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‘Les Indésirables’ Director Ladj Ly Talks Police Brutality, Political Change in Angry Paris Suburbs

French filmmaker Ladj Ly has returned to his home turf of Paris with Les Indésirables, a searing portrait of police violence and political injustice in angry suburbs that has a world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival this week.

On Saturday, Ly told a TIFF panel that little has changed for the better for the marginalized communities depicted in his follow-up to Les Misérables, which earned the Jury Prize in Cannes. “There’s absolutely no political volition to make anything better,” Ly said during an informal conversation with The Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Roxborough, which was presented as part of the Visionaries series.

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“The problems that touched the suburbs have now extended to the rest of France,” Ly added, as he pointed to the police crackdown of Yellow Vests protests countrywide against economic injustice, which included grassroots protests earlier this year against pension reforms.

“The police have a free pass to kill Blacks and Arabs,” Ly argued, sounding an alarm. “The government doesn’t seem to have control of the police forces anymore.” The issue of angry Parisian suburbs dates back to Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine in 1995, among other French dramas that, like Ly’s, shine a global spotlight on injustice and inequities in the French capital.

Ly said over a 25-year career in filmmaking he has taken inspiration from the Parisian neighborhood he grew up in, which has faced drug and AIDS epidemics and a crisis over expensive housing and other living costs.

As a teenager, Ly and friends picked up cameras to begin to chronicle their homes and communities. In 2010, as he began to document the actions of local police, he was able to capture on film a young man in handcuffs being beaten as he was arrested.

TIFF - Les Indesirables
‘Les Indésirables’

He published the footage, which provoked a media storm and the eventual firing of police officers. “It was the first time that the police were investigated and tried and suspended, thanks to the diffusion of video evidence of police violence,” Ly recounted.

By now, under the constant eye of the local police, the French filmmaker had made documentaries that chronicled his local community, including one short film, 365 Days in Clich-Montfermeil, that continued his scrutiny of local police brutality and received only minimal distribution online.

But those early films led eventually to Ly’s debut narrative feature, the 2019 breakout Les Misérables, which became a box office success in France. Les Indésirables, the French filmmaker’s follow-up drama, skipped Cannes and is bowing in Toronto.

“It is my mission as an artist to testify and denounce my living conditions because I live there,” Ly explained in his native French before his words were translated for the TIFF audience. The filmmaker plans a third film to chronicle his local community in Paris that will bring his ripped-from-headline dramatizations closer to current events.

Les Misérables, which won the Jury Prize in Cannes, was set in Montfermeil and updated Victor Hugo’s classic account of poverty and revolt in 19th-century France, as it portrays a neighborhood rampant with crime, police violence and public unrest.

Les Indésirables is set for a Nov. 22 commercial release in France and has yet to nab a distribution deal for the U.S. market. Set in the suburbs of Paris, the drama stars Alexis Manenti, Jeanne Balibar, Steve Tientcheu, Anta Diaw, and Aristote Luyindula.

After the sudden death of a town’s mayor, Pierre (Manenti), an idealistic young doctor, is appointed to replace him. He intends to continue the policy of his predecessor, who dreamed of rehabilitating the working-class neighborhood. Haby (Diaw), a young French woman of Malian origin living in one of the dilapidated tower blocks, refuses to see her family driven out of the neighborhood where she grew up.

Ly is also working with younger filmmakers in local schools to follow his lead. “It’s our mission to train a new generation of filmmakers so that people have the tools and the weapons to express themselves and tell their own stories,” he said, “many of which are told for us.”

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