Ladj Ly’s politically-charged feature debut, “Les Misérables,” is inspired by the filmmaker’s own experiences as the son of a Malian immigrant. Ly grew up in the harshness of the banlieues, in a commune east of Paris, called Montfermeil. Ly, who still lives there, said his Montfermeil isn’t all that different from Victor Hugo’s, whose 1862 novel is a source of inspiration. It remains grim, comprised of poor and disenfranchised people — primarily African immigrants — who often clash with the authorities. Ly said he hoped that volatile state would change, and has been chasing that goal with the best tool at his disposal: his camera.
The filmmaker set out to capture the realities of that world, in an effort to both counter incomplete narratives, and to inspire revolution. “The entire film is from my life, my history, so it’s like my autobiography,” he said. “Hugo’s time was a different era, but poverty and social misery remain in the area. I could have just taken the book and made it contemporary, but with my film, I wanted to portray how we live in these very policed ghettos today, and the consistent threats of violence we face.”
At the center of “Les Misérables” are three members of an anti-crime brigade who are overrun by youth while trying to make an arrest. When a drone captures the encounter, it threatens to expose the truths of everyday life in the community. It’s a film that’s at least 15 years in the making, with roots that stretch back to Ly’s activist teenage years. Ly was inspired by the violent 2005 Paris riots, which involved youth of African descent, in a three-week uprising stoked by increased unemployment, poor housing conditions, and routine harassment at the hands of the police.
“These areas where the jobless rate is very high were abandoned by the authorities decades ago, and nothing changes,” Ly said. “We talk of the left and the right political parties, but for the youth in my community, neither one speaks to them, which leads to frustration and desperation, and then revolt. They are the wretched, and so they must rebel against a system that continues to oppress and exploit them.”
That kind of revolt can be seen in the fiery climactic scenes of “Les Misérables,” during which the police are ambushed in a stairwell. It’s an experience that Ly said he lived through, and so it wasn’t a difficult scenario to imagine.
“I believe in the power of cinema as a tool to inspire revolution to challenge the status quo, and bring real lasting change,” he said. “Some people might be confused or uncomfortable by that sequence, but I hope that in their confusion, they will stop and think about why.”
As a teenager, Ly could always be found with a video camera, capturing life in his community. He gained a reputation as a burgeoning guerrilla journalist, and would be called on by locals at any signs of skirmishes with law enforcement, so that he could document anything that happened.
His first introduction to the idea that he could become a filmmaker was around the age of 15 when he had a chance encounter with Costa-Gavras’ son. Ly soon began making short films with his friends in a collective they called Kourtrajmé; the collective still exists today, as a free film school that Ly spearheads, training youth of Montfermeil to tell their own stories, as he has did with the short documentaries he made that prepared him to direct “Les Misérables.”
The film’s themes remain extremely relevant, especially in France today. Ly makes comparisons between the 2005 Montfermeil riots that inspired him, and the current “yellow vest” protests that have shaken France. Initially erupting in November 2018, the protests began over several grievances, including stagnating wages and economic inequality. They were meant to send a message to President Emmanuel Macron, whose government has been accused of ignoring the needs of everyday French citizens.
“Before all of this, we in the suburbs were the original ‘yellow vests’, even though maybe we haven’t received the same kind of international press, but we’ve been fighting for the same basic rights for more than 20 years,” he said.
Ly stressed that the film’s themes are not unique to France, acknowledging similar conditions around the world. “You will find this everywhere, not just in Paris, and it that sense, it’s a universal movie,” he said.
As the son of a Malian immigrant, he’s especially passionate about the ongoing African refugee crisis, which other young, contemporary French filmmakers of African descent — like fellow Cannes 2019 prize winner and Oscar hopeful Mati Diop (“Atlantics”) — have tackled in their work.
“You can’t complain about immigrants coming into your country without taking the time to really think about why they are so desperate, that some risk their lives,” Ly said. “When you investigate the history of colonialism, neo-colonialism, the looting of Africa’s natural resources, and Europe and the West’s responsibility, then you will begin to understand. I want to be optimistic about the future, but sadly, it would not surprise me if in another 15 years, some other filmmaker makes their own ‘Les Miserables’ because little would have changed.”
In a competitive year for French cinema, “Les Misérables” has been a standout. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes, where it received mostly rave reviews, and was selected as France’s Best International Feature Film Oscar submission — marking the first time that France has chosen a film by a black filmmaker to represent the country at the Academy Awards.
It even drew the attention of President Macron, who said he was “shaken by the accuracy” of Ly’s portrait, and called on his administration to find solutions and take action to improve living conditions in neighborhoods like Montfermeil.
For his part, while Ly might appear generally pessimistic about a harmonious multicultural future in France, he said he was hopeful that his film would resonate as a wakeup call for the country. “I left the ending of the film open, because I wanted it to inspire thought and conversation around the issues, and for people who see it to leave with the feeling that, yes, the rebellious sequence with the police is disturbing, and so now let’s talk about it and the environment that led to it,” he said. “Then maybe some real understanding can begin.”
“Les Misérables” is now in limited release from Amazon Studios.