Director: Ladj Ly
Reviewed by: Anne Trevarthen
The title may seem familiar but this hard-hitting story of life in a Paris banlieue is far removed from Victor Hugo’s monumental 19th century novel. And yet, perhaps, not so far. Times and circumstances may have changed, but in modern day France urban communities are still painfully divided between the smug, affluent ‘haves’ and the dirt poor, disenfranchised ‘have nots’. The so-called mauvais quartiers have become virtual no-go areas and the resultant social crises demand positive action and attention.
Montfermeil is a ‘sensitive’ urban suburb in the north east of Paris. It is one of the areas outside the peripherique where France built a forest of massive, high rise buildings for its new arrivals. Now it is a ghetto for the descendants of those immigrants. These young people suffer from unemployment and poverty and, too often, end up resorting to drug dealing and various illegal means of survival.
In Ladj Ly, France has a gifted and astute film-maker who can make films as powerful and socially arresting as those of Ken Loach. Ly dropped out of school, learnt his craft in the field and has now created a film school which is free and open to all.
This film is art. It is a frightening alarm call about human lives wasted. Yet Montfermeil is not poor; it contains a rich and explosive mixture of energy and vital cultures from around the world.
One is struck by the dramatic contrast between the film’s opening and closing scenes. It opens with an ocean of what are often described as ‘immigrant’ faces rapturously celebrating their Frenchness as France wins the soccer World Cup. The closing scene? Well, that is for you to discover for yourself.
The only active presence of any kind of law enforcement is an armed, anti-criminality brigade, which patrols the neighbourhood, wearing bulletproof vests as uniform. The film follows them over a period of 24 hours. They represent a credible cross-section of the French population: Stéphane, who has just joined the trio from outside of Paris, follows the rules and expresses himself politely; Chris is a racist and a bully; Gwada, who is French of African origin, is well informed about the multi-cultural population they deal with but stressed by the constantly worsening tensions.
The film’s unfolding dramas are inspired by an alarming number of cases of police violence which have never been properly investigated. There is, within this ethnically mixed community, a long history of alliances and feuds. The circus people are regularly victimised; the theft of their baby lion offers an opportunity for a threatening display of bodybuilding prowess, the waving of pick handles and the blaring of propaganda over the public address system.
Muslim propagandists mumble moral lectures to the young and fail to make them attend the Mosque. The boss of the area is a charismatic character whom one must visit on his own territory. A veritable Mafia capo. The mediators who are put in place are but a feeble and tokenistic gesture by the state to facilitate negotiations between the people and the mayor.
A revealing and very welcome higher level visual perspective is achieved by a small black child, who films events with his drone. He will end up in possession of a piece of evidence which has the potential not only to help justice but also cause an insurrection.
Meanwhile, a new force is gathering momentum: the ‘microbes’, the nickname for the skinny, restless urchins – boys and girls – from Arab or African origin, who speak their own impenetrable language, live on the streets and every day go in search of cheap or free ways of occupying themselves. One wonders what they will become. Their older brothers and sisters are evidence of the disillusion and alienation resulting from almost 30 years of near-abandonment by the state.
One is left not knowing how the revolt will end. The film leaves us to our own devices, weighing up whether the situation is repairable or not. Sadly, for some of the protagonists, redemption or rehabilitation is simply not possible.
This film is not an easy watch. But it is an essential watch, for this is France in 2019. This is not Victor Hugo’s France. Ly offers up an uncompromising, inside track glimpse of another reality. It is one that will leave your legs shaky as you depart the cinema.
The Even Hand’s guest reviewer is Anne Trevarthen, a retired lecturer in literature at the University of Paris.