France's Ladj Ly back with new film on life in Paris suburbs

French director of "Les Indesirables," Ladj Ly poses for AFP during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in Toronto on 9 September, 2023.

Four years after he lit up the Croisette in Cannes with his debut feature film ‘Les Miserables’, Ladj Ly is back with a new searing and very personal take on life in the gritty Paris suburbs.

‘Les Indesirables’ -- which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival -- tackles the growing housing crisis in those areas against a backdrop of racial tensions, poverty, prejudice and police overreach.

For the 45-year-old Ly, who drew on his own experiences growing up in the rundown projects of Clichy-Montfermeil, the situation in the suburbs "has not really evolved" since his first cinematic effort, and he wanted to dig deeper.

"I grew up in the suburbs, it's an area that holds a special place in my heart," Ly told AFP in an interview Saturday at the Toronto film festival, the largest in North America.

The film ‘Les Indesirables’ premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival

"There are various issues -- people being turned out of their homes, gentrification too. There are lots of people who were forced out, only to be placed in neighborhoods that are in even worse shape, or farther away," he said.

"This is a problem that affects a lot of people, whether they live in France or in big cities abroad -- in the United States, Brazil, or elsewhere."

‘Les Indesirables’ follows Haby (Anta Diaw), a young housing activist who lives in a suburb whose mayor suddenly dies, leading to the appointment of young, idealistic doctor Pierre (Alexis Manenti) as his replacement.

As Pierre pursues his predecessor's urban renewal plans, Haby and other residents of her dilapidated apartment block -- no working elevators, minimal lights, cramped living spaces -- attempt to stave off being driven out.

(L-R) French actor Alexis Manenti, French director Ladj Ly and Senegalese actress Anta Diaw, and of 'Les Indésirables' pose for AFP during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on 9 September, 2023.

The tension escalates palpably, after a tragic fire in an illegal restaurant prompts the new mayor to clear the entire building.

Haby enters politics, as her desperate and enraged friend Blaz takes matters into his own hands, with traumatic results.

Diaw called filming "a rather amazing experience" but admitted that acting in some of the more raw scenes, like the wrenching effort to carry the coffin of a loved one down the apartment block's treacherous stairs, took a toll.

"When I was called to the set, and I found the coffin in the middle of the room, it's true, it wasn't obvious how to proceed," she explained. "I didn't think it would affect me to that extent. I took five minutes to pull myself together."

'Really personal'

Ly made his name with ‘Les Miserables’, which debuted to acclaim at the Cannes film festival in 2019, winning the Jury Prize. It took home four Cesars, France's answer to the Oscars, including best film, and earned an Oscar nomination.

Manenti, who won the 2020 Cesar for most promising male actor for ‘Les Miserables’, reunited with Ly for the new film.

His character Pierre, who is white in an area mainly inhabited by people of African and Middle Eastern descent, is forced to navigate the incendiary local political scene while continuing to practice medicine and assuaging his worried wife's fears.

"He's someone who wants to make things change, and he does it in a bit of a radical way," said Manenti. "He thinks he's right and that the ends justify the means."

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But when he empties the building following the fire in the illegal apartment restaurant, giving residents just minutes to pack their belongings for an uncertain future, all hell breaks loose.

Ly said while he is no politician, he believes real change is needed, but lamented: "Today, there is no real political will to move the needle."

The French filmmaker, whose parents are from Mali, said he expects he will eventually make a third movie about the troubles in the suburbs.

"It's a story that is really personal for me," said Ly, explaining that he lived in Building 5 -- the tower block depicted in ‘Les Indesirables’ -- and himself was uprooted and moved elsewhere.