Ladj Ly on Les Misérables: “Film is a tool. It changes things.”

An explosive tale of police brutality and racial tensions on the margins of French society, Ladj Ly’s gripping Les Misérables revisits life in the Parisian banlieues 25 years after La Haine. Here he talks to Elena Lazic about fighting to create a space for filmmaking outside the country’s often insular mainstream channels.

1 September 2020

By Elena Lazic

Sight and Sound
Les Misérables director Ladj Ly
© Thomas Laisné/Contour/Getty Images

▶︎ Les Misérables is in UK cinemas from 4 September 2020

Early in director Ladj Ly’s feature debut Les Misérables, a drone takes flight, and we look down from its vantage point as it soars above the tough Parisian banlieue of Les Bosquets in Montfermeil. Although it lies only a little over 10 miles north-east of the centre of Paris, life in Montfermeil is a world away, and the shot gives us a bird’s-eye view of a part of Paris which most of us only know from watching the news.

Montfermeil, which was also the location of the inn run by the villainous Thénardiers in the epic 1862 Victor Hugo novel that gave Ly’s film its title, can seem peaceful from such a distance, its troubles at a safe remove, but Ly’s film will also plunge us down to street level, into the tinderbox of tensions that exist among its residents – and from them towards the police. Set over two fraught days, the film offers an insider’s view of such tensions – which Ly himself witnessed growing up in Montfermeil, most devastatingly in 2005, when riots followed an instance of police brutality that led to the deaths of two teenagers – events that in part inspired Les Misérables.

The drone, we soon discover, is piloted by a quiet teenager named Buzz (played by the director’s own son Al-Hassan Ly), who uses it to observe life on the streets in his neighbourhood. But when his remote-controlled camera unwittingly captures the assault of a young boy named Issa (Issa Perica) by a trio of gendarmes led by hot-headed Chris (Alexis Manenti), the drone becomes crucial to the film’s narrative. The gendarmes have been chasing Issa because he has stolen a lion cub from a man named Zorro (Raymond Lopez), who runs a local circus, an act which has fuelled tensions and suspicions between different ethnic groups in the area. Once they learn that Buzz has captured the incident on film, the gendarmes frantically try to retrieve the footage so they can wipe the record.

Les Misérables (2019)

The drone shot that is so central to Les Misérables is also a knowing homage to a famous sequence in the film to which every other banlieue-set movie is inevitably compared: Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995). In that landmark film, made years before drones became easily available filmmaking tools, in order to shoot a staggering shot overlooking a square where kids listen to a DJ blast a now classic Edith Piaf/KRS-One remix from his flat’s speakers, Kassovitz had to use a rudimentary mini-helicopter. La Haine caused a sensation on its release, opening the eyes of many to the realities of life in the banlieues, with their ever-present violence and police brutality. Twenty-five years on, Ly’s film has also had an impact in France, exposing a new set of problems, and showing how little has changed in the interim.

When Les Misérables won the Jury Prize in Cannes in May last year, to many it seemed as though Ly had come out of nowhere, fully formed. But he had amassed an extensive body of work over the previous decade, directing and starring in short films as part of the film collective Kourtrajmé (named after ‘court métrage’, or ‘short film’, in verlan, a strain of French slang which creates new words by transposing the syllables of everyday ones).

Among these was a short film from 2017, also called Les Misérables and starring some of the same actors, which was recognised at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and nominated at the César Awards. Indicative of its position outside the mainstream of French cinema, Kourtrajmé typically bypassed the usual channels of distribution, preferring to post its creations online.

Kourtrajmé in fact has a long history. Created in the mid-1990s, it includes alongside Ly some more familiar names, many with significant heritage in filmmaking. One such is the son of film director Costa-Gavras, Romain Gavras, who has made a name for himself directing often brutal music videos for acts such as Justice, M.I.A. and Kanye West, as well as the banlieue-set comedy The World Is Yours (2018). That film starred Vincent Cassel (son of the celebrated French actor Jean-Pierre Cassel), who himself appeared in several of Kourtrajmé’s videos and short films. Kim Chapiron, one of the founders of the collective and the son of graphic designer Kiki Picasso, has also made a name for himself, with Satan (2006), Dog Pound (2010) and Smart Ass (2014). Today, Kourtrajmé has 135 members active in several fields.

Ladj Ly was born in Mali and, like Gavras and Chapiron, is passionate about creating a space for French filmmaking outside its sometimes insular mainstream channels. The group are also seeking to challenge expectations: the short films made by Kourtrajmé are often humorous and full of enthusiasm, qualities not usually associated with the banlieues as they are presented in the French media.

In Go Fast Connexion (2009), for example, one of Ly’s first short films, the director satirised the ultra-serious tone of news reports from the banlieues, which portray them as fortresses populated by minorities that one enters at one’s own peril. Ten years later, Les Misérables is another corrective to those Manichean and inaccurate portrayals, demonstrating the way fear of the Other is at the centre of a fundamentally broken system. The film is the first in a planned trilogy, parts two and three of which Ly is developing now.

Les Misérables (2019)

Most people discovered you through Les Misérables, but you’ve been making films for a long time. Can you tell me about your work with the collective Kourtrajmé?

Kourtrajmé is, before anything else, a group of friends. We all grew up together. We’ve known each other since kindergarten or primary school.

The collective was formed in 1994 with the ambition to make our own films. I joined in 1996. I was close friends with Kim Chapiron as a kid. I started as an actor in his films, and then at 17, I bought my first video camera and began filming my neighbourhood.

Some of the other Kourtrajmé members have moved towards music videos and work outside the banlieue, but in your short films, you focus on the banlieue in a documentary style. Why this desire to stay?

Because that is where I am from. Unlike my friends from Kourtrajmé who live in Paris, I grew up in the banlieue, in Montfermeil. It’s very dear to my heart, and there are so many stories to tell there that I’ve made it my specialty, in a way. Or at least, what I know of it.

And there is also an urgency to this. There are so many issues to tackle that I think I could make films about the banlieue for at least ten more years.

Les Misérables (2019)

The short films you made with Kourtrajmé were posted online. Was this a choice, or out of necessity?

A kind of cinema had to emerge somewhere, because we’re not on producers’ radars or financed by any organisations. There comes a point where we have to do it all ourselves. Kourtrajmé was born because we couldn’t recognise ourselves in French cinema. So we decided to make our own films, with our own stories, our own actors.

It just so happened that, when we started making films, it was the very beginning of the digital age. Digital cameras had just appeared and for the first time, people had access to the internet at home. We realised that the internet was a great space to broadcast our films. Dailymotion and YouTube didn’t exist yet. We had a Kourtrajmé website where we would post our videos, and they would be very successful.

I’ve always held on to this concept where I would make my films independently. Even my documentaries, they were always censored by TV channels, they didn’t want them as they were, so I put them online for free. I never made money with my films, and I always worked that way.

Why the decision to include and to start with the policemen’s point of view?

I wanted to surprise the audience. With all the work that I’ve done, no one expected me to tell this story from the perspective of the policemen. It’s the surprise of making a film that does not take sides and does not judge, only presents a situation as justly as possible. That’s also what makes the film strong: it describes a reality.

It was important for us to say that the ‘misérables’ are everybody – the inhabitants, the police… all the people in this universe.

Les Misérables (2019)

How did you strike a balance between denouncing this reality and opening up a conversation?

It’s a politically engaged film. I have something to say: I’m not just making a film to make a film, but because I want to move the lines. The idea behind [the film’s] open ending is that it might make people think and start a debate.

And that is what is happening. Whether we like it or not, the film is a tool. It makes people talk, it changes things. Lots of things are being reconsidered. The film was seen by more than two million viewers in France. The government said they wanted to improve the living conditions in the banlieue after seeing the film. These are only words for now, but still, things are happening.

It’s interesting that the film gives us the point of view of a policeman coming from the provinces – a total outsider. Oftentimes, the policemen who arrive in these neighbourhoods are just out of school or don’t have a lot of experience, and most of them come from the provinces. I thought it would be interesting to tell this story from the perspective of this man who will discover this world at the same time as the viewer.

Unfortunately, most people who don’t live in the banlieue only know it through the media and through politics – most of them have never been. It was important to try to make people understand what the banlieue is really like, so that they wouldn’t immediately jump to clichés or fantasies.

Les Misérables (2019)

You filmed the real-life protests in the banlieue in 2005, which fed into your short documentary 365 Days in Clichy-Montfermeil [2007]. What differing impacts do you think fiction films and documentaries have?

I don’t really separate the two. If I make a film, it’s because I have something to say. A few years ago, I found myself filming a moment of police brutality – I saw first-hand all the consequences of that. I thought it would be interesting to bring it to the realm of fiction. Les Misérables is fiction, but its impact remains as strong. Whether it’s documentary or fiction, the message goes through, and that’s what’s important.

You also made a documentary called 365 days in Mali [2014] and you’ve said you want to make films in Africa. Is this still something you are pursuing?

Yes, it’s a desire I’ve had for a long time. We’re setting up a Kourtrajmé film school in Senegal in September. We want to have a presence in Dakar, to form this generation of filmmakers and develop projects there.

Les Misérables (2019)

And you’ve opened a film school called Kourtrajmé in Montfermeil too.

Yes. If we want French cinema to change and to become more diverse, we need to take the situation into our own hands. If we don’t do it, I don’t know who will. So I decided with this school to give a chance to diversity – diversity in cultures, diversity in social backgrounds… We give everyone a chance. It is free, open to all, and applicants do not need to have a diploma.

This will be the school’s second year and everything is going well. When you see all this energy, all these young people with lots of ideas being super-productive, it’s wonderful. Things will be happening in the next few years, that’s for sure.

It’s not just me and my career. I evolved with Kourtrajmé and we always did everything together. That is what I’m trying to put in place today. I want all the students to benefit from the network I have and the one I’m creating. All our students are busy, none of them are left behind.

Further reading