Movies in Misery An Escape from the Squalor of the Paris Banlieues

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In Clichy-sous-Bois, a poverty-ridden suburb of Paris, residents are making movies about their lives. Supported by superstar filmmaker Ladj Ly, it could offer some a way out.

By Britta Sandberg

One of the first rules you learn in Clichy-sous-Bois sounds absurd, but once you hear it, you’ll never forget it. The rule is: Never stand too close to the side of a building, because something might fall from above. Parts of the façade, for example, that can’t be stopped by the nets that have been provisionally installed on the sides of the housing projects.

“But sometimes, televisions, refrigerators or flowerpots come raining down,” says Mahmadou Kebe with a grin.

Kebe, 22, and his friend Doğukan Kur, 20, are standing at the edge of a parking lot in front of one of these beige-brown high-rises that make up their neighborhood of Cité Le Chêne-Pointu situated in Clichy-sous Bois. It is one of those places in the French Republic where the sacred principle of “égalité,” equality, was invalidated decades ago.

In the lobbies of the buildings, plaster crumbles down from the soot-black ceilings. There are puddles of water on the floor and rusty mailboxes hang loosely from the wall. It stinks of garbage. On the ground floor, someone has sprayed a message on the wall: “Attention: The parents who live in this staircase have not raised their children well.”

Mahmadou Kebe and Doğukan Kur have lived here for as long as they can remember. Kebe came to France from Mali with his family as a small child while Tur, whose parents are from Turkey, was born here. Both are intimately familiar with all of the rules and codes of Clichy-sous-Bois. They know how to get on the roofs of the high-rises, the only place where they can escape the closeness of their apartments, referred to here as F2, F3 or F4, depending on the number of rooms they have. They know in which buildings the elevator still works and where it does not. They know that you shouldn’t stare too long if a drug deal is going down in the parking lot.

There is one thing they haven’t learned, however: How to get out of this desolation. Because as run down as Clichy-sous-Bois might be, it is still their home.

“I like this place. I don’t want to leave,” says Kebe. “I don’t get funny looks here in Clichy like I do in Paris. People stick together here because everyone is stuck in the same shit.”

Kebe and Tur are both wearing the banlieue uniform: baseball cap, trainers and sweatpants from Puma or Nike. Kebe also carries around a fake Louis Vuitton bag and has a thick silver chain around his neck. When he smiles, a silver incisor sparkles in his mouth.

The World of the Forgotten

With the support of the prize-winning director Ladj Ly, Kebe and Tur are currently making a film about life in the banlieue, a portrait of the world of the forgotten. During the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, more people died in Département 93, to which Clichy-sous-Bois belongs, than in any other part of France. The death rate has risen by almost 120 percent relative to last year, and at its peak, in the week from March 30 to April 5, the death rate even skyrocketed by 295 percent.

In Clichy-sous-Bois, there are more cases of obesity, more diabetes patients and more people in risk groups than in many other regions of the country. Still, the Département has three times fewer intensive-care beds per capita than are available in Paris. If more proof were needed that the pandemic in France has hit low-wage earners, immigrants and the poor harder than others, Clichy-sous-Bois is it.

The global Black Lives Matter protests have also resonated strongly among the people here. After all, racism is a daily fact of life in the banlieues, which are largely populated by immigrants and their descendants. Tur and Kebe grew up with arbitrary checks and police violence. “At some point, you get used to their constant affronts. How they enjoy provoking you when they are standing in front of you in their uniforms and giving you the feeling that you are nothing,” says Tur. He was beat up by a policeman when he was younger, and the officer received no punishment. In fact, he still patrols the neighborhood. “We now get along just fine,” he says.

Tur started a training program as an automobile mechanic, but he didn’t finish. He then worked for a time at the technical inspection association. Before long, though, he was unemployed. Indeed, the biggest constant in his life has been Clichy-sous-Bois, located just 10 kilometers (around 6 miles) from Paris, yet still cut off from the prosperity and wealth of the capital as though by an invisible demarcation line.

Not Much Change

It is essentially a failed state in miniature. According to the most recent statistics, unemployment among 15- to 24-year-olds stands at 29 percent and the average per-family income of 15,543 euros per year is among the lowest in France. The poverty rate here is roughly three times as high as in neighboring Paris. And despite all the promises from the various mayors who have occupied City Hall in this town of 30,000 residents, and despite the different presidents in the Élysée Palace – which is just an hour away by car, yet feels like it is on the other side of the country – these circumstances haven’t changed much over the years.

Everyone in this country must be guaranteed the ability to chart their own course, regardless of origin, skin color or religion, French President Emmanuel Macron said on Bastille Day in July. But in Clichy-sous-Bois, this promise is an empty one. It lies there like a gigantic open wound.

Most white people in France only know the banlieues as a kind of caricature, such as that presented by the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen during her political campaigns. Or from the cinema. Twenty-five years ago, the feature film “La Haine” (Hate) delivered an impressive black-and-white portrayal of the bleak banlieue life. Alain Juppé, who was prime minister at the time, even arranged for a special screening for his entire cabinet, because he wanted them to see a part of the country with which they were unfamiliar.

Last year, a new film was released about life in the Paris suburbs. Sadly, not much has changed in the intervening 25 years. The film is called “Les Misérables” (like the Victor Hugo novel) and depicts life in Clichy-sous-Bois.

The film’s director, Ladj Ly, is a 42-year-old who was born in Mali but grew up here. He has become one of the most successful filmmakers in the country. He was awarded the Jury Prize for “Les Misérables” at the Cannes Film Festival and later won the César Award for best film of the year. His film was also nominated in the best foreign film category at the Oscars. Since then, Ly has been seen in the banlieues as a hero, because he showed that even someone from Clichy-sous-Bois can make it big. And he also made their world visible.

Everyone Is a Victim

On a late-July summer evening, the director, dressed in a blue polo shirt, sunglasses and a black baseball cap, is standing in a business park in Clichy and eating a grilled lamb sausage. The film school that he founded here in 2018 is holding its summer party to mark the end of the academic year. At the grill is the lead actor of the film that Tur and Kebe are currently filming, and the two budding filmmakers are here as well. They have known Ly for quite some time, and Mahmadou once lived in the same building as the director’s family.

The fascinating thing about Ly’s film is that everyone is a victim of the same system: the police, whose story he tells; the young men and women, who are brutally persecuted by the officers; and the mothers, who worry about their sons when they don’t come home.

“Les Misérables” is an SOS to the country’s politicians, Ly has said in interviews. Last year, he invited Macron to come watch the film with him in the place where it was made. The French president declined the invitation, but had a copy sent to him in the Élysée. After viewing it, he said that he had been deeply shaken by what it depicted – as though the misery had been hidden to him too.

Ly declined all of the offers he received from Hollywood after his success at Cannes. “My focus is to gain access for young people here to a world that has thus far been closed to them,” the director says at the summer party, leaning against the hood of a car. “I want to make things possible for them. Why shouldn’t that be feasible here too?”

“Macaca”

He knows how terrible the apartments are in Clichy-sous-Bois, how bad the schools are and how deep the hate runs. His father worked as a garbage collector in Paris. He was stopped by the police for the first time when he was 10. The cops called him a “macaca,” a monkey, but he didn’t know at the time what the word meant. Racism, Ly says, was a constant companion ever since he was a child, adding that he has been stopped by the police more than a thousand times in his life. “We have been enduring the police violence that everybody is talking about at the moment for 20 years.”

His school, École Kourtrajmé, which he founded right in the heart of the banlieue, is a challenge to the country’s traditional elite schools. It costs nothing to attend and is open to all: a school-leaving certificate is unnecessary. Each year, 30 students are accepted, and the program lasts one year. After they are finished, they still have access to the network of directors, producers and cinematographers that Ladj Ly has developed over the years. It is the well-established “alumni principle” used by elite universities around the world, but this time, it is being made available to those with less opportunity.

Tur and Kebe are part of a course for youth from the two municipalities of Clichy-sous-Bois and Montfermeil: Each year, 12 of them take a seven-month screenplay seminar that meets two evenings a week. In the past several months, filmmakers like Spike Lee, George Lucas and Mathieu Kassovitz, the director of “La Haine,” have been guests in the course.

“We were able to ask them questions, totally crazy,” says Tur. A “histoire de ouf,” as he says. “Ouf is his rendering of “fou,” which means crazy. Part of banlieue slang includes reversing the letters in certain words. And currently, there is quite a lot of “ouf” in their lives.

Several weeks ago, they traveled to Marseille together with Ly, where he has opened up a second film school. Microphone in hand, Kebe spoke to 250 people for the first time in his life, telling them about his screenplay. “They welcomed us like kings, even though we’re nobody,” he says. “It was as if we were no longer the same people.”

“People Look at You Differently”

It has been, for them, a strange experience: For the first time in their lives, people are listening to them and taking them seriously.

“You say that you are at the École Kourtrajmé of Ladj Ly and people look at you differently,” says Tur. Even the police officers in the neighborhood, he says, are treating him with more respect. “They’re suddenly asking me how the filming is going.”

Electricians, mechanics or an hourly wage job at Amazon: Those are normally the kinds of things people do here – if you’re lucky. If not, you live with your parents for as long as you can. Never had anyone told the two young men that they could also be film directors, actors or screenplay writers.

“For as long as I can remember, I have only been discouraged. Every morning at school, my teacher would yell at me whether I was on time or not. People only see Clichy-sous-Bois as an address. They see that you are Black and named Mahmadou. That’s enough. At some point, you no longer want to be part of the circus.” Kebe says he started making small films with his mobile phone when he was 12, but nobody noticed.

If you ask Keben how many people live in his household, he starts counting with both hands, reciting names as though he isn’t totally sure. He stops at eight – he has seven brothers and sisters, making for a total of 10 with his parents. Kebe has never slept in a room by himself. “My life takes place elsewhere anyway,” he says. “Outside on the roofs, in the parking lot. You sit on the hoods or in the cars and turn up the music. Then, you party.”

He has never had a permanent job, just temporary contracts. Until he applied last year for École Kourtrajmé. Five of them cooperated on writing their screenplay: Tur, himself and three friends he chose to help out. It tells the story of a young man from Mali who comes to Clichy-sous-Bois to look for his cousin. The letters the cousin sent home had made it sound like paradise – the eternal lie told by many migrants. Once the young man from Mali arrives, he realizes that his cousin makes his money on the black market, but was still unable to make ends meet.

Making Do

They wanted to show how hard life is in the suburbs, says Tur. People should know what is in store for them – and stay at home instead of coming here.

At the end of the day, Clichy-sous-Bois is a vast, urban misunderstanding. The crazy architect’s dream from the 1960s, which envisioned middle-class families buying affordable, modern apartments here not far from the capital, never panned out. The metro line announced at the time and the planned highway to Paris were never built, the apartments disintegrated quickly, and the middle class found other neighborhoods to be more attractive. The Chêne Pointu estate is now considered the most run-down neighborhood in the whole country. It is allegedly to be torn down by 2030, a plan that makes it all the less likely that the apartments will get the attention they need. Residents will just have to make do with what they have until then.

For the last two days, Tur and Kebe have been filming in the apartment of their friend, Gladys Chauvellier, an F4 apartment of 60 square meters (645 square feet). When new renters move in, the landlord doesn’t necessarily require proof of earnings, instead preferring documentation that they are receiving the child allowance from the state. That is more reliable.

Chauvellier is 41 and has 10 children, aged two to 22, and eight of them still live with her. Each room of the apartment is furnished with extra wide bunkbeds, while she herself sleeps on the red, pleather sofa in the living room – where there is absolutely nothing to indicate that they have been living here for four years. There are no pictures on the walls, and no family photos.

During the eight-week coronavirus lockdown, she hardly ever left the apartment. Every now and then, the younger children went down to play soccer in the parking lot, but that was it. “It actually brought us even closer together as a family,” says Chauvellier, who everyone in the neighborhood simply calls “La Daronne,” the boss, because she has her life and her 10 children under control, even though she has been a single mother for years.

Chauvellier is the only woman on the screenplay team. For weeks, they worked hard to develop the plotline, before then writing through it once again with the help of a film director from Spain who the school appointed to assist the group. It was the first time in her life, Chauvellier says, that she had met up with others for work. In their film, which they hope will ultimately be broadcast as a web series, she plays one of the main roles. “Normally, I don’t like following orders. But this time, I liked it. I liked the fact that there was a structure, an order.”

“It’s a Wrap!”

The last day of shooting takes place on a gigantic concrete slab in Clichy-sous-Bois. The ground is covered in shards of glass and rusting shopping carts while children nearby are trying to learn how to ride wheelies. It is a Friday afternoon in July. Kebe stares in concentration at the camera-mounted screen, Chauvellier is also there and Tur is standing next to the cameraman.

Khalid, the youngest on the team, is wearing a mint-green outfit with white golf shoes and white socks. Golf, according to the screenplay, is the secret passion of the main character, played by Khalid. He is supposed to strike the ball like a professional, with the director having shown him how to do so. It will be one of the final scenes – a golf ball flying through the banlieue.

At 7:06 p.m., the first director’s assistant calls out: “It’s a wrap!” Everyone looks startled, knowing that something has come to an end that they may not ever experience again. Tur and Kebe have applied for the year-long course, which starts in October. And Chauvellier is now writing new screenplays on her mobile phone after the children go to bed. Notes with different colored dots hang on the wall, which she has used to mark the leading and supporting roles – separated by episode. Just like they are taught in the screenplay seminar. But the dream of following in the footsteps of their idol Ladj Ly won’t come true for all of them. For many, hope will be followed by disappointment.

That evening, the cast and crew have drinks on the terrace of the Aram Café in the Clichy-sous-Bois shopping center. The Spanish director Fabien Mariano Ortiz has jotted down a few notes on his mobile phone for his speech. Glass in hand, he stands up and begins speaking. He praises Chauvellier for her outstanding achievement as an actress. “I seriously didn’t expect such a gift.” He also commends Kebe for his calm, warm-hearted manner and his ability during shooting to consistently make everything possible.

He then turns to Tur, the cool and eloquent Tur who repeatedly took over the leadership role in the preceding weeks. It sounds almost ceremonial when he says that only people like Tur – people who are always on the lookout for the best shot, the best approach, who are always trying to fight the chaos within – will be able to get the stars to dance one day. Everybody raises their glass and applauds. But Tur pulls his black cap down over his face. He doesn’t want the others to see that he is crying

Der Spiegel

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