'Les Misérables' is nominated for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars 2020
There was a lot of passion and bravery that went into the making of "Les Misérables".
Created and directed by Ladj Ly, the full-length feature was inspired by his short film of the same title. The journey was fraught with hardships from securing financial backing to convincing actors to be a part of the project. For the powers-that-be in France, the movie was a stain on the country with its portrayal of kids attacking the police.
Despite the struggles, the production went ahead. The result?
Since premièring at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the movie has received critical acclaim. And it was nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.
To be recognised on this platform is a huge achievement for the team, especially Ly as this is his first feature. During my interview with producer Toufik Ayadi and actors Djibril Zonga and Almamy Kanouté, there was no masking the pride they felt to be part of the movie.
With Kanouté only able to converse in French, Ayadi and Zonga helped with the translation.
"Les Misérables" is a hard-hitting movie. There’s wonderful poignancy in how the story unfolds, where three members from an anti-crime brigade – Stéphane/ Pento (Damien Bonnard), Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Zonga) – drive through the Paris suburbs, keeping a watchful eye on tension between different ethnic groups and rival gangs. A freak accident with a troublesome neighbourhood kid triggers an unfortunate series of events, which shakes the officers to their core.
The movie explores themes of drugs, corruption, violence, intolerance, poverty and abuse. It also looks at how empathy and kindness can help defuse situations involving anger and violence. There’s a poetic message at the end of the movie and it forces the viewer to reflect on how power can have either a ruinous or heroic effect.
Although this is Ayadi’s first visit to the country, Zonga has been here several times.
On Ly’s direction, the producer said: “It’s the first movie for Ladj. The point of view of the policemen, which he takes, is difficult to assume. When you want to talk about policemen in France, it’s so difficult. Ladj wasn’t afraid. He said: ‘I grew up with policemen in my suburb and I want to speak about them and the people that live with them’. For us, it was so amazing. We wanted to see what he could do with his point of view of the policemen.”
Zonga was only too happy to discuss his part in the movie. “I play one of the cops,” he said. “I grew up in this area where we shot this movie. In the beginning, when I read the script, it was difficult to say I’m going to play a cop because I was on the side like the kids (in the movie).
“I prepared for my character with the coach and Ladj gave us a lot of space to create our characters. He was open to our suggestions. He came from making documentaries for 20 years. And he kept the way he filmed very realistic.”
Kanouté’s involvement is an interesting one, too. He plays a peacemaker with lots of sway in the community. He said: “I represent people not represented in France.”
Expanding on his statement, Ayadi said: “There was a question on (finding) Salah. When we searched for this character, a lot of people didn’t want to do it. Then a young woman mentioned Almamy wants to be an actor. It’s his first movie.
“Most of the kids in the movie were living in the area. Ladj knew most of them. Working with the kids was very refreshing because they were very spontaneous. Ladj wanted to keep them real.”
On the challenges they faced in making the feature, the producer said: “It was very difficult to find the money for this movie. The subject of the movie did not help us. In France, it is always the same thing, we can’t accept that the child wants to be violent with police. It’s not a good image for France. So we do this movie with not a lot of money.”
The 92nd Annual Academy Awards 2020 is on Sunday, February 9, in Los Angeles. Viewers can catch the show on M-Net (DStv channel 101) at 9pm, the following night.