Ladj Ly And The Making of Les Miserables (2019)
Updated: Apr 5, 2020
By: Amir Ganjavie
Critically acclaimed at Cannes, and nominated for the French’s entry for Oscars, Les Misérables is the first feature film by Ladj Ly whose career includes several documentaries and short films. Similar to his documentaries, this film emphasizes realistic depictions of life, and it hopes to to familiarize us with the harsh and violent conditions of life in the outskirts of Paris. Several directors have shown the reality of life in Paris where life has never been easy for its ethnic immigrants, and Les Misérables is no exception.
The film shows us the lives of a group of police officers who are confronted by a criminal group’s lead by children. The encounters between the police and the children are engaging and tragic, and the film does not favour group over another. Just as we understand the reasons for involvement of these children in criminal activities, we also sympathize with the police officers and witness their everyday struggles. The director used his camera to document these lives, and he offers the audience a non-ideological view into the lives of these people, even though it is clear which side the director feels closer to. At Cannes Film Festival, I had the chance to talk with Ladj Ly; the interview emphasises the process of making this film, and the problems Ladj Ly faced as an independent filmmaker.
Amir Ganjavie, UniversalCinema Magazine (UM): I watched your film at both Tiff and Cannes and I really like it, especially the way that you tried to represent even the police as humans and not just villains in a story with a clear distinction between good and bad. Can you say more about how you familiarized yourself with these topics?
Ladj Ly (LL): I tried to humanize everybody because for me Les Miserables includes both those who live in that part of town and the police. The police also spend all of their time in that part of town and when they go home they also live in some not very impressive buildings. I tried to put all of them together because they share this aspect of living in one quarter. For five or six years I was part of something called Cop Watch, which is where you shadow the police, and there was a case where I shot a video. I shot problematic behaviour by the police and I put it on the internet with the result that they were fired. That was how my career started.
UM: How long did the shooting take?
LL: Six weeks.
UM: How did you raise the necessary funds for the film?
LL: It was practically impossible to get any funding because there are institutions in France that would support projects but we got nothing from them. The film cost 1.4 million euros but normally a film like this would cost at least 3 million. Since I shot it in the area where I live, a lot of people gave a hand. It was like a collective effort to shoot the film because the means were so limited.
UM: The film is very radical but at the end you decided not to give any direction about what will happen. Why did you have that open ending?
LL: I didn’t want to take sides. I wanted to present things the way they were. So, from the opening scene with the World Cup until the final one with the kids, all I did was to be a witness but not to push it one way or the other. Therefore, I left the end the way it is so that it makes a logical sequence to the way the film is shot.
UM: The police and their performance are very touching and real. How did you familiarize them with their roles? Did they take lessons from real police or was it just you that give them direction?
LL: Well, the origin of the film is a short film also called Les Miserables with the same three actors. What I did was an immersion of the actors with the real police and they went with them on patrol. They showed them how to tie people’s hands, how to do everything else. They had a practical lesson in how the police act before shooting start.
UM: One can’t neglect the beautiful performance of the kids, who behave in a very touching way in the film. How did you pick the actors for these roles?
LL: All of the kids are non-professionals. They’re all local kids from the city. The only three professional actors are the policemen. I found it very interesting to mix the two because the kids give it an authenticity since it is their story in many ways. The professionals and the non-professionals worked very well together.
UM: How did you decide whether their acting was good or bad? What do you define as a good acting?
LL: I am very particular about how everything sound right and I can tell in two seconds whether or not it’s genuine. Sometimes I actually set up the scene, turn away, and keep my headset on. Then by listening to people talk I can tell very quickly whether or not it’s genuine. Of course, their appearance does matter but I feel that if they sound right then the rest is going to be right.
UM: There is some violence in the film, such as the main kid’s face look. How did you create those scenes?
LL: I grew up in an area like that so it becomes part of my life because I live through it every day. For instance, the final scene in the stairwell where you see the policemen on the floor crying, with blood running – that happened in my building. It was on another floor and I actually went up and watched it. You have to remember that these kids are all from these areas so they’ve seen it all before thousands of times. It’s part of their daily life.
UM: The film starts with the celebration of the World Cup victory in France. What is the significance of those kind of moments in your film? Do you want to suggest that there is a unity in France which is sometimes is totally forgotten?
LL: I feel that soccer is actually the one thing that unites the French. During events such as this celebration, everybody is together but the minute that it’s over you go back to where you came from, to your social class, so I wanted to stress that all that’s left to unite the French is soccer.
UM: And, do you hope that same "togetherness" happens with your film?
LL: Of course I hope that. I would love for this film to have a positive effect because the way that I made the film was it will leave people with some hope. If you look at the very final shot, the policeman doesn’t shoot. He doesn’t throw the Molotov cocktail. It’s a way of saying “Hey guys, let’s get together and talk about it.” It’s very tense but nothing actually happens. I mean, everything happens because there’s a gun and there’s a Molotov cocktail but neither one of them uses it.
UM: The police can’t easily enforce the law in the neighbourhood . They need to go to the butcher for help. Is this something that actually happens in this type of suburb?
LL: For the last 30 years all these people were left alone on their own by the authorities and people who live there have to take care of themselves. The fact is that the police who patrol these areas are special troops with a totally different way of operating. They can do whatever they want to. It is extremely rare that something is done about them. It’s very, very different from the regular police force.
UM: As the film shows, the Internet and social media have become very important to make people aware of what is happening in those kind of areas.
LL: I have been a member of a group since 1996 and practically everything that I have done up to now was aired through the internet because you can’t very well go to an established network with anything that is controversial. Nobody is going to take it. The only way to be seen, to be heard, and for all of this material to be distributed, is through the internet. People in those places are very happy about it because it’s their only way of showing what they want to show without any censorship.