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Ladj Ly Returns to Paris Suburbs to Tackle Injustice in Les Indesirables – The Hollywood Reporter


French filmmaker Ladj Ly could scarcely have hoped for greater success with his 2019 feature-length directorial debut, Les Misérables. Born and raised in Paris’ immigrant suburbs — known as the banlieues — Ly, now 43, had been documenting the everyday hardships and injustices faced by his community since he was a teenager. Les Misérables shone a global spotlight on that project. The film, which deploys the crime thriller genre to viscerally depict the relentless cycles of police brutality against Black and Arab youth in Paris, won the jury prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival; four César Awards, including best film; and was nominated for an Oscar in the best international film category. Perhaps more important to the issues Ly cares about, French President Emmanuel Macron told local press outlets that he was “upset by the accuracy” of the film and that he would instruct his government to “hurry to find ideas and act to improve living conditions in the banlieues.”

But such professed goals have not been realized — far from it.

On June 27, Nahel Merzouk, a French 17-year-old of Moroccan and Algerian descent, was shot at point-blank range and killed during a traffic stop by a Paris police officer in the banlieues. The incident — combined with police officers’ early attempts to twist the facts of the deadly encounter before video evidence refuted their claims and laid bare that a murder had occurred — became a symbolic moment, which sparked protests and civil unrest throughout France that lasted for weeks. 

“President Macron saw my film and said he was really touched and promised to find a solution for the banlieues all over France,” Ly tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But the only solution he seems to have found is to give the police permission to kill Black and Arab people. The last case was the Nahel case, but there are so many — and our politicians seem to have no intention of finding a better solution.”

He continues: “Now they are talking about moving and displacing so many families in the projects, and they’re doing so in a very brutal way.”

I’m an artist, and my job is only to denounce the unjust reality as I see it, says Ladj Ly of his latest film, Les Indesirables. I have no solutions.”

“I’m an artist, and my job is only to denounce the unjust reality as I see it,” says Ladj Ly of his latest film, Les Indésirables. “I have no solutions.”

Stephane Cardinale – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Ly acknowledges that the surprising reach and impact of his first feature made the process of developing a follow-up somewhat daunting. 

“It is true that after the success of Les Misérables, it was very, very difficult,” he explains. “We did not expect that success. We thought this was a story that was not interesting to many people — and we never dreamed that it would have such an impact on such a big audience. That made the choice for a second film a really tough challenge for us because we were stuck pondering what story to tell that could be as strong as what tried to do with Les Misérables.”

Ultimately, it was the unending political paralysis and pattern of violence in French policy toward the banlieues that supplied the answer. 

“The inhabitants of those neighborhoods experience humiliation every single day, and that’s the absolute worst thing,” Ly says. “The violence of the police is humiliating. The experience of being completely dispossessed of your home is humiliating. My parents’ generation, who came from Africa, were humiliated; and I was born in France and I’m 100 percent French, but we continue to experience constant humiliation in this country of our home. We are treated like a different class of French people. This is the real root of why people are outraged.”

Ly’s second feature, Les Indésirables, was already underway before the June unrest exploded, but it was a response to the political situation that set the stage for those events — and so many less visible ones like them in France. The new film, which premiered Sept. 8 in competition at the Toronto International Film Festival, revolves around a young white doctor (Alexis Manenti) who is appointed mayor of a working-class Paris suburb, and a young woman of color (Anta Diaw) living in a tower block of the banlieues who becomes an activist for “the undesirables,” who are set to be forcibly relocated by the new mayor’s plans to gentrify the community. Manenti is the same actor who played the most racist cop in Les Misérables — a metatextual statement on how “racism is spread through all political institutions and branches of French society,” Ly says.

“The reason I made Les Indésirables and the reason I will make my next film is to keep exposing this situation of inaction by the politicians,” he explains.

Toronto organizers have described the film as “a timely tale of revolution,” but Ly is sanguine about cinema’s limitations on effecting real-world change.

“I’m an artist, and my job is only to denounce the unjust reality as I see it,” he says. “I have no solutions. I hope what the film will do is expose the humiliating situations that people are dealing with every day and help more people understand the situation — and why so many of us feel this rage.”

He adds: “These cycles have been going on in our society for my entire life. Macron and the other politicians hold the real political power — not artists — and if they really had the will to break this cycle, they could take actions that would help do so immediately.”  

This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.