“We have the impression that the politicians don’t care. […] If you really want to make a revolution, you have to be in the streets every day.”
Les Miserables’ Ladj Ly on the infamous Parisian suburb of Les Bosquets, his community driven approach to filmmaking, and the shaky socio-political climate in present-day France
Unless you’re familiar with César-winning short films, Ladj Ly is not a name you’ll likely have heard prior to Cannes. His first feature, Les Misérables, beat out the likes of Tarantino, Almodóvar, Loach and Dolan to claim the Jury Prize. By debuting in Competition, Ladj circumnavigated the traditional route to Cannes prestige: entering via the Cinéfondation, before finding oneself listed under the Director’s Fortnight or Un Certain Regard, and then into Competition with your second or third feature. It’s a fitting introduction, and victory, for the first French person of colour ever to be nominated for Cannes’ most prestigious prize – an ugly blot on Cannes’ tux lapel urgently scrubbed away, buffing the shine in the process.
Les Misérables debuted early on the Cannes programme, the second film to premiere after Jim Jarmusch’s far more hotly anticipated The Dead Don’t Die. Unlike The Dead Don’t Die, however, Les Misérables was released to near-unanimous praise. Literally overnight, Ladj Ly became a name carried through murmurs to the thousands of delegates in and around the grandiose Palais, the long stretches of the Croisette, and up into the cheaper AirBnBs and hotels of Le Cannet. The film’s U.S. distribution rights were almost immediately picked up by Amazon for $1.5m, the biggest sale ever at Cannes for a first-time director. And this was all before the Jury Prize. I was able to sit down with Ladj and three of his central cast – Djibril Zonga, Damien Bonnard, and Alexis Manenti – on the murky Friday afternoon subsequent to the film’s premiere.
Ladj is representative of the next, hopeful generation of auteurs, a diverse cast of men and women who stand out from the traditionally straight, white, male hegemony. And, unlike the majority of his contemporaries, Ladj does not stem from a privileged, bourgeois upbringing. Born in Paris, Ladj moved to Montfermeil – the Parisian district made famous by Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – in January 1980, where he was the first French Malian to move into the notorious Les Bosquets social estate. “I’m also going to be the last to leave because the tower block where I lived is going to be taken down,” Ladj notes. It’s also where, as a teenager, his interest in filmmaking was first piqued. “I did my first film in Les Bosquets when I was seventeen. I know that I’m deeply rooted into this neighbourhood.”
This familiarity emanates throughout Les Misérables. It’s partially, at least, his first-person, authentic understanding of the social strata within Les Bosquets – and the wider city of Paris – which makes his Les Misérables so gripping. “My next feature film, which I’m writing right now, will be set there. And so will the third one. This city, this neighbourhood, is my cinema studio, in a way.” It’s this belief in film as an extension of community which sits as the very core of Ladj’s principles as a filmmaker. In 1996 he founded a filmmaking collective, Kourtrajmé, with a group of friends. Six months ago they established a film school of the same name, the aim being to diversify the film industry from the ground up. “We feel it’s important to train the next generation in filmmaking,” argues Ladj. And it’s no small feat, or small aspiration, which Ladj and Kourtrajmé yearn to achieve.
“It’s a school that anyone can access – there’s no fee. There are no prior studies which could be a condition to enter. We’ve already trained thirty youngsters in scriptwriting, film direction, and production. We did five short films with them, and we had ten scripts which were written. It’s always the same kind of function: we help people, we train people, we help them to film, we help them to see them project, and then we help them to produce.” Ladj doesn’t want his community-driven approach to filmmaking to stop with the impoverished suburbs of Paris. “In June we’re going to Africa, we’ll be working five countries – Mali, Bukina Faso, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Morocco.” These are virtuous, respectable ambitions, but it does conjure the question – where is the government in all of this?
“Well, I grew up in this neighbourhood, and in a way, we always did everything on our own,” says Ladj. “[Kourtrajmé] never had any help, never had any subsidies. The state is not necessarily going to help us. We know these territories; we know these neighbourhoods.” The image Ladj paints of the French government, in terms of support shown towards the impoverished youth of such social estates as Les Bosquets, is one defined by inertia. “We’ve been waiting for thirty years for the government and nothing has really happened. We just had to step in, we had to take charge, and start changing things. We don’t want anything imposed on us. We know these territories, and we know how to act.”
An appreciable distrust of authority figures is the key idea underpinning the narrative of Les Misérables. But Ladj hopes that Les Misérables will help to restructure the social hegemony for good. “It’s an appeal to the government, and especially to Emmanuel Macron. I sent him a personal message saying that we were ready to show him the film if he wanted to, as I felt it was necessary for him to see it. I’ve got the impression that he somehow forgot about reality and lives in his own bubble – that he’s forgotten how much people can suffer. It’s high time for us to actually take charge.” Ladj’s revolutionary spirit and demonstrable energy for social change is thunderous.
This revolutionary mindset, his drive for community inclusion, and rejection of structuralism don’t only form the baseline for his film – in actuality, they all come together to fuel his creative filmmaking process. Djibril Zonga, who portrayed Gwada, one of Les Misérables’s three central protagonists, says of Ladj: “He’s very spontaneous. When he comes on set, and all of sudden, if there’s an element – something or somebody that happens outside of set, which is interesting to him – he just brings it in. You must be open to this very intense way of living in the present moment, and putting that into the film. It’s very refreshing and interesting.”
Les Misérables, of course, comes at a time of great social disruption in Paris, led by the gilets jaunes movement. For Ladj, while the frustrations of the gilets jaunes are understandable – and similar to his own – their action is not enough to be heard. “We really have the impression that the politicians don’t care. We don’t feel it’s enough to go in the streets every Saturday – if you really want to make a revolution, you have to be in the streets every day, because what politicians really care about is figures. If you stop the economies, then somehow they’ll find the necessary money. They’ll open the drawer and get some money out.”
Ladj is as confident in his accusations against the French government, his statements about social inequality, and belief in a community-driven approach to filmmaking, as he is in his persona. It’s something I witnessed first-hand at the premiere of Les Misérables, from the upper balcony of the Grand Théâtre Lumière. Ladj entered to a roaring ovation, sunglasses adorned, tux fitted, and with no demonstrable sense of imposter syndrome. He, quite simply, exudes raw confidence; and not the kind laced with naiveté or delusion, as you might expect from a first-timer.
As a representative of so many firsts, so many communities, and so many people within France, Ladj carries an immense level of responsibility upon his shoulders. He does so with a cool swagger, self-awareness, and genuine self-belief.