written by G.M.M (15/4/22)
In all of the movements in French Cinema, one has emerged more recently which seems to have played an important role in shaping and identifying a part of French culture and that is the banlieue film. This is a movement which has been defined geographically by the setting of the suburbs in cities, particularly Paris, which have mostly been inhabited by lower class society and ethnic minorities in France. “Cinéma de banlieue emerged within French film criticism in the mid-1990s as a way of categorising a series of independently released films set in the rundown multi-ethnic working-class estates (the cités) on the periphery of France’s major cities (the banlieues)’’ (Tarr, C. 2005). Asides from its geographical identity, these films usually highlight French Society’s societal injustices in keeping the (mostly) immigrant working class cut off from the rest of French culture. “Banlieue cinema is confined, by definition, to a particular location already associated with the clichés that predominate in media, political and social discourses” (Micheal Gott, 2015). The banlieue films have been able to highlight the severe poverty, the overtly violent urbanity, and some of the horrific mistreatment towards groups of people by a corrupt and brutal Police force. Most importantly, the banlieue film movement has been able to shed some light on the suppressed subcultures in these areas. Instead of being dehumanised and cast as inferior, or even invisible, the banlieue movement has made significant moves in challenging representation in French Culture, and how its being identified on a national, or even transnational level, which had been previously been understood as white, middle-class and metropolitan. “The heterogeneous, multicultural nature of contemporary postcolonial France – and the inequalities in the way its diverse cultures are valued – would appear to be self-evident”(Carrie Tarr, 2019). I will explain this through the analysis of two films. The first of which is arguably the most culturally impactful film within the movement, which is La Haine ‘Hate’ (1995, Mathieu Kassovitz,). The second film I will be discussing is Banlieue 13 ‘District 13’ (2004, Pierre Morel).
Kassovitz was writing the script in 1993, when Makome M’Bowole, a young man from Zaire, was shot while in Police custody. This was one of many “accidental” deaths caused by the Police in France, as more than 300 of these accidental fatalities had been recorded since 1981. Another case was Malik Oussekine . This particularly affected Kassovitz. It made national headlines when he was killed by the Police in 1986. In the opening montage of the film, whilst the credits are being shown, Oussekine is even referred to, amongst grainy archival news footage . What Kassovitz is doing here, is grounding the film in reality, using a real life tragedy as the backdrop. The film takes this notion further by having a character, a young Beur, die in hospital after being shot by Police at a riot. A Beur is “a French colloquialism for European born people whose parents or grandparents are immigrants from Maghreb”(Collins Dictionary). This reflected a very common reality in France at the time, where it wasn’t uncommon to turn on the news and see a Beur being arrested or even killed in a violent riot in these suburbs.
After the character of the young Beur dies, his three friends, the three main characters of the film, are set off on their adventure though Paris. Vinz, Said, and Hubert are a multi-ethnic group of protagonists, commonly coined as the black, blanc, beur trio. They are symbolic of the rich diversity of France in the 1990s, Although they all come from different backgrounds, Micheal Gott (2015) states that “the narrative centers around their economic, social, and spacial segregation from mainstream society and perceived ethnic norms”. Since the fictional emeute “riot”, the previous night, we are not sure if the protagonists were directly involved in the looting and violence. As the story starts to unfold, we learn that the only one there was Vinz: the only white protagonist. This opposes the presumed racial stereotype of who was usually considered as being responsible for these riots. This is prevalent when the character of Said is prompted by a neighbour about his involvement in the riots, to which Said responds “did you see me there?” In this moment, Kassovitz has framed expositional dialogue in a way that asks the spectator to apply their own assumptions of the characters before we understand them properly.
The black-blanc-beur trio in La Haine only make racial difference visible to downplay it. As much as racial violence seems to be prevalent in the banlieue, Kassovitz allows it to disintegrate away in order to focus on the friendship they all share, united against all the adversities they face. Ginette Vincendeau notes the very present social exclusion in France and how it has developed since 1995. “the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, exacerbated by 9/11, has increased both anti-Arab racism and partly Arab-fueled anti semitism. Very noticeably the poor layers of society increasingly reject the traditional French integrationist model” (Ginette Vincdendeau, 2009). Kassovitz in a very sympathetic manner, attempts to demonstrate the banlieue population as the protagonist, in stark contrast to the mainly white upper classes of central Paris. This is especially evident when the setting changes and the trio travel from the banlieue to the City Centre, from one world to another.
The Setting in La Haine is integral to the film’s message of social justice. Through a purely binary oppositional view, the film starts in the banlieue, which is enclaved, poverty stricken, violent, and crumbling. When the trio journey to central Paris to meet a cocaine fuelled ‘Snoopy’ for a drug deal, they arrive at a very different part of the City. A moment is taken to observe Beautiful Parisian architecture and Gothic spires that fill the background. The camera pulls the focus to the trio in the foreground standing awkwardly perched at a viewpoint overlooking a busy city centre junction, bustling with life and fancy cars. Vinz characteristically spits on the street as though to mark his territory. It is clear in this moment they are out of place. This is a part of Paris that perceives them as alien, and them alien to it. Professor, Morgan Christensen (April 2015) states that “their [beur] status as a “social minority” plays a major role in the understanding of beur identity was both inwardly and outwardly constructed”.
Kassovitz has long been considered an important and an authoritative voice on social issues regarding the banlieue since La Haine had become successful in raising issues. Police brutality was a large talking point especially because of one scene. This is the scene where Hubert and Said are being molested by Police officers, whilst a trainee officer is forced to watch. Kassovitz unintentionally gained an anti-police reputation from this scene, however what he was primarily trying to do here was more nuanced than just an overtly anti-Police message. Essentially the trainee officer being forced to watch the molestation assumes a dual meaning to the spectator of the film. Firstly, he encapsulates the rest of French society; taking a passive role in the crimes within the system and not doing anything. Secondly, he is symbolic of the spectator watching the film, being beckoned to call out the injustices faced against those who are most opposed. This can be exemplified when we consider the brutal murder of Vinz at the end of the film, a full stop to someones life because of the failed system he was born into.
After films like La Haine in 1995 were then grouped together as Banlieue/beur films by film critics, the movement would become less restrictive. Whilst still identifiable by their use of social commentary and the obvious use of the banlieue setting, these films naturally evolved to include different themes and styles, one of which was released nearly a decade after, which was Banlieue 13 (Pierre Morel, 2004). This was a French action film produced by Luc Besson, who was an advocate for social equality. It was particularly memorable for its use of parkour with groundbreaking stunt sequences that used no CGI or wires. In this fictional version of Paris set 10 years in the future, the worst district in Paris is walled off and considered a lawless land, Leito and undercover cop, Damien are faced with diffusing a bomb that will destroy the City.
What was initially interesting in relation to understanding banlieue films from a decade beforehand, is that the most prevalent theme that has persisted, was the idea of the banlieue (district) being a lawless landscape. Lacking in any policing and strife with violent crime. Although the film is set in the near future, it is very evident that it was reflecting the state of housing when the film was released, and how it hasn’t improved. “ [the] estate of La Grande Borne in Grigny, south of Paris … People here just want to be treated like normal citizens, not second-class citizens… It’s sad that we’re still not.” (Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian, 22 Oct 2015). La Granda Borne was built in the early 1970s and by 2004, was considered one of the poorest areas in all of France, the inequality faced in this area accumulated to half of the population being below the poverty line, with 50% of the children there leaving school unqualified.
This is reflected in Banlieue 13 at the start of the film with a sweeping camera going from gangsters clad with automatic rifles, looting, and most notably children in slums partaking in drug use. It is clear that in establishing setting, Morel is illustrating the lawlessness of Banlieue 13. Morel features children heavily in the first scene, and this demonstrates the severity of danger that youth face. This echoes Grigny in La Grande Borne. “The housing project that was home to Paris Terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly, is a concrete labyrinth so scary that doctors refuse to make house calls and mail workers won’t deliver parcels. Teenage Drug dealers and thugs hold sway over the blighted neighbourhood.” (The National Post, 2015).
The highlight of B13 is the inclusion of David Belle’s Parkour. Belle is credited as the father of Parkour having developed a style of movement as an art style inspired by his father, a Parisian firefighter. developed the style in the outskirts of Paris. According to the International Federation of Gymnastics, it was “a kind of training method to overcome all forms of obstacles in urban and natural environments.” Belle’s character, Leito uses Parkour in order to survive the difficult landscape in order to evade waves of baddies throughout the film, which is perhaps a personal allegory for Belle’s sentiment of focusing on self betterment in order to overcome the obstacles of growing up disadvantaged in the suburbs.
2004 was a very important time in French history, as it was a year later that saw the infamous riots that involved “8,000 vehicles being burned by rioters and more than 2,760 people arrested” (Durand, Jacky Libération 29 October 2005.) The events that incited the riots up until that point were mainly due to mass unemployment and a number of cases of Police brutality in 2004. Banlieue 13 expresses some of the feelings rioters would have had. When Leito hands in a very dangerous criminal, he finds out that the Police were paid off to let him walk free of any charges. Although this scene is highly dramatised, it is representative of the struggle for law and order that many people were experiencing on behalf of a failing Police force.
In the climax to the film, it is revealed that the code the heroes need to diffuse the bomb is actually a code that will blow up Banlieue 13, a secret plan devised by the French government to decimate the district. This plot twist is set up to be believable enough that the government who instructed Damien, is the same government that has ordered for a mass genocide. This speaks massive volumes of how the film-makers perceived the French government. Not only does it express the perceived hatred shown to the people of the banlieue but it decidedly accepts a feeling of complete abandonment and betrayal from the rest of France. “If France has prided itself on being the country of the ‘rights of man’ (sic) and a ‘terre d’accueil’, a land hospitable to foreigners, that reputation has been seriously eroded by its treatment of immigrants from the Maghreb and their descendants” (Tarr, C. 2005).I have analysed two films in reference to the historical and social context of when they were released. Arguing that they were significant in reflecting and also shaping how a minority in French culture has been identified and interpreted. This film movement has faced adversity in changing social and political discourse while also successfully aiding in giving an identity to the mostly immigrant working class part of society in Suburban France. The film’s style and content boast an exceptional ability to not only highlight social inequality but aims to display a possibility for French culture to transform into celebrating a more diverse and understanding culture than before.
La Haine ‘Hate’ (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995, France)
Banlieue 13 ‘District 13’ (Pierre Morel, 2004, France)
Paris: A Dived City (Documentary, Abdullah Elshamy, 2018, France)
The Economist (Feb 6, 2020) A new wave of French films tackle social problems and taboos. Available at: https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2020/02/06/a-new-wave-of-french-films- tackle-social-problems-and-taboos
Gott, M. (2013) Banlieue Cinema: La Haine (1995). Available at: https://h-france.net/fffh/classics/ banlieue-cinema-la-haine-1995/
Johnston, S. (19 October, 1995) Why the Prime Minister had to see La Haine. Available at: https:// http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/why-the-prime-minister-had-to-see-la- haine-1578297.html
National Post ( 19 January, 2015) Inside the Grande Borne: A lawless, concrete labyrinth where Paris terrorist Amedy Coulibaly grew up. Available at: https://nationalpost.com/news/inside-the- grande-borne-a-lawless-concrete-labyrinth-where-paris-terrorist-amedy-coulibaly-grew-up
Chrisafis, A. (22 October, 2015) The Guardian: ‘Nothing’s changed’: 10 years after French riots, banlieues remain in crisis. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/22/nothings- changed-10-years-after-french-riots-banlieues-remain-in-crisis
Federation Internationale de Gymnastique: Parkour . Available at: https://parkour.sport/history.php
Petterson, D. (2014) ‘American Genre Film in the French Banlieue’, Cinema Journal 53(3),
Quandt, J. (2004) ‘Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema’, Artforum International 42(6). Available at: https://search.proquest.com/docview/214347803/ DE40AA0CF0774852PQ/15?accountid=17234
Vincendeau, G. (2012), ‘La haine and after: Art, politics and the Banlieue’, The Criterion Collection, Available on: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/642-la-haine-and-after-arts- politics-and-the-banlieue.
Tarr, C. (2005), Reframing Difference: Beur and banlieue filmmaking in France, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Durand, Jacky Libération (29 October 2005), “Pompier façon légion romaine” (Firefighters à la roman legion)
Higbee, W. (2020) Re-presenting the urban periphery: Maghrebi- French filmmaking and the banlieue filmProf Moya, J. (24 April, 2015) Social marginalisation and the emergence of a collective identity for Paris’ Magherbi youth