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Interview: Ladj Ly on Sounding an Alarm Bell with Les Misérables

The filmmaker discusses the public reaction of the film, bringing it to Emmanuel Macron, and more.

Marshall Shaffer

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Ladj Ly
Photo: Amazon Studios

Titling any feature, much less one’s feature-length directorial debut, after one of your country’s most beloved shared texts might initially smack of hubris. And yet, Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables defies expectations of imposing grandiosity from its name alone. His tale of escalating tensions between the ethnic and religious minorities living in one of the banlieues (or suburbs) of Paris and the police force designated to keep them in check offers a portrait of his country from the most grounded, bottom-up level.

Ly has long been a filmmaker of the people. Primarily through web documentaries and more recently through docu-fictions and short films, his work elevates the voices of his native Montfermeil. Les Misérables feels at once like what Ly has been waiting to say his entire life and a righteously indignant encapsulation of what he’s been expressing about his community for decades. Inspired by the 2005 Paris riots but rooted in a visceral now, the film follows the complications that arise when an anti-crime squad attempts to make an arrest among the local gangs. With an impressive even-handedness, Ly charts the frenetic, verité action as it spirals outward. The film doesn’t seek out to expose one side so much as it looks to illustrate how each faction conditions itself to only recognize the humanity of those within their own group.

I caught up with Ly in New York shortly after Les Misérables opened for French audiences in November 2019. Our discussion covered how both the public and the government received his film, why the titular text didn’t serve as much direct inspiration, and how he pulled off the high-stakes opening sequence in the midst of France celebrating its World Cup victory.

At what point did you decide to title the film Les Misérables? Were you looking to draw parallels to Victor Hugo from the beginning, or was it only in development that you realized the film could enter into conversation with the text?

It’s a title that I’ve had in my head for a really long time. I’ve always told myself that my first film would be called Les Misérables. It’s a title I’ve had for over 12 years.

You’ve mentioned that the neighborhood in the film is the same one in which Gavroche is from in the novel. Were there any other characters or archetypes from the original Les Misérables from which you drew? I thought I saw a bit of Valjean and Javert, people on both sides of the law convinced of their own righteousness.

Not really. There are certain parallels you could find. For instance, Javert, you could compare him with BAC, the anti-drug brigade. But really, I concentrated on Gavroche. I guess I accept this Javert/anti-drug parallel, but those are the only two that come from Hugo.

Especially in Les Misérables, Victor Hugo conveyed how systems of law and order could dehumanize people and often leads them back into the very acts these institutions are designed to stop. Was that on your mind at all?

My film is first and foremost an alarm bell calling out politicians: those who are responsible for the system put in place and that they have allowed to rot. They just allow this system to stay in place, and they know full well it doesn’t work.

You don’t get on a soapbox and directly point a finger at the institutions that create the conditions influencing the characters’ behavior, but that feels like the villain of Les Misérables. How do you get that message across without being didactic?

It was important for me not to show things in too heavy a manner. We understand things if you see the film. For instance, by reading the sentence at the end of the film [a postscript taken from Hugo’s novel: “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators”]. What was important for me was to describe situations in an accurate way and not cast judgment, including on the characters.

How do you not take sides without being completely morally ambivalent? For instances, it’s clearly wrong to use excessive force.

I just try to be as accurate as possible. This is a territory I really know. I grew up there and have been there for 30 years. These are people that I know. I know the high schools, everything. I’m just trying to describe the reality in an accurate way and inspire myself from what I’ve seen.

What has made you gravitate toward fiction? What does it offer you that pure documentary doesn’t?

I always wanted to make fiction, but I took my time. I’m self-taught. I didn’t go to film school, so I really did things one step at a time. Initially, I started out with documentary because I was filming my neighborhood. With time, I had a lot of material and was able to make that into films. Then I came to docu-fiction and really tried to avoid hurrying. At the same time, there was this pressure because my colleagues in the collective [Kourtrajmé, which he began with Romain Gavras and Toumani Sangaré in 1995] had become feature directors. I didn’t want to show up with something that wouldn’t be really strong. I had to take my time on a fiction film that everyone would agree [on] and would be really good.

The film opens with a striking sequence during the 2018 World Cup victory celebrations in Paris. At what point did you realize this would be a good way to start the film?

I’ve always had this film in my head, but the sequence you’re describing came along much later. Maybe it was around the beginning of that year when we realized that the World Cup might be a possibility. We told ourselves, “Well, if France gets to the semi-finals, we’ll have a crew ready.” As we have it, France won, and we were able to get those images. We took advantage of what was happening that year.

How did you pull the shoot together? How did you make sure you didn’t lose sight of the characters in the high stakes production?

I come from documentary, [so] I’m used to these things. It was more or less simple to shoot that one. It wasn’t specifically hard. Of course, it’s not easy to deal with crowds and especially a triumphant, celebratory crowd. That’s not the simplest thing, but we managed.

Is the team at all a metaphor for the France you portray in the film? The country rallies behind a group of mostly non-white Frenchmen on the world stage but then turns a blind eye to the plight of immigrant communities around the corner from them.

That’s what that means, yeah. Unfortunately, it’s only soccer today that makes us all French, that makes us all equal. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” only works during the soccer game. Afterward, everyone goes back to their own social condition. That’s it.

“I appeal to your team spirit,” the police chief says at the beginning of the film, which feels like such an ironic introduction into a world where these events fracture people so distinctly. Is Les Misérables at all a commentary on the limitations of solidarity?

Yes, it’s especially solidarity within groups—the slogan you hear in the film, that spirit of solidarity no matter what. You see that with the cops. Even when they do something wrong, they’re going to protect each other. That’s the golden rule. When we were writing the film, we met some cops and they told us that. We might get into disagreements among ourselves, but if someone breaks with this solidarity, that person is going to disappear.

In the U.S., there’s been a lot of progress in holding police accountable through having video cameras on cellphones. Here, you have a drone capturing a really crucial moment of tension, which can fly away and be separated from the body of the person. At what point did you decide to use this technology in the story?

I had written a short earlier in which there were several drones. Ultimately, I didn’t shoot that film, but I decided I wanted to use the drone in the feature. But I didn’t want to use it like everyone else because, nowadays, everybody is using them all the time just to make pretty pictures. I wanted the drone in my film to be a full-fledged character. It’s a kid [Al-Hassan Ly’s Buzz] who’s using the drone and, in a way, that’s my story because I’ve been filming this area for so long. The drone allows us to get some elevation, so it also allows us to know the territory. And it does allow us to have some beautiful images!

I also think of a drone as more of a tool of government surveillance, so it felt a bit ironic to see it in the hands of the people used against the police.

Yeah, cops use drones a lot. But Buzz is the eye of the neighborhood. I’m not going to get into the end of the film—people should see it for themselves—but we do see that he remains the eye of the neighborhood. To flip the drone around against the cops, that really makes sense.

You’ve said that you wrote to Emmanuel Macron asking him to screen the film. Has there been any progress there now that the film is the French submission to the Oscars?

Yes, he heard the message! He invited us to come to the president’s residence to show the film, and eventually I declined that invitation and invited him to come to my film school in Montfermeil to see the film. I didn’t get any answer to that invitation, so we sent him a DVD. Last week, I heard he saw the film and heard he was tremendously moved by it. Right now, his government is working on coming up with measures to help these kinds of neighborhoods. So that’s the latest news from Emmanuel Macron.

How has the reception been since opening? What are you hoping the French do in response to the film?

So far, it’s been great. I made this film to get people talking and start debates. We can see on social media, for instance, that people are really responding. I made the film so people could understand how people really live in these neighborhoods, and that’s working.

Is the role of the fiction film just to start the debate, not incite action?

It’s a little bit of all of that. Already, to describe these situations and really deal with these issues is a really good thing. But I think in France today, there are fewer and fewer politically committed films, so it’s really good to have this kind of film.

Translation by Nicholas Elliott

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