It’s been 25 years since “La Haine” made the banlieue a staple of French cinema. On the back of Mathieu Kassovitz’s cinematic Molotov cocktail, movies such as “Girlhood,” “Divines,” “Cuties” and “Les Miserables” have made the concrete jungles on the outskirts of Paris a haven for cineastes. But none of them are quite like Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s remarkable “Gagarine,” which mixes French social realism with Latin American magical realism before adding a dose of stardust from space movie classics, “Solaris,” “2001” and “Star Wars.”
“Gagarine” was a Cannes Official Selection label, unveiling at the Marché du Film Online, where it was a buzz title for Totem Films, selling out around the planet. The Haut et Court production is playing as part of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in Paris.
The film is a skillful blend of reality and fiction, making use of archive material and an exciting young French cast to tell a story inspired by the French state abolishing the vast Cité Gagarine. The 370-apartment housing project in Ivry-sur-Seine on the outskirts of Paris came down in 2019. In the movie, stargazer Youri (Alséni Bathily), alongside his pals Houssam (Jamil McCraven) and Diana (Lyna Khoudri) try their best to repair their estate building, to stop health and safety officials condemning their home.
There is a hat tip to the famous Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who not only gave his name to the project but was also there to inaugurate the estate in 1963 after the French communist party took charge of the municipality. “It’s still a communist community,” says Liatard. “When they built Gagarine, there was the hope that it would be to help people have a better life, in modernity. At the same time, in society, there was the space race and governments were looking toward the future. Today, all these things may seem symbolic, but what is also true is that ideals of collective living are not really looked after by the state.”
The duo wanted to make a movie that gave an alternative perspective on life in the banlieue, avoiding all the cliches revolving around drugs and violence. Liatard argues, “The community found in these buildings and neighborhoods are very important. We find it beautiful and strong. In the movie, we argue that society has to take care of the people living in the building.”
Her co-director, Trouilh, adds that the short life of the real Gagarine estate is one highlighting a malaise in society. He says, “It’s been decades since the building of these estates on the outskirts of Paris. A place that was perceived to be the border of society. Today, the residents are suffering the consequences of the lack of attention from the political elite. I hope it will change.”
Trying to set the story straight while encouraging audiences to sympathize with the inhabitants of the condemned building, they set about humanizing the residents. “In the film, Youri is a young guy with big dreams and he’s not the only one,” says Liatard. “When we went to Gagarine in real life, we met a lot of young people on the estate who have big dreams, but sometimes they are blocked in life and their career by the image of the place where they grew up.”
The idea to imbue the story with magical realism to capture and symbolize these dreams came from the director’s fascination with South America. The directors met when they were 18 as students studying in Bordeaux. In their second year of university, they went traveling to Peru and Colombia. Liatard reminisces, “It was where we discovered magical realism in literature and cinema, and also in our conversations we had with people.”
Youri is a solitary character who seems to be on the spectrum, although this is only suggested in the film. His loneliness and feelings of alienation are represented by allegories to life in space rolling between the stars without gravity grounding us. The ethos feels all the more pertinent with “Gagarine” landing during a global pandemic. Trouilh adds, “With the film arriving at this special time when people feel lonely, something that was happening even before the pandemic with how people live on their cell phones, we feel that Youri’s isolation resonates to people’s daily lives, no matter where they live.”
The film makes the argument that it’s a whole community that gets destroyed when the bulldozers come in. The problem of uplifting the quality of lives of people living in projects can seem like an insurmountable mountain, but Trouilh has a solution, “Put more money into it. It’s a question of what is our priority in society.”