A Zoom With A View: Director Ladj Ly’s Alternative Cinematic Universe

By Madeleine Finlay-Hudson

Filmmaker Ladj Ly’s feature-length fiction debut LES MISERABLES captured the attention of the masses, causing quite a stir — for someone people had been deemed to be a relatively unknown artist until now. His debut began its journey by winning the esteemed Jury Prize at Cannes 2019, it then swept up a variety of prizes at the César Awards before landing Ly his first Academy Award nomination, for Best International Film.

Ly, however, is no stranger to the world behind the camera nor is he absent of the talent to build an enticing and unique world through his lens(es).

Prior to LES MISÉRABLES, Ly has spent many years exploring the varying mediums of filmmaking — creating an array of unique and perceptive pieces focusing on Montfermeil. Including his 2007 film, 365 JOURS À CLICHY-MONTFERMEIL, that addressed Montfermeil’s central part in the 2005 riots in Paris. As well as this, he achieved notoriety for his 2017 short — LES MISÉRABLES, which was well received at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and the 2018 Cesar Awards. This short film would go on to become the feature-debut we see now. As well as his work behind the camera, Ly and his collective have also founded a free film school in Montfermeil, L’Ecole Kourtrajmé, offering a new generation of young filmmakers the opportunity to have their voices heard.

We sat down to speak to director Ladj Ly to discuss his story, his incredible feature debut — LES MISÉRABLES and what the future holds for Ly’s burgeoning diverse French cinematic universe.

It’s so wonderful to meet you — congratulations on the success of the film so far. It must feel amazing, especially given it centres around a place you call home. How has your relationship with your neighbourhood, Montfermeil, impacted your career so far?

LL: I grew up in Montfermeil — which has a dreadful reputation, it’s known for its drug issues and it was, in fact, the location where the 2005 riots began. It’s always had really bad press. So, making the film meant taking my life and the place I grew up in — and turning it around to make a film that offers a different view of Montfermeil, perhaps more personal or more positive. And now the entire world has been able to see my home in another way. A way closer to reality.

On the theme of Montfermeil— a lot of your previous work has explored your neighbourhood and your collective — Kourtrajmé (including talents such as Oxmo Puccino, Vincent Cassel, Toumani Sangaré, JR, Kim Chapiron and Romain Gavras). How did Kourtrajmé come about?

LL: We grew up together, we were childhood friends. Kourtrajmé — well it’s been going for a long time, since we were about 16. We all wanted to make our own films — that’s what united us. I joined in 1996 — around the time I got my first video camera and began shooting my own footage. Since then, we’ve worked together on and off — with projects still ongoing. We do a lot of stuff locally — exploring new ways to capture our banlieue.

Having previously focused on non-fiction, what inspired you to turn to fiction for both the feature and the original short — Les Misérables?

LL: I come from a documentary background — but you just can’t reach the same scale of audience. And so, I understood it would be better to tackle fiction. That way, a wider public would hear the message I wanted to share.

When you’re making your films do you aim to elicit a certain reaction from audiences? What message would you like people to take away from your work?

LL: I want you to react to my work, to this film — and to all my projects I don’t want you to walk away and forget about what you saw. I want you to think about it — I want the message to stay with you. We made a decision within the ‘Kourtrajmé’ that our films would have to have an impact on the audience, that ultimately they would have to mean something to those who watch them.

Our goal is to reach all kinds of people — and it has been amazing to see the reach of this film. I wasn’t there when he saw it — but to know that it touched a lot of people, including President Macron. Well, that’s important. It means we’re doing what we set out to do.

Why did you decide to call it Les Misérables? What elements of inspiration did you find in Victor Hugo’s work that translate into the film?

LL: It’s a film about social misery. It’s shot entirely in the same town where Victor Hugo based his entire novel. The misery is continuing in the same space — therefore the title is a direct message, or reflection if you will — of Hugo’s story.

Would you say your relationship with cinema/filmmaking has changed throughout your life? Do you feel like making this film has enabled you to explore this relationship more so than before?

LL: Well previously I never really had much of a relationship with cinema — I’ve never been a cinephile. I never really felt like I was part of that world — the French cinematic world. But now it’s different. Now I’m trying to create my own version — a different type of cinema that enables myself, and hopefully others, to tell different stories. Diverse stories, from new voices.

Your impact has been global with Les Misérables— from the Cesar’s to the Academy Awards — how do you want people to reflect on this moment? What action would you like to see within the industry after this?

LL: The impact has been incredible- I mean before I was never invited anywhere…now I’m invited everywhere. I’m welcome now, the doors have now swung open. But, for me — for my collective, it’s a victory of the suburbs and the minorities. It’s multicultural France that wins here. I hope it opens these doors so that diversity can continue to flow. Essentially I would like for this to be the beginning of a more diverse cinematic world. A world where people like me can make films — tell our stories. I want to know that this is just the beginning of something, something far more open — expanding on the current boundaries of cinema.

Now that these doors are starting to open for you, what comes next?

LL: Well, we’re actually preparing a trilogy — LES MISERABLES is the first of three films. We’re developing them at the moment. The trilogy will remain within this area — however we want to explore the previous decades and all the stories and secrets that Montfermeil holds within its walls.

Thank you so much for your time — your film is incredible. Here marks the beginning of an exciting cinematic universe.

Les Misérables is OUT NOW on DVD/DIGITAL

UK & IE Distribution arm of Altitude Film Entertainment. Coming soon: @rocksthefilm, @DavidALifeFilm, Calm With Horses & more!