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Les Misérables director Ladj Ly on his Cannes-winning debut feature

INTERVIEW! With "Les Misérables" hitting Berlin kinos on Jan 23, we caught up with director Ladj Ly to find out more about his Cannes-winning, Oscar-selected debut feature, cop-watching and why he believes his film is a "cry of alarm".

Image for Les Misérables director Ladj Ly on his Cannes-winning debut feature

Photo by Panorama Entertainment. Catch Les Misérables in Berlin cinemas from Jan 23.

Winner of the shared Jury prize at last year’s Cannes, French director Ladj Ly will represent France at the Oscars next month. His first feature film is something of an electroshock: a political and powerful powderkeg that indicts a system of social oppression. It follows three cops who confront tensions between neighbourhood gangs in the tough Parisian suburbs. We sat down with the director to talk “cop-watching” and asking the French President to take notice.

From your short film that inspired this first feature and your years of documenting the banlieues, Les Misérables has had a lengthy gestation… 

I’ve been filming everything around me from an early age, making shorts and docs, and also doing some “cop-watching” for several years. But the starting point for Les Misérables was in 2008 when I shot footage of police brutality, which ended up on the internet and resulted in the police officers being suspended. It was a first in France at the time. We shot a short film inspired by the incident, which worked out well, and we won a handful of awards for it, including the French César award for Best Short, and now we’re here! 

You spent a lot of time with police officers and brigades as research for this film – can you tell us more about “cop-watching”? 

We got to film the police officers operating in the neighbourhoods, specifically the special brigades for the suburbs. It’s brutal. We did some screenings for the officers and police syndicates, and the general response has actually been positive. They were surprised, and we were grateful that the film speaks to them, and that they can recognise themselves through the story and some of the characters.

You seem to want to do away with certain clichés – there aren’t any binaries, no “goodies” or “baddies”… 

Exactly. I think a lot of people were surprised because when they saw the trailer, they thought it was going to be another one of those “banlieues films” aimed against the police and all that stuff. But it’s the opposite. It’s far from being an anti-cop film. 

One anti-cop film that springs to mind when watching your film is Matthieu Kassovitz’ La Haine. I also got some Spike Lee vibes. What filmmakers have inspired you over the years and for this project?

Well, thanks for those references! Spike Lee, for instance, has always been a filmmaker that has had an impact on me. Same goes for Michael Mann. But when it comes to French directors, I don’t have many references and models, so to speak… 

Do you think that French cinema is still lagging behind when it comes to embracing a new generation of filmmakers?

Sadly, it’s still very elitist. Sure, it’s evolving, bit by bit, but you can still count the black filmmakers on one hand…

You spearheaded a film collective and then founded a school, called Kourtrajmé – was that a way of making things pick up some pace and diversify the industry? 

Yes, the idea was to train the new generation in filmmaking, in order to tell new stories. Anyone can access the school – no fees, no conditions for entrance. We want to help people, help them film and have the tools and support to bring their projects to life.

Coming back to the film, people seem split on whether the film is hopeful or more of a depressing indictment…

I think it’s full of hope. It’s complicated. The film is a cry of alarm. The situation is bad and it’s been like this for a while now. Nothing’s happening. Beyond that, it’s a film that speaks about childhood. I was raised in these neighbourhoods, so I know the topic quite well. And the violence and police brutality under the Macron government has been getting more brutal. So, yes, this was a film addressed to the politicians, because they are the first ones responsible for the situation they’ve left to fester over the years. 

Is it true you launched an appeal to Emmanuel Macron, asking him to take notice and watch the film? 

Yeah, he even invited us to the Elysée to watch it with him. I refused, and instead invited him to come to Montfermeil to see it. That would have made more sense and been quite something, but he didn’t come. So, we sent him a DVD and he finally watched it. He told us he was moved by it and that he’s asked his ministers to find solutions for the banlieues.

Between the Jury Prize at Cannes and now with the Oscars coming up, is it important for you that a wider, international audience see this film? 

Yes, and we’ve seen that after premieres, people are properly shocked. They can’t believe that this is happening in France. And when you tell them that it’s taking place 15km from Paris, jaws drop. They didn’t think there were ghettos in France. Some didn’t know there were French people from African and Maghreb origins… You get the impression they’re discovering a completely new facet.

Over the course of your career, through your previous documentaries, you’ve used the camera to raise awareness and as a tool of denunciation. Do you think a film like yours can engender tangible change? 

I’m a witness to what’s going on, and my filmmaking is engaged, militant, with a real message behind the storytelling. I’m not just making movies for the sake of it. Change needs to happen, and the cocktail hasn’t exploded yet. So we can still hope, sit down around a table and find solutions. If there’s real political desire and backing, there are solutions. That’s the message: let’s talk.