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Ladj Ly’s “Les Misérables” and the Fusion of Narrative and Nonfiction Footage

French filmmaker mined 100 hours of documentary footage shot in the wake of the 2005 Paris riots for his feature.

Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables swept the audiences at Cannes last year, taking home the Jury Prize and ultimately securing a distribution deal with Amazon Studios.

Starring Djibril Zonga, Damien Bonnard and Alexis Manenti, Les Misérables follows three members of Montfermeil’s Anti-Crime Brigade, who become caught up in chaos following a violent conflict with local youth. Based on Ly’s 2017 short film of the same name, the feature-length movie emerged from the nearly 100 hours of documentary footage he had shot of police activity following the 2005 riots in the suburbs of Paris.

Read more: Les Misérables – Authentic, Communal, Cinematic

“Those riots would long leave a mark on Ly’s own neighborhood of Montfermeil,” writes Deadline’s Matt Grober. “2005 was really…like a revolution for us, especially in these neighborhoods. The young people in these neighborhoods continue to be abandoned, continue to be forgotten,” Ly told Grober following an Awardsline screening of the film. “For me, I find it important to be able to bear witness to what is happening there, because it really is a cry for help. That whole riot was really a cry to say, ‘Enough is enough.’”

Les Misérables has struck a chord in France, inside and outside the projects,” Adam Nossiter writes for the New York Times, noting that Ly first picked up a camera at 17, quickly making it part of his identity: “In Les Misérables, he brings the Paris suburbs crashing into the viewer’s head, using some traditional narrative techniques — the rookie cop’s initiation, the police chase, the buddy-movie, the long crescendo of violence. But these are only vehicles to help project the thought that drives Mr. Ly’s vision, along with his use of neighborhood residents in supporting roles.”

Dade Hayes, writing for Deadline, notes that Montfermeil is the same location where much of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel “Les Misérables” is set, a fact that is referenced in the film: “As Ly noted, the area ‘still suffers from poverty’ and its largely immigrant and underclass population frequently clashes with police,” Hayes writes. “Ly said he discovered the power of images and filmmaking when he captured footage of police brutality in his community. His film delivers a wealth of these authentic moments, from quiet and contemplative moments to elaborate set pieces, such as the riot sequence in the stairwell of a public housing development.”

“As the new Les Misérables opens, France has just won the World Cup and an ecstatic group of black teenagers is making its way into central Paris. The streets are flooded with people from all backgrounds draped in the colors of the French flag.

“Les Misérables,” directed by Ladj Ly. SRAB Films, Courtesy of Amazon Studios
“Les Misérables,” directed by Ladj Ly. SRAB Films, Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“This is the France the country’s politicians love to idealize — a country where people of all classes, colors and religions can feel united under a common French fierté,” Rebecca Rosman writes for NPR:

“But then the scene shifts to the dreary working-class suburb of Montfermeil. It’s a place plagued by police violence, ethnic clashes and little opportunity. Lined with high-rise housing projects, factories and dingy kebab shops, it looks nothing like the Paris audiences are used to seeing on screen.”

Steve Tientcheu in “Les Misérables,” directed by Ladj Ly. SRAB Films, Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Steve Tientcheu in “Les Misérables,” directed by Ladj Ly. SRAB Films, Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Ly doesn’t point a finger directly at the institutions that influence his characters behavior, but they are the film’s true villains, Marshall Shaffer observes in Slant Magazine. “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,” Ly tells Shaffer, referring to the film’s postscript, which was taken from Hugo’s novel: “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.” Ly adds, “What was important for me was to describe situations in an accurate way and not cast judgment, including on the characters.”

“I want to tell about life there from the inside, without casting any judgement and without taking sides. As is clear, this is not an anti-cop film,” Ly said via an interpreter at a Q&A following a screening of the film in New York City, Juliette Verlaque writes for The Wrap. “The goal here was to humanize every character, whether it’s the dealers, the religious figures, or the cops… these are not mere black and white figures.”

Writing for Moveable Feast, Stephen Saito notes that, for Ly, filmmaking is his personal weapon of choice:

“The director seems to resist speaking about filmmaking in technical terms, describing it as instinctual like muscle memory from bringing scenes he witnessed in real life into the drama, but there’s a dazzling sophistication on display as he tracks the fallout in all corners of the community from a confrontation between the young African-American boys in the neighborhood and a trio of cops, including longtime partners Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga) and their new charge Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), both more officious and less hardened than who he accompanies on the ride-along. Inspired by the time Ly captured footage of a police beating that ended with the accidental discharge of a firearm in 2008, the nailbiter revolves around the anxieties felt by all involved when the incident is caught on camera and the officers attempt to find the source and stop its dissemination online.”

“The giddy joy and strong sense of unity that pulsates throughout the opening montage of Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is as stirring as it is fleeting,” Chris Barsanti writes in his review of the film for Slant Magazine. But the scene of national harmony soon takes a darker turn as, several minutes later, Ly shows that it’s little more than a bad joke as he shifts into what first appears to be a traditionally gritty cop narrative:

“Ly knows how to pile stressors onto his characters until they’re practically vibrating with tension. But he goes beyond simply putting Chris, Ruiz, and Gwada through their Training Day-like paces, following each of them home to show how the varyingly bleak conditions within further roil their already tense and suspicious mindsets. The filmmaker shoots most of Les Misérables with a crisp verisimilitude that comes from having grown up in the area and gone through most of the situations he dramatizes. But a few elements here feel over the top compared to the more careful drama that characterizes much of the film, such as the somewhat distracting absurdity of having so much of the plot hinge on the theft of a lion cub.”

Shot on a shoestring budget, Ly initially planned on doing his own cinematography, Jazz Tangcay writes for Variety, until he met Julien Poupard. “We met, and we quickly realized we had the same vision,” Ly told Tangcay. “When it came to casting the film, I knew the actors who played the cops, but I also recruited locals; the kids actually lived in the neighborhood.”

“Usually when you go to a location, you’re not especially welcomed,” admits Poupard in an interview with Benjamin B. “And there it was the opposite. Ladj knows everyone, so we saw the very warm relationships between people. I was accepted and could go everywhere. I discovered a different way of seeing the place. Ladj says it is his open-air studio. It’s a place he knows so well and he really wanted to communicate about it. That was the key to the film: the fact that he lives there. What’s great about working with Ladj is that he really has something to say.”

“Les Misérables,” directed by Ladj Ly. SRAB Films, Courtesy of Amazon Studios
“Les Misérables,” directed by Ladj Ly. SRAB Films, Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“Ladj’s first desire was for a documentary approach,” Poupard continues. “He wanted the camera to be like a human character. But he also wanted elements from an action film. He wanted a mélange of handheld and other moments with Steadicam, grip and drones. So we had to succeed in mixing all of that. To read the full interview, click here.

Ly remains frustrated that there are so few filmmakers of color in France, he tells Variety’s Pat Saperstein. “French cinema is very closed; it’s reserved for a certain elite. You can count the black filmmakers on one hand,” he says. That’s one of the primary reasons Ly started his film school, called Kourtrajmé, which is tuition-free and offers opportunities to join the next generation of French storytellers. “Since the election of Macron, there’s more social problems,” Ly adds. “We’ve been protesting these conditions in our cities for 20 years, but nothing is happening. Before, people didn’t care because it was the suburbs, but now it touches everyone in France.”

Looking for more on Les Miserables?

Read more: Les Miserables Director Ladj Ly Shares His Favorite Scene (Variety)

Read more: A Movie Torn From the Pages of His Life (New York Times)

Steve Tientcheu, Omar Soumare in “Les Misérables,” directed by Ladj Ly. SRAB Films, Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Steve Tientcheu, Omar Soumare in “Les Misérables,” directed by Ladj Ly. SRAB Films, Courtesy of Amazon Studios

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