×

‘Les Miserables’ Director Ladj Ly: ‘We’ve Been Protesting These Conditions in Our Cities for 20 Years’

Director Ladj Ly’s first narrative feature, “Les Misérables,” was selected for official competition at the Cannes Film Festival, and this week plays at the Sarajevo Film Festival.

Anyone who thinks the story is a retelling of the Victor Hugo classic would be mistaken. But there’s a reason it shares the same title: Part of the book takes place in Montfermeil, the working-classic suburb where Ly grew up. “A century later, there’s still misery in this area,” Ly says. “Police violence remains a factor.”

Although getting “Les Misérables” into Cannes Competition represents a major jump forward in visibility, Ly has spent the past 22 years trying to bring attention to the conditions in areas such as Montfermeil. Now, with a sputtering economy and widespread protests in France, he thinks audiences might finally be ready to listen. Ly talked to Variety about his film.

“Les Misérables,” about three members of an anti-crime brigade who confront tensions between neighborhood gangs, started out as a Cesar-winning short film. It was inspired by the 2005 riots in Paris, incorporating several real-life moments, such as the drone footage capturing the events.

A fan of Spike Lee, Ly also admires French director Jacques Audiard and documentarian Raymond Depardon. Ly was inspired to become a filmmaker after seeing Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 “La Haine,” one of the first films to show the reality of suburban life in the housing projects.

He says it’s crucial that the people who have lived in those projects get to tell their own stories. “We need to speak out, to show what the suburbs are,” he says. But he’s frustrated by how few filmmakers of color are working in France.

“French cinema is very closed; it’s reserved for a certain elite. You can count the black filmmakers on one hand,” he says. “That’s why we started our film school.” Called Kourtrajmé, the same name as the filmmaking collective where he got his start, Ly says the free school will give anyone who wants to participate the chance to network and seize the opportunity to join the next generation of French storytellers.

Starting with shorts and documentaries including “Montfermeil Les Bosquets,” his films show an insider’s view of the working-class suburb where he grew up. When two youths were electrocuted during the riots, Ly redoubled his efforts to tell the neighborhood’s stories.

“Since the election of Macron, there’s more social problems. We’ve been protesting these conditions in our cities for 20 years, but nothing is happening. Before, people didn’t care because it was the suburbs, but now it touches everyone in France.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Leonardo Dicaprio Once Upon a Time

    Leonardo DiCaprio's Earth Alliance Commits $5 Million to Amazon Fires

    Earth Alliance, an environmental initiative backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, has committed $5 million toward the preservation of the Amazon rain forest following an alarming surge in wildfires. After launching Sunday, the organization’s emergency Amazon Forest Fund is working to support local partners and indigenous communities in their efforts to protect the sensitive habitats within the [...]

  • (from left) Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson)

    Box Office: 'Hobbs & Shaw' Scores $102 Million Debut in China, Nears $600 Million Globally

    Universal’s “Hobbs & Shaw” returned to first place on the international box office charts, thanks to a massive $102 million debut in China. The “Fast & Furious” spinoff, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, collected another $120 million overseas, boosting its foreign tally to $441 million. “Hobbs & Shaw” is nearing the $600 million mark [...]

  • Angel Has Fallen

    Box Office: 'Angel Has Fallen' Rises to No. 1 With $21 Million Debut

    “Angel Has Fallen,” the third chapter in Lionsgate and Millenium’s action franchise starring Gerard Butler, had a stronger opening weekend than expected, collecting $21.25 million during its first three days of release. Those ticket sales were enough to top domestic box office charts, bumping last weekend’s champ, Universal’s comedy “Good Boys,” to second place. Starring [...]

  • Amanda

    ‘Amanda’ Takes Home Best Int’l Film at 15th Sanfic

    SANTIAGO, Chile    French director Mikhael Hers’ “Amanda” scooped up the Best Int’l Film award Saturday (Aug. 24) at the 15th Santiago Int’l Film Fest (Sanfic), which reported a 20% audience uptick in the past two years and continues to grow its reputation as the most vibrant and prominent film festival in Latin America’s Southern [...]

  • disney d23

    Cruella, Kit Harington and Black Panther's Return: Everything We Learned at D23 Day Two

    Not to be outdone by the avalanche of series orders and casting announcements bolstering the new streaming series Disney Plus, Walt Disney Studios showed off its film wares in a marathon presentation at D23 on Saturday. The Anaheim, Calif. expo brought star power, if perhaps fewer surprises than Friday’s presentation, as fans in princess and [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift'The

    Taylor Swift Downplays Association With Harvey Weinstein

    Taylor Swift’s association with disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was among the topics the singer addressed in a revealing new interview with The Guardian. Weinstein held producer credits for the movies “One Chance” and “The Giver,” both of which featured Swift — in the former, a song, and in the latter, a supporting role. She [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content