LOS ANGELES -- Readers of classic literature know Montfermeil as the Parisian suburb that partly inspired Victor Hugo's 1862 novel "Les Miserables." To French filmmaker Ladj Ly, it's the neighborhood he grew up in and still proudly calls home -- a banlieue where vibrant communities of largely immigrant and poor residents of color persist in an acutely modern state of despair.
"It was more than 150 years ago that Victor Hugo wrote that novel there, and you can see that misery is still present in the same place today," said Ly during a recent stop in Los Angeles, discussing his Oscar-nominated and Cannes jury prize-winner through a translator. "Misery is still the same. The only things that changed, maybe, are that the people are more up to date and the color of their skin."
Borrowing Hugo's title for his narrative feature directorial debut, nominated in the international feature (formerly foreign language feature) category at this year's Academy Awards, Ly crafts a taut drama set in modern-day Montfermeil, where poverty and unrest threaten to give way to a violent new revolution. Ly's "Les Miserables" is now playing in select theaters via Amazon's film division and will stream on the service later.
Set in the wake of France's unifying 2018 World Cup victory, Ly's film rides along with newly transferred policeman Stephane (Damien Bonnard) on his first day learning the ropes from bigoted cop Chris (Alexis Manenti, who co-scripted the film with Ly and Giordano Gederlini). Joined by Gwada (Djibril Zonga), Chris' partner who grew up in the projects they now patrol, Stephane observes how they implement a combination of negotiation tactics and brute intimidation upon the citizens of Montfermeil.
Years of overpolicing, underemployment and government neglect have left their mark, yet peace teeters tenuously among the rival factions, religions and dozens of nationalities who share the concrete blocks. Young boys play soccer and roam streets dotted with high-rises, but not all have homes to return to. Then an unusual theft, followed by a brutal incident and escalating tensions, threatens to plunge the whole neighborhood into chaos.
Through it all, Ly aims to humanize, rather than demonize, all of his characters. Instead of pointing fingers, he says he blames the system that has left its people desperate and pitted against one another.
"The movie's called 'Les Miserables,' and the people in it are having a hard time," said Ly. "It's not only the inhabitants of the projects. It's also the cops. It was important not to put judgment or take one side or the other and to make everyone human. Everyone is a part of humanity, whether they are good or bad."
The neighborhood is a tinder box on the verge of exploding due to entrenched systemic rot, and the film is very intentionally, on Ly's part, a call for action. "I made it mostly for the politicians because they are responsible for this situation that they've left to rot for about 40 years," said Ly, who adapted "Les Miserables" from his own short film of the same name and based many of its events and characters on his own life.
A major source of inspiration were the 2005 Paris riots that erupted after the deaths of two black teenagers in neighboring Clichy-sous-Bois. Ly had been making films since age 17. When the riots broke out, triggering weeks of violent antiauthoritarian unrest among French youth, he grabbed his camera and started documenting.
The resulting film, a verite document titled "365 Days in Clichy-Montfermeil," was released for free online via Kourtrajme, the filmmaking collective founded by French filmmakers Kim Chapiron, Toumani Sangare and Romain Gavras.