Beaming with pride and joy, Toufik Ayadi, the film’s producer, explains the weight that was on his shoulders to make sure that director Ladj Ly’s dream and vision were realised. Ayadi took seriously his responsibility to tell this story as authentically as possible. They ensured that locals participated in telling the story and starred in the film. Ly was brought up in Montfermeil, a commune in Paris, France, and, as such, had first-hand experience of life in the projects.
“People don’t want to speak or think about poverty, but the film has managed to move them because they know it’s real. We didn’t try to change their narrative but wanted to tell the story of the people of Montfermeil,” he added.
The virtue of authenticity was consistent among the cast members too. Djibril Zonga, who plays a local turned cop, said he put a lot of work into understanding life in Montfermeil. “I prepared my character with a coach and spent time with local law enforcement.
“My character, Gwada, is a policeman who grew up in Montfermeil. To understand his lived experience, I shadowed a cop who lived in a similar commune. I talked to him a lot to find out how he dealt with being seen as a traitor by locals, which helped develop my character,” Zonga explained.
In Les Misérables, Gwada is a tough cop who is complacent in lawlessness. He unintentionally fires a flash-ball gun at a kid and tries to cover it up. After the incident, we see him expressing remorse as he cries on his mother’s shoulder. But when questioned by Brigadier Ruiz, played by Damien Bonnard, he tries to justify his actions. Zonga sees this as one of the most crucial scenes in the movie. He explained that the scenes were constructed to show various sides of the character and expose what lies behind the veil of a tough cop.
“That was Ly’s vision, to show that there are not only good cops and bad cops. As a human being, even if you have bad behaviour, we’re all victims of misery. Things aren’t black and white in real life, and that’s what Ly wanted to show,” he said.
This contrast is relatable in a South African context. Bad guys aren’t just the men who lurk behind the shadows. They are fathers with daughters and wives, like the policeman Chris (Alexis Manenti) who harasses young teenage girls but later fulfils his fatherly duties with his daughters.
Ayadi agrees with these parallels between Montfermeil and other societies. He says the film aspires to bring honesty but also hope. “What we hope people will take away is the last sentence in the movie: Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”