The Witnesses
By Fanta Sylla

Les Misérables
Dir. Ladj Ly, France, Amazon Studios

With his first narrative feature, Les Misérables, Ladj Ly continues a project that officially began with the 2007 documentary 365 Days in Clichy Montfermeil, a recounting of the 2005 riots that broke out in France after the death of two boys during a police chase. We could consider the riots as the founding event that sets in motion Ladj Ly’s film practice, who had been until then, a discreet member of the heterogeneous artists’ collective Kourtrajmé, founded by Kim Chapiron and Romain Gavras, sometimes appearing in his friends’ work as an actor but mainly laboring in the background. In 2004, he began a first collaboration with the photographer JR, also a member of the collective, for a series of giant black-and-white portraits of the residents of Clichy Montfermeil, the urban working class and immigrant enclave in the north-eastern suburb of Paris, where he grew up and lived, and where the social unrest was to explode a year later. Shot with urgency and economical means, 365 Days in Clichy Montfermeil is a 26-minute immersion in the crisis that propelled the French banlieues and his hometown Montfermeil into the foreground nearly fifteen years ago.

To counter the narrative of near civil war and disintegration constructed by the media and the political discourse as the events enfolded, Ladj Ly carried a digital camera over the course of a year to capture the actions, testimonies, and motivations of the young protesters; the generational rift between them and the older habitants; the role of local community organizers; and the intense confrontations with political figures like the mayor of Montfermeil and future president Nicolas Sarkozy. For many who have lived and experienced the “riots” closely, for whom the death of Zyed and Bouna was the significant event of their generation, 365 Days in Clichy Montfermeil became a rare and precious archive to return to and help make sense of what had happened.

While his Kourtrajmé peers vowed to disrupt French mainstream cinema with strange, “provocative” genre films or flee its lethargy by collaborating on projects with the likes of Kanye West and M.I.A., Ladj Ly stayed rooted in Clichy Montfermeil and loyal to the documentary form. More precisely, it is the housing projects, “Les Bosquets,” which he made the setting of 2008’s Go Fast Connexion, a caustic, parodic portrait of a con drug-dealer, or of the transmedia piece Les Bosquets (2015), another joint effort with JR, which he has returned to with regular insistence. A return not simply out of regional allegiance (or as they say to “represent”). Beyond archiving and documenting the lives around him and representing a reality too often ignored, each of his documentaries and photographs seeks to identify a social problem. Years later, as if untouched by the passing of time, Les Bosquets remains an aberration: an architectural monstrosity, a humanitarian crisis and most importantly, a reflection of political failure. In Les Misérables, his first major excursion into fiction, Ly describes the organization of this underworld and, from a banal story of police brutality inspired by real-life incident, deploys a pointed social critique of institutional failure. Usually self-effacing in his documentaries, fiction gives him license to depict this place but also to finally project himself within it. Les Misérables is the first feature of a seasoned observer, the bitter yet epic inventory of a lifetime, the sensitive portrait of a place and of the man who has relentlessly filmed it.

It is summer 2018; France has just won the World Cup. Fresh from his province of Cherbourg, Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) is joining a special section of the French police, the notorious BAC (anti-crime brigade), in the equally notorious city of Montfermeil. On his first day, his new colleagues Chris (Alexis Manenti), who gives him the nickname Pento, and Gwada (Djebril Zonga) take him for a tour of the town. “Here it is, Les Bosquets, I don’t know if you know of it,” says Gwada, as they enter the city’s infamous projects. A line, addressed to the spectator as much as to the character, which sums up Ladj Ly’s didactic intention and announces the program of the film’s first hour. Boldly, this introduction is made by one who is in the mind of the (French) spectator is an outsider, and whose view can only be unreliable. And as we can anticipate, Gwada begins a brief summary of the project’s history through its criminal idiosyncrasies: formerly a drug-trafficking hub, cleansed by the Muslim Brotherhood, it is now ridden with human trafficking coming from Nigeria. Gwada’s grim insights are enriched by Chris’s crass jokes and provocations, his imitations and speculations on the passing inhabitants who are either cursed with medieval diseases or inclined to sadistic crimes. Chris and Gwada are a contrasting duo who nevertheless complement one another: Gwada is the calm yet immature and enabling one, while Chris, domineering, impulsive, and cartoonishly racist, is running the show. From the inside of the car, the camera frames the threatening, degraded buildings and towering greenery; Les Bosquets appears like a wild and hostile planet. In a succession of encounters during which they stop-and-frisk a group of young girls they “suspect” of smoking weed, Ruiz discovers the brutal ways of the anti-crime brigade, or as Chris describes it, “the BAC spirit.”

Parallel to the impetuous progression of the three officers, the story concerns itself with a group of young kids who offer a refreshing flight into the more quotidian dimension of the projects. Shot with a palpable affection, the kids make for the best part of the film. Though clearly situated in the rich tradition of social realism, Les Misérables refuses its tendency toward grittiness; instead, Julien Poupard’s cinematography registers the warm lighting of the season while Ly’s naturalist approach captures the games and laughter, the light, post–World Cup victory mood coexisting with the shabby state of their barely equipped playground.

Two boys stand out from “the microbes” as the adult call them: the solitary Buzz (Alassane Ly) who plays with a drone he uses to leer at girls and Issa (Issa Perica), a turbulent boy arrested early in the film for stealing chickens. The two are not friends but their lives are about to collide violently.

The inciting event occurs when a lion cub is stolen from a circus owned by a local Romani family (the Lopez brothers). With the brothers threatening to stir up tensions, the officers agree to look for the animal (named Johnny), whose thief is rapidly identified as Issa. After a long search that serves as yet another initiation for Ruiz, they find the boy and chase him. The arrest turns sour when, overwhelmed by a group of heckling kids, Gwada shoots Issa in the face with his flash-ball. The sound of Buzz’s drone ruptures the stunned silence, and everyone realizes that the incident was recorded. Charged with overwhelming tension and suspense, the scene initiates a dramatic shift in tone, abandoning a relatively quiet social chronicle to flirt with the fast-paced rhythm of a thriller. Led by Chris’s selfish inquietude, the three officers pick up the wounded Issa and look for the incriminating video. Alerted by the children who witnessed the shooting, a man nicknamed The Mayor (Steve Tientcheu), whose role in the projects is to oversee and administer aspects of its daily organization and who was introduced earlier as a rival of the police officers, detects an opportunity to discredit them and begins his own investigation, interrogating his network of mediators, while Chris and Gwada look to a fink, “La Pince” (Nizar Ben Fatma), to help with a cover-up, refusing to take Issa to the hospital in spite of Ruiz’s expressed concerns.

The sequence culminates in a scene in the kebab shop where the terrified Buzz has found a refuge and where all parties finally meet. To reduce the film to its depiction of police brutality is to miss the film’s global examination of institutional failure and formation, however corrupt, exemplified here. What interests Ly is “politics” in the basic sense: the exercise of power and the organization of society. What we observe in Les Misérables are the consequences of the quasi desertion of local government, which has delegated its powers to so-called “mediators,” young men from the projects in charge of peacekeeping and supervised by The Mayor, or left the terrain to religious proselytism. Ly documents the strange alliances and petty competition between The Mayor and the officers, each side yearning to reign over the decrepit kingdom but, nevertheless, having to work together to contain a collective rage that could burst at any given moment. Above all, Ly charts what happens to the most vulnerable members of this society—children—when caught in this web of failure and corruption.

Ruiz’s moral compass prevents the film from falling into total cynicism and despair. Issa and Buzz are the emotional center; both are projections of the filmmaker, two characters through which he manages to reimagine his childhood and adolescence, and nearly forty years of a tumultuous lifetime in 48 hours. Buzz, and his drone, is more obviously an avatar of the director. Played by the director’s son, Buzz is, like him, a watchful and omniscient guardian, literally looking over from the top of his building and observing life with his drone. He’s a character who embodies a bittersweet truth: that the roles of witness and whistle blower that Ly has taken on and that have oriented his filmmaking choices, were, in a way, brutally imposed on him. In other circumstances, he may have devoted himself to a more escapist, transgressive “cinema of sensation,” like many of his other Kourtrajmé friends did, or at least tried to do, in accordance with their manifesto.

On the contrary, Ladj Ly has always used his camera to make sense of the immediate and concrete reality he lived in by documenting and interrogating it tirelessly. As such, the director’s late blooming success since the film’s premiere at Cannes last May feels somehow like justice, the reward for a relentless endurance.