We came before 'yellow vests' says Cannes director of riot film

Deborah COLE, Aurélie MAYEMBO
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Amazon Studios has acquired US rights for Ladj Ly's film "Les Miserables," a debut work in the running for the top prize at Cannes

Amazon Studios has acquired US rights for Ladj Ly's film "Les Miserables," a debut work in the running for the top prize at Cannes (AFP Photo/Laurent EMMANUEL)

Cannes (France) (AFP) - French people backing the "yellow vest" movement are only waking up to injustice and police violence that minorities have been calling out for decades, the director of an explosive new film at Cannes said Thursday.

Ladj Ly, who drew comparisons to Spike Lee at the world's top film festival, said President Emmanuel Macron should watch his searing debut feature "Les Miserables" if he wants to understand the wave of anger that has shaken France since November.

"The 'yellow vests' have been in the streets for six months demanding their rights be recognised," the 39-year-old filmmaker told AFP.

"But we've been the yellow vests for 20 years, staking a claim to our own rights while we face police brutality and get shot with stun grenades."

"Les Miserables" tells the story of three policemen tasked with patrolling one of the deprived suburban high rise estate that ring Paris.

The movie takes a unflinching look at mounting rage in largely black and Arab communities over police harassment, failing schools and meagre job prospects.

It is one of 21 pictures vying for the Palme d'Or top prize against competition from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Terrence Malick, Ken Loach and Pedro Almodovar.

Ly focuses on the seething Clichy-sous-Bois suburb that hit the headlines in October 2005 when two teenagers died while fleeing the police in an area home to many impoverished immigrants.

Their deaths touched off riots that engulfed the housing estates and spread through the country in a three-week crisis that made headlines worldwide.

- 'Stand up in revolt' -

The fast-paced film takes its title, but not its plot, from Victor Hugo's 1862 novel, which was set in part in the same Montfermeil district where Ly grew up and set his own story.

The themes he tackles in "Les Miserables" were both inherently French and depressingly universal, he said.

"Down-and-out areas exist all over the place -- in Brazil, everywhere" he told a news conference after its warmly received red carpet premiere.

"Towards the end of the film, these kids really stand up in revolt against teachers, police, the drug dealers. They start destroying things -- I don't know if it's the right reaction but they don't know what else to do."

Ly has said he admires Spike Lee for spotlighting racism and inequality in US society with his films but is frustrated how few black filmmakers are working in France.

"There are doors which do not open to those from a certain social class," said Ly, who has started a tuition-free programme for young filmmakers.

- 'Starting life with a handicap' -

Weekly and often violent protests by the yellow vests have rocked the Macron government over the last six months.

Macron has offered 5.0 billion euros ($5.6 billion) in tax cuts to those whose wages are at the low end of the scale in response to the demonstrations.

While Ly pointed out that similar calls from suburban residents had gone unheeded for decades, he had not given up.

"Growing up in these neighbourhoods, it's like starting out life with a handicap," he said.

Ly, who has criticised social welfare cuts under Macron, quipped that he'd be happy to arrange a screening of "Les Miserables" at the Elysee Palace for the president.

"If you're willing to welcome us, we'll come," he said.