Cannes Film Fest 2019: Les Miserbales, Ladj Ly’s First Feature–Official Selection of 2019

Director Ladj Ly’s first feature, Les Misérables, was selected for official competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Fest.

The filmmaker, who perceived his mission as capturing the everyday reality of the Paris suburbs, says: “I thought maybe there was a small chance of getting into the Directors’ Fortnight, but the Competition — wow!”

First a clarification: The story is a not yet another retelling of the Victor Hugo classic, which has received many versions, in all format.

But there’s a reason why Ly chose the same title: Part of the book takes place in Montfermeil, the working-classic suburb where Ly grew up: “A century later, there’s still misery in this area.  Police violence remains a factor.”

Ly has spent the past two decades trying to bring attention to the conditions in areas such as Montfermeil. Now, with a sputtering economy and widespread protests in France, he thinks audiences might finally be ready to listen.

Les Misérables, about three members of an anti-crime brigade who confront tensions between neighborhood gangs, began as a short film. It was inspired by the 2005 riots in Paris, incorporating several real-life moments, such as the drone footage capturing the events.

Ly also admires the work of French director Jacques Audiard and documentarian Raymond Depardon.

He says he was inspired to become a filmmaker after seeing Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 La Haine, one of the first films to show the reality of suburban life in the housing projects.

It’s crucial that the people who live in those projects get to tell their own stories: “We need to speak out, to show what the suburbs are.”

But he’s frustrated by the limited opportunities of filmmakers of color in France. “French cinema is very closed; it’s reserved for a certain elite. You can count the black filmmakers on one hand,” he says. “That’s why we started our film school.” Called Kourtrajmé, the same name as the filmmaking collective where he got his start.  The free school will give anyone who wants to participate the chance to network and seize the opportunity to join the next generation of French storytellers.

Starting with shorts and documentaries including “Montfermeil Les Bosquets,” his films show an insider’s view of the working-class suburb where he grew up. When two youths were electrocuted during the riots, Ly redoubled his efforts to tell the neighborhood’s stories.