Director Ladj Ly never expected his first narrative feature, “Les Misérables,” to be selected for official competition at the Cannes Film Festival, but the filmmaker, whose mission is to capture the reality of the Paris suburbs, is understandably thrilled about the surprise.
“I thought maybe there was a small, small chance of getting into the Directors’ Fortnight, but the Competition — wow!” he says. The 39-year-old filmmaker was signed by CAA as the festival got off the ground Tuesday.
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 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 just before arriving in Cannes for its premiere Wednesday.
“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.”