7 films to help you understand French riots

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7 films to help you understand French riots

As France is once again rocked by rioting, here are some films to help you understand the social and political context behind the violence.

La Haine – 1995

As good today as when it was first released, La Haine is the classic film about the problems of France’s tense suburbs (banlieues). Apart from the car styles and the lack of tech, and this black-and-white film could have been made yesterday – which is important because it shows how none of the social problems highlighted in the film have been solved in the intervening years.

It follows three young men through a 24-hour period in the Paris suburbs as one of their friends lies in hospital on life support after a violent encounter with a police officer.

Director Mathieu Kassovitz is apparently set to being the film to the stage as a musical next year. 

Les Misérables – 2019

Often referred to as ‘the new La Haine‘ when it was released, this film was the first feature-length offering from Ladj Ly, who grew up in the tough suburb of Montfermeil, where this film is set.

It follows a young boy (played by Ly’s son) who is obsessed with flying his drone – things get complicated when the drone films police committing an assault on a teenage boy, and officers are naturally keen to retrieve and confiscate the footage.

Admirably balanced and able to also show the stresses of policing France’s toughest areas, the film really brings to life the characters of the neighbourhood before its explosive finale.

Athèna – 2022

This Netflix film begins at a vigil for a young boy who died at the hands of police, before exploding into high octane and very stylishly filmed violence.

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It follows the reactions of the three brothers of the dead man, who have taken very different paths in life.

Although it looks stunning, for our money this film has nothing like the depth or sensitivity of La Haine or Les Misérables.

Un pays qui se tient sage (A country that stays silent) – 2021

A documentary rather than a feature film, this piece by noted campaigner David Dufresne takes a broader look at the issue of policing in France, and police violence.

It’s nearly solely based on amateur videos, most of which were shot on mobile phones during the notoriously violent ‘yellow vest’ protests, and focuses more on the policing of demos in France.

It’s style – short, amateur video clips interspersed with talking heads on the nature of policing and violence itself – is compelling and the issues that it raises remain pertinent. 

A voix haute (Speak up) – 2017

It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing France’s banlieues as nothing but places of violence and criminality.

Of course that is not the case, as this documentary (also directed by Les Misérables’ Ladj Ly) makes clear. It follows a group of school pupils in Seine-Saint-Denis as they prepare for a public speaking competition.

The documentary is great on its own, but it also shows the problems that the kids experience in their daily lives, including police harassment and the teenage boy battling alone through the asylum system.

Police (Night shift) – 2020 

It’s too easy to simply blame the police for all the problems in the French suburbs, so as a corrective this film offers a look into what being a police officer in a modern French city is really like.

From the lack of equipment and tough working conditions, this film is sympathetic to the problems that individual officers face without trying to gloss over the wider systemic problems. A superlative cast – Omar Sy, Virgine Efira and Grégory Gadebois – elevate it to another level.

Les Misérables – 2012

It’s said that France is a country that romanticises the mob, and you get a full appreciation of this tendency in the musical Les Misérables. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, this most recent Hollywood version stars Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway and follows a group of characters trying to navigate daily life through the uprisings of the Paris Commune of 1871 (and singing about it).

If you want a history lesson it’s probably better to read the book, but the musical is a lot of fun.

Incidentally ‘misérables‘ in French doesn’t mean people who are unhappy, it means those living in poverty and deprivation (although naturally those things would likely make you miserable).

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