French director Ladj Ly is at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend with second feature Les Indésirables.
Like Ly’s breakthrough first feature Les Misérables, it is set and shot against the backdrop of Paris’s deprived eastern suburbs of Clichy-Montfermeil where the director grew up.
Having put the spotlight on police violence in his debut feature, Ly turns his attention to the growing housing crisis in his neighborhood as long-time residents are displaced by gentrification.
Anta Diaw stars as a local housing officer of Malian descent who decides to run for mayor as an alternative to the newly arrived, authoritarian, right-wing incumbent.
Under his watch, the tower block she calls home is ear-marked for demolition, with no guarantee of adequate, local accommodation for its long-time residents.
Les Indésirables takes the spectator into the heart of the tight-knit community, made up mainly of people of African and Middle Eastern descent, showing the impact of city hall intransigence and police brutality at the same time.
Inspiration for the story lies in Ly’s own experiences when the housing block where he grew up, known as Batiment 5 (which is the original title for the film in French) was condemned and the residents were forced to move out.
The case was documented in artist and photographer JR’s Chronicles Of Clichy Montfermeil project, in which Ly was involved.
Les Indèsirables, which world premiered at TIFF on Friday evening and plays again today, reunites Ly with producers Toufik Ayadi and Christophe Barral at Paris-based production house Srab. The pair will be participating in a TIFF Dialogues talk on Sunday.
Deadline talked to Ly ahead of the world premiere.
DEADLINE: What drew you to the issue of housing?
LADJ LY: We have a real problem in France. It’s a sensitive issue. There are hundreds of thousands of people without proper accommodation. It’s also a personal story linked to what happened to the building I grew up in.
Property speculation and gentrification are forcing people out. People who have lived in these neighborhoods for 20, 30 years, find themselves, from one day to the next, out in the street. The poorest are being forced further and further out.
DEADLINE: The film, which also touches again on police brutality, is launching in the wake of riots across France this summer, sparked by the shooting dead by a police officer of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk during a traffic stop. How do you feel about this timing?
LY: It’s a recurrent problem in France: violence, murders by the police in these neighborhoods. Unfortunately, this type of thing is happening every month. History keeps repeating itself. I was talking about this four years ago, and four years later, if anything, it’s gotten worse. The police have carte blanche to kill these youth without ever being condemned. That’s a fact and the figures show this. It’s not a new problem.
DEADLINE: There’s a scene in the film where the mayor’s house is attacked. Shot months ago, it presaged a real-life attack on a mayor’s family home in Paris’s southern suburbs during the riots this summer. How did you feel about that?
LY: We’re working on a fiction and then sadly reality overtook fiction. When I saw those images, I was shocked, and I questioned myself. The character in the film [who attacks the house], is someone who’s given up, lost hope and cracked. He’s desperate and has nothing to lose.
DEADLINE: Beyond the physical violence, another aspect of the behaviour of the police officers in the film is their lack of respect for the residents. Is this a true reflection of the reality in your neighborhood?
LY: That’s the norm, the day-to-day. That’s what we’ve always lived with… They’re not there to protect you, on the contrary. We have the impression that for them we are undesirables and that they’re there to beat us.
DEADLINE: Given your insight into police violence and the situation in your neighborhood, have you ever been approached by politicians for advice on the issue?
LY: We know what politicians are like. When the spotlight is on a situation, they’re there, but when it comes to doing something concrete, there’s no-one. That was the case with President Macron. After seeing Les Misérables, he told me it had shaken him and that he was going to find solutions and put his ministers to work on it. Four years later, the situation has gone from bad to worse. We all know that today, politicians are opportunists, who before everything, are most interesting in saving their skin.
DEADLINE: The mayor in the film acts with complete disregard for the people in the neighborhood. Is this also based on reality?
LY: All my films are inspired by real facts, real stories.
DEADLINE: Did you involve local people in the shoot?
LY: That was one of the ideas at the heart of the film from the beginning to work with local residents and in particularly those who had lived through the demolitions… Around 80% of the extras are from the neighborhood.
DEADLINE: The Kourtrajmé Collective (which Ly has been a member of alongside founders Kim Chapiron and Romain Gavras since the early 1990s) is also involved in the film. Can you talk a bit about that?
LY: We continued to support one another. It’s also very active with a new generation through our Kourtrajmé film schools in Montfermeil, Marseilles, in Dakar in Senegal and we’ve just opened one in Guadeloupe. About 15 students worked on the film in different departments at the heart of the shoot.
DEADLINE: In between Les Misérables and Les Indésirables you’ve worked on a number of projects, taking writing as well as producing credits, under the banner of Lyly Films, on Gavras’s Netflix-backed feature Athena and Chapiron’s The Young Imam. You’re also a producer on first film Hood Witch by Saïd Belktibia and starring Golshifteh Farahani. Where do you see your future, in directing or producing?
LY: Saïd Belktibia is a young talent who has come out of the Kourtrajmé school. Lyly Films is co-producing with Iconoclast. I prefer directing, but I like producing too. My idea is to try to develop and produced my projects as well as those coming out of the school. So I’m wearing two hats.
DEADLINE: What’s next?
LY: I’ve got lots of projects set against the backdrop of the neighborhood again as well as a number of projects in Africa. That’s my next destination with a project that I’m developing. It’s too early to give details but it will be in Africa.
DEADLINE: Aside from winning the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2019, Les Misérables was France’s entry to Best International Film category of the 2020 Academy Awards and a had a wonderful run, making it into the final nomination list, alongside winner Parasite. How was that experience and did the exposure lead to offers out of the U.S.?
LY: It was an incredible and enriching experience for me… and of course, I had an enormous amount of proposals out of the U.S., but I like to tell my own stories. Making a film for millions of dollars, it’s not really what motivates me. Of course, I’m open to ideas but it really needs to be something that talks to me on a personal level. Making a big film for the sake of making a big film, it doesn’t really interest me.