An image from the film of a building being demolished in front of a group of people.

An image from Les Indésirables of a building being demolished in front of a group of people.

Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Ladj Ly on Making the Followup to His Oscar-Nominated ‘Les Miserables’

The French Malian director debuted his much-awaited second film, Les Indésirables, this past weekend, and with it, raised the alarm on pressing issues around housing and humanity.

Ladj Ly may only have two feature films to his name but the body of work he’s created over the almost two decades since his 2005 short doc 365 Days In Clichy Montfermeil speaks to the kind of filmmaker he was even before his sizzling debut Les Misérables took off. The Mali-born writer and director is concerned with telling stories on the ground, of life around him, with an urgent, potent focus that demands to be seen. This past weekend he premiered his latest film, Les Indésirables, to audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he decried police violence in France, and the “complete free pass” the country’s cops have “to kill Blacks and Arabs.”

Addressing a TIFF Visionaries event, in the wake of the Les Indésirables premiere, Ly spoke out about what he sees as a lack of political will to change systems that allow police brutality to continue. In June, a police officer shot and killed teenager Nahel Merzouk, leading to protests and riots across France. It’s these same systems Ly takes aim at in his followup, Les Indesirables, which do little to improve the living conditions for marginalized people in neglected parts of town.

Set in an immigrant community that mirrors the banlieues (impoverished area) where Ly grew up, Les Indésirables centers on the clashes between a city's new mayor, who mishandles the renovation of a rundown building, and the young president of a public housing project. It isn’t as explosive as his Oscar-nominated Les Misérables, which earned the Jury Prize in Cannes, but the film is still a vital testament to the dignity and decency lacking in the treatment of working-class communities.

Ly spoke to OkayAfrica, through an interpreter, about the pressure of making his second feature film, the stories that matter most to him, and his plans to film on the continent.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Les Indésirables is set in a building like the one you grew up in, in Montfermeil, and you created it out of anecdotes and situations that you saw around you. How does it build on your earlier documentary work – like the project you did with JR, The Chronicles of Clichy Montfermeil, which humanized the people living there?

As an artist, my mission is to denounce and testify to the life conditions of the people who live in the areas that I report on and from, because that's where I grew up. And I've been doing it for over 25 years. I think that carrying over their voices and images is the role in the mission that I have, given the platform I have been given as an artist.

'Les Indésirables' ('Bâtiment 5'): First English-language trailer for Ladj Ly

The film acknowledges how vital someone like Haby’s character – a young Black woman – is to pushing for social justice. She’s Malian, too, but grew up in France, like you. How did you come to write her and how did you come to cast Anta Diaw in the role?

In terms of the writing, it was important to me that I wanted to write this young woman who is a young Black woman who is veiled, and showing how the characters like her exist very much in the neighborhoods that I'm talking about. That they are very active politically and associatively, and so it's kind of a homage to the work that they do ceaselessly to represent them in this particular form.

As for the casting of Anta, we met when she worked on The Young Imam, that I co-wrote and co-produced [released earlier this year]. And so after discovering her there, I was just astounded and wanted her to keep working with her on Les Indésirables, and it was a wonderful experience because she's really very talented and very, very brilliant. She’s a real pleasure to work with.

There's a line in the film that Anta’s character utters, that “you can’t be only angry” about a situation, that you need to do something with that anger. When it comes to housing and immigration, there is a lot of anger. Do you still believe that cinema can help that anger and translate it into something that helps?

Yeah – that's what I'd like to think anyway. That's what I sort of go towards in my film, and what I think we need to hang on to despite the fact that the anger today is so legitimate and so right. I’d like to think that even in the most chaotic places, there is still always going to be the slightest amount of hope, and that's what Haby’s character is here to represent.

I read that some of the students of your Kourtrajmé school in Senegal, which we’ve written about, worked on the film or visited the set?

The director of the school in Senegal, Toumani Sangaré, came onto the set to see it, and two students from Senegal came and made a “making off” video. And then, altogether, I think we had about 15 students from the different schools, Montfermeil and Marseille, work on the film.

You oversee the schools, how is that going in terms of having students be involved in the film process?

It's very hard. It takes an incredible amount of my time and my energy but it's a fight that I believe in. We've been working on this for six years. There are four schools and counting because I can now announce that we're going to open a fifth one in New York soon. And so it's a lot of work. But we have a mission, which is to provide sort of a training ground for this new generation and give them the opportunity to express themselves.

The film is set in a Parisian suburb, but the story could also be set in Johannesburg, given the tragic fire that recently broke out in a neglected building there. Your film doesn’t offer solutions, but you have been closely involved in issues of immigration and housing for many years, so what do you want to see happen?

I wanted to talk about my neighborhood, and I realized that in talking about my neighborhood, other neighborhoods around the world have the same problems. I know that this subject is going to be the direct experience of millions of people worldwide. In terms of what I would like to see happen, in France, perhaps the reinstatement of the renovation plan that was discontinued and which had been the source of a lot of hope and a lot of dreams… But I think the necessary condition is political consciousness and the consciousness of the political class because the solutions are necessarily going to come from them.

Les Misérables was so well received – has the response to that and the wider audience you can now speak to, brought with it any kind of pressure?

Well, it's a bit of both because, of course, there is some pressure in having to follow up a success like Les Misérables was, and I hope that audiences will be sensitive to this second film and to the message that I have within it. It’s still a very positive thing because I'm lucky to have had a film that has been seen by millions of people worldwide, and hopefully they'll be receptive to the second one.

Your work is centered on documentary, and your own experiences. Do you have any plans to film back in Mali or anywhere else in Africa?

Yes, very much so. When you look at my filmography, you can see that I do tend to like to go back to my earlier documentary work and to rehash it through fiction. So I definitely have a desire for that. And I have a desire and actually an ongoing project in Africa already. These are all things that I'm very interested in to do.

Can you tell us more about that?

No, it's too early.

I imagine you have so many stories you still want to tell. What guides you in what you choose to follow?

The way forward is always to go to what's most intimate and closest to my heart, what’s a very personal story to me. The bâtiment [building], the tower block, that is in the film is based on one I grew up in, and we were originally apartment owners and then we were expropriated. The entirety of the script comes from my experience, and it's very, very close to my heart. So I let myself be led by that.