10 Directors to Watch: Oscar Contender Ladj Ly Confronts the System in ‘Les Misérables’

Oscar-shortlisted French director Ly — whose family emigrated from Mali to the outskirts of Paris, where he was born and raised — found his vision of cinema shaped by American films. “I watched a lot of films with African-American actors,” he says. “I watched ‘Menace II Society,’ ‘New Jack City’ and ‘Boyz n the Hood.’ I watched Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese films. Those films really inspired me growing up.”

When he was 17 years old, Ly bought his first camera. With no formal training, he taught himself on the job, shooting short films about life in Montfermeil, the Paris suburb where Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” took place — and the setting of Ly’s film of the same name. It premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.

For more than 20 years, Ly has been making documentaries highlighting the problems of life in
his neighborhood. Ly has filmed the tensions between law enforcement and civilians. With “Les Misérables,” he wanted to make a commentary on how little things have progressed since Hugo wrote his famous novel. In his film, the social problems are the same, but the underdogs are immigrants.

The feature was a big change for someone used to doing things alone. “I wrote, I edited, I was shooting. Suddenly, I’ve got a team of 15 people around me,” he says of working with his crew. “When it came to casting the film, I knew the actors who played the cops, but I also recruited locals. The kids actually lived in the neighborhood.”

Around the same time he was making “Les Miserables,” Ly also launched a free film school called Kourtrajmé.

“The goal was to make it accessible to everyone because film schools are expensive. We want to see filmmakers all the way through to producing their projects,” explains the director, who feels that the French film industry’s doors are closed to diversity. “I’m trying to shift boundaries with the movie, with the school and with production.”

Agency: CAA

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