▶︎ La Haine is re-released in UK cinemas on 11 September 2020
La Haine is 25 years old. Since Mathieu Kassovitz’s debut first screened there’s arguably not been another French film that has had as significant an impact. In the land that gave us champagne, La Haine is a Molotov cocktail. It’s a movie that sets fire to the comfortable middle-class outings of much French cinema, turning the gaze beyond the Périphérique ring road to the Parisian banlieues, where the bright colours of white socialite Paris are scorched to a black-and-white concrete jungle that is home to a mix of black, Arab and Jewish communities.
When the film opened in Competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995, its impact was immediate. Kassovitz, 27 at the time, won the Best Director prize, in recognition of the elements that made the work so explosively new and exciting. For while on the surface the story Kassovitz had written, about the last 24 hours three friends would spend together, might appear to be straight-up social realism, the way he chose to tell it often feels closer to a stylised magic realism, from the opening shot of the Earth from outer space onwards. Such moments of bravura invention occur throughout La Haine – as when director of photography Pierre Aïm uses an ultra-wide landscape ratio to film the three central characters in their banlieue surroundings, dwarfing them against their neighbourhood and making them seem insignificant, but switches to a long lens to shoot them in close-up once they move to the centre of Paris later in the film, denying the French capital its usual majesty. Or there is the constant return to a ticking clock, which helps to give the narrative a dramatically urgent rhythm and unremitting tension.
Like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989), La Haine was born from real-life injustices – the deaths of young ethnic-minority men at the hands of police. Where La Haine is unique is in the way it shows poverty uniting disparate groups, making fast friends of a Jewish man (Vinz, played by Vincent Cassel), a black boxer (Hubert, played by Hubert Koundé) and a young Arab (Saïd, played by Saïd Taghmaoui). The film begins the morning after a riot, when news has come through that one of their friends, Abdel, is in a coma. Will he survive? When Vinz gets hold of a gun stolen from the police, the question soon becomes: will they survive? The sense of unease is heightened by the sound of gunshots accompanying the cuts between shots.
What people often forget about La Haine is just how funny it is, in spite of all the confrontations between the police and disenfranchised youth. When the three friends go to Paris seeking justice, having tried and failed to see Abdel in hospital, they find the city is even odder than the banlieue they come from, with strange characters reciting poetry and drug dealers playing with nunchucks. But ultimately, La Haine’s enduring power lies in its refusal to cosy up to the audience. This is a film that confronts you head-on – one that starts with a joke about a man in freefall from the top of a skyscraper, and ends with a whole society imploding.
Kaleem Aftab: Do you recall why you decided to make La Haine?
Mathieu Kassovitz: It was a riot in Paris. I heard on the radio that a kid [Makomé M’Bowolé] got shot by police in the 18th arrondissement [on 6 April 1993]. I went there because I used to hang out in that neighbourhood. When I arrived, there were people, not protesting, more like mourning – it was the parents of the victim, of the kid. I began to think about how that cop could get a gun out and shoot a kid in the head while he was handcuffed. He didn’t execute him, he tried to scare him, and then the gun went off. But whether it was intentional or not, the cop got so mad that he got the gun out and it ended with him taking the kid’s life. What happened to that kid from the start of the day for it to end up like that? I decided to show the story from the kids’ point of view because nobody knew the kids, especially back in 1995 – or ’93 as it was. I knew those kids because I used to hang out with them; they have a voice, there is a reason why they’re like that, and there is a reason why the interaction with the police is like that. We needed to expose it so that people could understand it.
KA: How long did it take you to write the film?
MK: I called my producer that same night. I was working on Assassin(s), which became my next movie [in 1997], and I said, “I’m going to push Assassin(s) back. I’m going to do something about what I just saw.” And I wrote the script in three, four months.
KA: Was it difficult to write, or did it flow?
MK: It flowed because I knew my ending. I based everything on the ending, so I knew all I had to do is find a way to get these kids through 24 hours and just get people to know them. So that when in the news tomorrow they’re going to say that a young kid got shot and killed by accident – after watching La Haine, you can put a name and a face to the kid.
KA: You wrote the boys to be Jewish, black and Arabic. Their friendship is the heart of the film. Was that based on people you knew?
MK: It was not based on the projects themselves. However, I did it to create a symbol that all minorities are concerned with the issues in the film. These kids, even if they’re from different backgrounds, they are in the same environment, and they’re living together, and they know how to live together, it’s not just one group suffering. What you show in a movie is one hundred per cent of the reality that you impose on the audience. They cannot imagine anything else, so you have to balance everything.
KA: The actors Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé and Saïd Taghmaoui, who have all had successful careers, weren’t well-known when you cast them. What did you see in them?
MK: Very simple. I did a movie with Hubert called Café au lait . He was my partner in that movie. The way he represents the culture, he is so powerful – I needed that. Then I needed a white guy who doesn’t know anything about life to allow the white crowd to go and see that movie. I could have done that part myself, but I knew I wanted to take pleasure as a director, so I gave it to Vincent because he knows that environment and his brother was into hip-hop. It was not bad to have somebody with a name, even if it’s because he’s the son of a famous actor [Jean-Pierre Cassel]. Saïd was a friend of Vincent’s – he introduced me to him, and I liked the fucking guy.
KA: Was it essential that it was three kids?
MK: I needed a trio because when you’re with a friend, you have a discussion, and it ends fast because either you agree, or you don’t, but you cannot argue all the time. Three people can disagree all the time because it bounces from one to the other. I wanted one guy that’s the funny one in the middle; the political one that wants to get even with the society; and then the other one who’s trying to hold it in because he knows what real violence is. It was a trick, like the black and white is a trick too – to make it universal, a story that happens everywhere, so you don’t know if it’s Paris or Mexico or Brooklyn: it could be anywhere.
KA: How does black and white make it more universal?
MK: When you look at black-and-white footage from the war, it changes when you see that footage put in colour. I did the voiceover for Apocalypse, a fantastic documentary series covering wars, for which they colourised all these black-and-white images and rendered them in HD. In colour, all of a sudden the footage becomes very personal – you see your grandfathers there, it’s not just ghosts or an artistic image, it could be today. What black and white does is bring poetry into reality. That’s why when you do a movie about poverty where you don’t have control over the environment and things are supposed to be ugly, it’s very difficult. It costs a lot of money to make it look good. But it doesn’t cost anything to make it look good in black and white. If I showed you La Haine in colour, it’s horrible.
KA: Why is the Earth seen from space in the first shot?
MK: Because the film deals with a global problem. The joke, in the beginning, talks about the man who falls from the building [“Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On the way down past each floor he kept saying to reassure himself: ‘So far, so good. So far, so good.’ How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land!”] The same joke at the end is a society that falls.
KA: Although La Haine still resonates today, it is a picture of its time, especially in the characters’ choice of music. What did hip-hop mean to you back then?
MK: Hip-hop is very important to me. Whereas my father and my mother taught me about cinema, hip-hop taught me life and politics. The movie is hip-hop. For me, the definition of rap, which is inside the culture of hiphop, is: when you leave the dance floor, you’re smarter than when you went in. [The rapper] KRS-One called it ‘edutainment’. That’s what it should be; you’re educated and entertained. That’s the only way you can learn: by having fun. That’s why hip-hop is all about learning and transgressing, challenging everything and questioning – I learned that from Public Enemy and KRS-One.
KA: In the 90s it seemed that a culture like hip-hop might unite France and dissolve all barriers, in the same way as winning the World Cup did. Do you think that feeling has passed now?
MK: La Haine, the French football team, the hip-hop industry… they opened a lot of doors. Today, even if we’re not at an equal level, it’s working, but it takes generations to make people change. Today, the most well-paid and famous French actor [Omar Sy] is a black guy. The guys who made Les Misérables are a bunch of black Muslims and Chinese coming from the fucking hood. You know, they’re 35 years old and were, like, ten years old when we did La Haine. Of course, we inspired them, but it takes time. You cannot inspire somebody who’s the same age. You inspire the kids. That’s why I’m very proud of La Haine – it encourages kids who were not there. I get 15-year-old kids coming up to me every day talking about the film. I have to recognise that, and I’m very proud of that. Because that’s what you want when you’re a director, you want to inspire, and to know that your movie is not forgotten.
KA: What did you think of Les Misérables?
MK: I love the energy of the movie. I was very surprised by the ending because it’s the same as La Haine. I’m not in the projects any more – I’m 50 years old and I’m rich. I have the same friends as before, but we’re not hanging out any more. So, I cannot talk about what’s going on in the hood or the projects. But these kids [Les Misérables director Ladj Ly and his cast and crew], they nailed it. People need to have that shot of reality, reminding them that it’s not over yet.
KA: Why did you decide for the first half of La Haine to show the projects, and for the second half to be set in Paris?
MK: Because the subject of the movie was respect, knowledge and ignorance. I knew that nobody knew these kids rom the banlieue, so we needed to introduce them to Paris. I didn’t want to make a movie against the police. I think it’s a universal movie that talks about respect. Back in the day, when there was a bunch of kids like that in the streets, people wondered who they were: “Are they dangerous or not?” And the kids, when they came to Paris, they were like, “Why the fuck are they looking at us like that?”
KA: When you look at the film today, yes, it feels like a Mathieu Kassovitz film, which is great. But you were also heavily influenced by several great American auteurs – Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee in particular. What was their impact on you?
MK: The influence of the great Americans on me was the same that Jean-Luc Godard had on them. Art is a recycled industry. It’s very difficult to create art from nothing, especially today. You recycle the ideas that inspired you to become an artist. When I was 12 years old, I saw Steven Spielberg movies. At 17, I saw Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It . These amazing movies made me want to be a director. Of course, I’m going to take from them – and I see in their movies where they took their inspiration. And then I go to the guy who inspired them, and I see where he got his inspiration. And then you go to the first guy and the first guy is a fucking Russian that made his movie in 1925 [Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin]. And everybody took something from him. Scorsese invented something because he took it from somebody else and he digested it and then made his own sauce. Spike Lee took from Scorsese, and made his own sauce. And then I took from Spike Lee and Scorsese and made my own sauce.
KA: The story is pushed forward by episodic scenes that are like songs on an album. The rhythm is like an album…
MK: As a director, I have a very strange relationship with music. If you talk about the movie as being like an album… the movie, the rhythm, is like music, yes. But there is no score. I was at the Oscar ceremony two months ago and the only person I took a selfie with was John Williams, because by himself, he owns 50 per cent of all the emotions that we have in so many amazing movies. Through his talent, he made the director succeed in making you cry, making you scream, making you scared. Even Spielberg, who I think is the most genius director of them all, shares his emotions with John Williams. When you say to Spielberg, “I’ve never been so scared as I was in Jaws,” take the music out and you’ll see that you have a problem. I am a very pretentious director, so I want my emotions to be mine!
KA: But you sprinkle songs through the film.
MK: I don’t really like guys like Tarantino because he clears the rights for his music before he starts to shoot. He edits all of his movies on the fucking music. And he even has the music there when he shoots – so the rhythm is not his; it’s somebody else’s. It’s easy to make anybody cry with a fucking violin or to make everybody yell or scream with a fucking boom, but if you can you do that with silence, like in real life, that’s the challenge. I love Spielberg, but I just want to tell him, like, “Steven, please be confident in your own fucking shit and take that music out of those fucking movies; it’s everywhere, give me a break.” It’s a balance. There’s music in La Haine, but it’s music you hear from the radio, that you hear from the car. It is the music from the environment.
KA: You also used the sound design – ticking and gunshots, changing levels – to create emotions.
MK: I told the sound designer [Vincent Tulli] to go and see one movie: American Graffiti . What Walter Murch, one of the best sound designers in the world, did with the sound in that film is fucking genius. When people come out of the film, because of the sounds coming from outside the frame, they think they have seen things they haven’t. I used that in La Haine, to the point where people thought they saw who killed who at the end of the movie. I had journalists ask me: “Why did you have Hubert killing the cop?”
KA: You shoot the banlieue scenes with the characters looking small, with a lot of wide shots, but in Paris, everything gets close. What was your thinking behind that shift?
MK: In Paris, we only had half of the crew with us because my producer told me we couldn’t afford to shoot the whole movie the way we shot it in the banlieue, where I had a crane and a Steadicam. We filmed everything in Paris with a long lens. If you look at the movie, it turns mono. It was stereo before because we shot very wide in the projects, but when you go to Paris, it’s more centred on the actors. I took the cost constraints that we had and said, “OK, how can we use that?” If I cannot have everything, I’m going to put all the crew at the beginning, where I need all the toys. And then in the second part, I need six people, one camera, long lens, no authorisation, and we will shoot guerrilla-style.
KA: I’ve always found the film very funny. How important was the comedy to you?
MK: La Haine was a success because it’s a comedy. When I hang out with these guys in the projects, or in Paris, whether you’re hungry or not, it’s all about making jokes. I wanted people from Paris to see that these guys are fucking educated. Yeah, they talk like that, but they make jokes.
KA: And you make it seem there’s going be a happy ending right until the last second.
MK: That’s what happened in real life. I could have ended the movie with Vinz giving the gun to Hubert and Hubert could have thrown the gun in the lake, and then everybody learned the lesson, and nobody’s hurt. The movie could have been good like that too. But the reason why I made that movie is because kids die.
KA: How did you feel about the reaction to the film?
MK: I was very alarmed by the star-ification of the people who made the movie. I was very worried, and I denounced it. I made a lot of journalists cry because I told them, “This isn’t about us, it’s about the subjects of the movie. You should go and interview the kids, and you should go and interview the police and talk to the minister, talk to the people that are responsible for this. You should analyse it and you should give your point of view.” Like, you can say whatever you want about a Ken Loach movie, but he doesn’t care. What he wants is to expose something. And he wants journalists not to talk about the quality of the movie, but about the subject. Is it relevant, and what can we do? I wanted the same thing. That was my objective, but now I’m more comfortable to talk about the film 25 years later because I realise that the movie survived by itself.
KA: You grew disillusioned with directing after making 2011’s Rebellion, and you have argued that there is no more magic in movie making, and that directing a film takes so many fights that it’s better just to act these days. Do you still think you won’t direct?
MK: I’m getting older and things change a lot. When I started, I thought I would have an amazing career as I thought that political movies would still be needed because back in the day, we didn’t have the internet, and the only way you could get information was through official media. Of course, you had the alternative press, but it was difficult to access, so movies were very important as sometimes it was the only way you could discover something. Nowadays, I can persuade you to change your life and be inspired by something just with a one-minute video on Instagram. So, the impact of political movies is not the same as before. Look at Costa-Gavras’s last movie [Adults in the Room, 2019], which is about the crisis in Greece, which is an alarm about what might go on. Twenty-five years ago that movie would have been a success. And if he had made Z [his 1969 thriller about the murder of a Greek political activist] today, the movie which earned him an Oscar nomination, nobody would care because we would already know – just like with the Panama Papers and all these whistleblowers on Twitter. As a director, my passion is not only directing, but also trying to save the world. Now I understand that I cannot save the world, so I have to twist my mind to say, “Okay, let’s have fun.” But I’m not there yet. You need to find something that drives you as a director. I’m like a chef and if I cannot get the right ingredients at my age, if I cannot do exactly the menu I want, then I’m not going to bother.
KA: But it must be very pleasing that La Haine still carries so much power.
MK: When it’s memorable not just because it’s a comedy or a horror or an action film, but because it has a social message that talks about the problems between the police and the youth, if you get that as well, then it’s fortunate. So yeah, I’m enjoying this.
La Haine will be rereleased in UK cinemas in a new 4K restoration next week, followed by a Blu-ray and BFI Player release
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.
By Elena Lazic