Urban Chaos

Ladj Ly is a French filmmaker from Montfermeil, in the eastern suburbs of Paris. He began by making short films with his friends, including Romain Gavras and Kim Chapiron, as part of the Kourtrajmé collective. Now he delivers his scorching debut Les Misérables, a story of police violence that won the Jury Prize in Cannes in 2019 and was also nominated this year for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

ASFF: Considering the title, were you trying to capture the spirit of Victor Hugo’s classic novel in some way?
LL: The title was an obvious pick in a way, because I come from Montfermeil and the novel by Victor Hugo has parts set in Montfermeil. As kids, it’s a story that we are told very often but I would say a century after Hugo wrote his novel, there is still a lot of poverty and misery in this neighbourhood, so the title is more a wink to Hugo’s novel than anything else.

ASFF: Were you basing the story on true events?
LL: As I always say, everything is true! Everything in the film is also inspired by what I lived, what my friends lived, and what the people in the neighbourhood lived. I saw myself in a lot of what happened in the film, and visually when I was staging my scenes – when I placed the camera, placed the actors – I knew very well how to do it because it’s something I had experienced.

ASFF: The film won a prize in Cannes and was nominated for an Oscar. Are you surprised how everyone loves the film?
A total surprise. I had no idea of the impact this film would have. Just before Cannes, we were completely trembling before the screening. We were convinced the press would be against us! We had no idea. We were completely taken aback. We were looking for negative reviews and we couldn’t find any! Even right-wing papers were positive. The way the media always treats the problems of the suburbs, in a negative way, we just thought it would be part of the reaction. The logical conclusion would be for us to be just completely taken down.

ASFF: Are you particularly keen on young people from the suburbs seeing the film?
LL: It’s difficult to discover which audiences have seen the film, but essentially what we saw [in France] was that kids from the suburbs would go to town to go and see it so they would actually go and find the film because it’s a film that’s talking about them. They wanted to see how they were being depicted in the film.

ASFF: Did you experience a tough childhood yourself? How did you make the transition to filmmaker?
LL: Personally I had a very happy childhood, within my family and so on. But the opportunities to do what I’ve been doing were not there. It wasn’t an obvious thing to do. Growing up in this particular place, it wasn’t even something I could think about, that cinema was a job that you can do. But I had a couple of school friends who were connected more to film. Their parents were. And meeting these people from outside then became this kind of catalyst for us to make films together.

Director Ladj Ly drew from his own experiences growing up in Montfermeil. “I’ve lived through this,” he says.

Les Misérables is in cinemas from 4 September. For more details, click here.

James Mottram