even knew that it was a phenomenon. JR’s photo is a good representation of me, holding my camera like a weapon trained on the kids being brutalized by the police. It is also a surveillance camera, used to bear witness. Buzz’s character, who films everything with his drone, is played by my son Al-Hassan Ly. It made sense to make the movie with him.

Why did you open the Kourtrajmé short film school in Montfermeil?

There was something missing in French cinema, and the industry is hard to get into. We wanted to give this new generation a chance, helping them learn the ropes and produce their own films. The school is free and open to everyone over 18, with no qualifications required. We help them with their personal projects and organize masterclasses. Some 30 young people were trained in the first year, and 50 in the second. Some of them have gone on to film a series in Senegal and two others are making a documentary. We have already directed five short films and are developing two feature-length movies. This is what I have always done, and I’m still doing it. I’m not into politics, I’m still an artist. Les Misérables struck a chord with many political leaders, even the French president [according to Le Journal du Dimanche, Emmanuel Macron said he was “moved by the pertinence” of the movie]. I am pleased the message has been heard, but now we need actions.

Interview published in the January 2020 issue of France-Amérique.