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A film by Philippe Pujol

Devout, houseproud Élisabeth used the last 90 Euros of her savings to fight for custody of her four grandchildren, who had been abandoned by their mother, her daughter. She has her hands full, especially with the three young boys, disobedient Tony, angry Louis and sweet, wayward Daniel.

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Émilia, articulate and socially aware, lives in the shadow of the great cranes which are relentlessly demolishing the old buildings of the quartier and putting up a concrete jungle of apartment blocks in their place. She acknowledges that there is poverty and deprivation here, yet cherishes the vibrant community spirit of Saint-Mauront, the poorest neighbourhood of Marseille and one of the most socially underprivileged in Europe.

Kader is a cocky, charismatic rapper, who rules the roost from his street corner patch. He says the majority of local residents used to be Romani people, like him. They gave the area the nickname l‘Espagne (Spain). Now he says it’s more cosmopolitan, with black, Arab, white and Chinese people moving in, as well as migrants from Camoros and Cape Verde.

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Parish priest Fr. Vincent first came here in 1988 and was sent back in 2003. Brought up by a politically active single mother, he accepts that the nature of the priestly vocation is “… braving the unknown to do good”. With help from local kids, his current project is the renovation of a filthy, abandoned swimming pool for use by the community.

Madame Tabet is the self-appointed neighbourhood watch, watering plants for sick neighbours, patrolling the streets at crack of dawn to photograph overnight fly-tipping. She laments the catastrophic disintegration of the neighbourhood where she has lived all her life and takes the lead at public meetings to complain about anti social behaviour, police indifference, lack of infrastructure and funding

Zineb came to France from Morocco and was enslaved by her abusive sister, who attempted to marry her off at 16. After an abortion, she fled to Marseille and is now at the centre of a large, adoring family, holding daily court on the Rue du Jet d’Eau, offering wise counsel to lost souls like young Louis.

In defiance of a passing police vehicle, she gleefully demonstrates how the street gets its name.  Armed with a pair of grips, she turns the faucet in the drain and directs the gushing water supply into a public shower.

These are the real-life dramatis personae of Keeping It Real (in French, Péril sur la Ville – Peril over the City), a powerful, beautifully shot and eloquently understated documentary by Philippe Pujol, who grew up in Saint-Mauront and needs no narrator to tell his story.

It is clear from the confiding tone of the exchanges between locals and film maker that Pujol is immersed in the characters and rituals of the Butte Bellevue, where summer life is played out, night and day, on the streets. Soaring aerial shots capture the apt name of the area, whose jigsaw of russet tiled roofs and maze of narrow passageways do indeed make for a beautiful view.

But close up, the pictures tell another story. The central narrative thread reveals the indifference of Marseille’s municipal authorities to these hard scrabble lives, which have been regularly dismissed by the powers-that-be as ‘scum’.  An evolving Neighbourhood Development Project will plough a new road through the quartier, unclogging traffic jams, building hundreds of new apartments and irreparably shredding its precious community spirit.

Slum landlords, lack of sanitation, urban decay, security, lawlessness are just a few of the issues which plague the population of Rue du Jet d’Eau, Rue Barbini, Rue Sainte Victorine and Rue Fontaine.  Young hoods zig zag showily along the narrow streets, ducking, diving and dealing, doing a bit of petty crime here, smoking a bit of dope there. Theirs is a world far removed from the affluence of Marseille’s commercial and shopping areas and the postcard prettiness of its magnificent port and old town.

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While the neighbourhood disintegrates, the human spirit remains undiminished. Pujol shows us hope in a handful of despair. At twilight, two small girls sit on a pavement, singing a pretty song ; Louis’s furious little face brightens as the prospect of a second chance is dangled before him; Zineb bids her beautiful daughter a sad farewell as she leaves to further her ambitions; Kader gingerly edges towards a life which offers the prospect of self improvement and the opportunity to help others.


Keeping it Real (Péril sur la Ville) : A film by Philippe Pujol (duration 57 mins) is available on ARTE TV

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