‘Les Misérables’: French Cinema Is Insular, and Director Ladj Ly Wants to Shake It Up

His first feature has been nominated for an Oscar, but Ladj Ly has even bigger goals: Make French cinema make room for more filmmakers like him.
"Les Misérables"
"Les Misérables"

Ladj Ly’s racially charged feature debut, “Les Misérables,” which won the 2019 Jury Prize at Cannes, was selected by France’s Oscar committee as the country’s submission for the international feature film competition. It was a historical decision, as it marked the first time that France chose a film by a black filmmaker to represent it at the Academy Awards.

Now officially nominated in the category, should it win, it would set another record: the first time that a film by a black filmmaker has won the Oscar in the seven decades the category has existed.

Ly faces stiff competition, with Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” almost guaranteed to win the category. However, Ly understands the context of his nomination for his career, but for other black French filmmakers as well.

“You can probably count the number of black filmmakers in France on one hand, because French cinema is still a closed system that favors the elite,” Ly said. “People who look like me are not expected to participate, so the attention the film is getting sends an important message to those who want to make films, but never thought of it as something that’s meant for them, because they don’t see themselves on the screen.”

Per Ly, “Les Misérables” has inspired conversations around the insularity of French cinema culture. It has also ignited discussions around the issues the film provocatively tackles, and Ly is working toward a future France in which young French people of color find access. He believes that the system, as it exists, will not accommodate them.

To that end, Ly spearheads a free film school called Kourtrajmé, the same name as the filmmaking collective where he got his start 20 years ago. Open to anyone, it provides particular opportunities for French youth of color to learn the craft, network, and become part of the next generation of French filmmakers.

Ly and fellow black French filmmaker, Mati Diop (“Atlantics”) were part of the Competition category at Cannes last year. It’s very rare for a black filmmaker to makes the competition cut; the selection of two films was historic. In the last decade, prior to Ly and Diop, just four black filmmakers have seen their feature films selected: Mahamat Saleh Haroun (2010 and 2013), Lee Daniels (2012), Abderrahmane Sissako (2014), and Spike Lee (2018).

“Today, you look at people like me and Mati Diop, a new generation of black French filmmakers, addressing serious issues that affect us, like immigration, and doing so in our own way,” Ly said. “She’s French. I’m French. We were born in France, even though our parents weren’t. And we want to break into a system that has historically kept us out, even though it exploited our foreparents.”

Ly knows firsthand what it’s like to feel invisible and marginalized. He’s from Montfermeil, where “Les Misérables” unfolds, and where Victor Hugo set the story of his 1862 novel of the same name that loosely inspired Ly’s film. It’s where the filmmaker continues to live.

Growing up, because he rarely saw people who looked like him on French theatrical and television screens, he instead was fulfilled by watching imported American films with black casts. He counts the work of Spike Lee, as well as titles like “New Jack City,” “Boyz n the Hood,” “Training Day,” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” as films that inspired him.

“They were the only films that I could identify with as a young black man living in France, where I couldn’t recognize myself in any of the characters and scenarios,” he said. “And so I found most French films tedious to watch.”

Before electrifying the press at Cannes last year with “Les Misérables,” Ly gained some notoriety with a short documentary focusing on three weeks of riots in 2005 that took place in Montfermeil. The riots involved primarily youth of African descent in an uprising stoked by increased unemployment, poor housing conditions, and routine harassment at the hands of the police. It resulted in the death of two teenagers, and multiple injuries.

Ly interviewed people on all sides to get a complete picture of what happened. It was a tactic that he later employed in “Les Misérables,” capturing every point of view in a film that tells a similar story of events that lead up to an uprising against an anti-crime brigade in Montfermeil.

“Scenes of young men throwing Molotov cocktails at an overwhelmed police was all over the television news,” he said. “And then it occurred to me that no one had ever made the connection between Hugo’s Gavroche [the character who became synonymous with marginalized youth living on the streets], dying in the barricades of Saint-Denis street [the center of the Paris uprising of 1832, immortalized in Hugo’s novel], to those young kids in 2005, who had to go up against the violence of law enforcement. So, following the 2005 events, I picked up a camera and filmed my city for a year.”

From the footage came the 2007 documentary, “365 Jours à Clichy-Montfermeil” (“365 Days in Clichy-Montfermeil”), which would eventually inspire a 2017 narrative short film, and then the production of the feature “Les Misérables” a year later.

Ly spent the last 15 years working to make his own cinematic voice heard. The success that “Les Misérables” has achieved so far represents major progress in terms of visibility, especially for black filmmakers in France.

“I think it’s really important to have some hope that there will be more and more people like me who get to tell their own stories,” he said. “But I can only hope that it will allow me to continue to make films the way that I want to, because it was really challenging trying to get this one made, when it came to finding the money for it. So it would be good if it wasn’t so difficult the next time.”

“Les Misérables” is now in limited release from Amazon Studios.

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