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Ladj Ly: From Paris riots to Cannes red carpet

The 2005 riots that shook France began in the suburban high rises where he grew up. Now Ladj Ly, who has been dubbed France’s answer to Spike Lee, is bringing his story of angry youth to the red carpet at the Cannes film festival. For Ly, the seething Paris suburbs around Clichy-sous-Bois are both home and film set, and the setting for “Les Miserables”, his first feature-length film now vying for Cannes’ top prize. One of Paris’ infamous “banlieues”, Clichy-sous-Bois hit the headlines in October 2005 when two teenagers died while fleeing the police in an area home to many impoverished immigrants.

Their deaths unleashed a wave of fury that engulfed the housing estates then spread through the country in a three-week crisis whose dramatic images of burning cars and street fighting flashed around the globe, in the most serious unrest in France since 1968. It was in the rundown tower blocks of the Bosquets estate that Ly grew up, and when the protests erupted, he went out to film, capturing the explosive anger of the troubled suburbs in what has become the dominant theme of his work.

“Les Miserables” tells the story of three policemen during the 2005 riots and is a full-length version of a short documentary he made two years ago, which was nominated last year for a Cesar Award-France’s equivalent of an Oscar.

‘Tell our stories’
It is here on this downtrodden estate with 5,400 residents and 40-percent unemployment that Ly set up a film school in a joint project with the Kourtrajme art collective which counts figures like JR, a local graffiti artist turned global star who is from the same suburb, among its members. Entry is free and anyone can apply, offering an unparalleled opportunity to learn scriptwriting, directing and post-production techniques, with more than 1,500 candidates applying for the 30 places available on each of three specialist tracks.

Nine out of 10 applicants were from the margins of France’s biggest cities. Ly, who was born to Malian immigrants, says the idea is to show that “it’s possible to make films without having a pile of money”, while also sharing his knowledge and connections with “those who have none”. “There are doors which do not open to those from a certain social class,” says the 39-year-old, who trained at the prestigious Femis cinema school in Paris. But things are starting to change. “Cinema is beginning to open up to diversity. Little by little, we too are going to be able to tell our stories,” he says. “That’s the challenge, I’ve had enough of other people telling our story for us.”

‘Kicking the doors in’
On an afternoon in April, half a dozen students are shooting a short documentary in the hilltop Paris neighborhood of Montmartre. Gaspa, who runs a community centre in the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, said he struggled to make a short film because he “lacked connections”. “And along comes Ladj, like the Messiah!” says the 33-year-old, who admits he cannot think of even one black French film director. For Nouta Kiaie, 23, the training has helped demystify the world of cinema.

“I have learned that there are ways into this notoriously closed environment and it’s up to us to do it-even if it means kicking the doors in,” she says, smiling. “And when you’re a woman, you have to make even more of an effort.” Former hip-hop dancer Bouchra Ouikou, 36, says it’s all about confidence. “Ladj showed us it was possible,” she says.

‘Passing it on’
For their instructor, Thomas Gayrard, the fact that a local boy has managed to scale the heights to compete in the world’s top film festival is a game changer. “The fact that Ladj, a guy from the estate who became a filmmaker during the riots, is now competing for the Palme d’Or alongside Ken Loach or Terrence Malick, is decisive,” he said.

Visiting the school for a masterclass, Olivier Nakache, who co-directed the 2011 French blockbuster “Intouchables” (Untouchable), hailed it as “an incredible place” which serves as a reminder that cinema “is open to anyone”. “Ladj, who came from nothing, is passing it on. Cannes is the reward for 20 years of work,” says his younger brother and right-hand man, Amade. “We’re sharing this happiness with everyone in the neighborhood.”–AFP

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