Damien Bonnard, Alexis Manenti, Djebril Zonga, Issa Perica, Al-Hassan Ly
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…doesn’t offer any easy answers, nor proffer any easy questions, but lets the notion of this behaviour and what cultivates it grow within the mind.
2020, the year of the feu de benne à ordures, populated by widespread literal plague as much as societal plague. A year when the American-born Black Lives Matter movement reached a genuine global plateau; this film, the feature debut of Malian-French director Ladj Ly, is a crushing example of how this is a worldwide problem.
Through Ladj Ly’s unshakeably urgent direction and DOP Julien Poupard’s cinema verite framing, this story of modern-day police brutality is one built on emblematic significance; both the genuine article and that created by a form of communal tokenism. Opening with crowd shots of rapturous glee after France won the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the mood that follows highlights the pretence of such an event bringing a society together, instead shining a light on how little has changed since the days of Victor Hugo.
As we watch policemen Chris (Alexis Manenti, who also co-write the script), Gwada (Djebril Zonga) and recent re-assignee Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) at work, we are given a vivid panorama of police mistreatment of the local Islamic community. Chris in particular, embodies how police perception has been warped from maintaining the peace into maintaining a racist status quo under the guise of peace.
It carries a certain Do the Right Thing-esque energy in its depiction of boiling-over racial tensions, but where it truly earns its stripes is through the culture-specific framing. In 2011, Ladj Ly himself, received a six-month stint in jail for filming police violence in action (a form of protest that is itself part of the cinematic narrative here), and the need to unearth the truth of that mistreatment burns through every single frame.
In that mode, the use of imagery and emblems specific to the Islamic faith – like the main impetus for the tension being the theft of a lion cub from a local zoo – reveals some interesting ideas. The lion is a valued animal within Islamic culture, as well as an antiquated symbol for the French navy circa 18th century, making the police chase to find the thief into a hunt for the ‘glory’ of France’s past disguised as serving a more multicultural community. White nationalism in a nutshell.
It is a particularly brutal sit, one where the insistence on realism can make the more brutal moments (like when the Quranically-named Issa is “accidentally” shot in the face with a flash-ball) that much harder to witness. But these things need to be witnessed, lest those meant to protect continue to worry solely about their optics and whether it ‘looks’ like they’re doing their job. Les Misérables doesn’t offer any easy answers, nor proffer any easy questions, but lets the notion of this behaviour and what cultivates it grow within the mind.