Ah la belle Paris. Home of the Eiffel Tower; the Louvre; the Arc de Triomphe, and synonymous with romance, art and beauty, Paris is the most visited city in the world. Beyond its 20 central arrondissements, however, Paris is comprised of over 184 territories, its metropolitan population now well over 12 million. It is one of the largest cities in the entire world, and indeed was the largest city for over a Millennium. Since the 70s, however, there has been an increasing social and economic gap between the densely populated Northern and Eastern suburbs, and the gentrified Western and Southern suburbs, the deindustrialisation of the former, and the increasing wealth of the latter only widening the split, resulting in periodic unrest over the last three decades.
Indeed many regard the schism as being effectively an informal apartheid – a social, racial, spatial, economic, educational and cultural segregation which mimics colonial-era Algeria and, of course, that notorious period in South African history – a situation only exacerbated by an above-the-law police force who generally get away with racial profiling and instances of torture and even “accidental” death, often directly sparking off the ensuing retaliation from the local population (examples include two police officers who “accidently” asphyxiated a bound – and black – suspect, and who consequently received only suspended sentences and no jail time). With 1 in 5 unemployed, 1 in 4 impoverished, and 1 in 6 a single-parent family – not to mention the fact that almost a third of the population in the banlieues are teenagers (as opposed to the national average of less than a quarter) – it’s no wonder that the reaction comes in the form of rioting; after all, what else can they do?
“It’s about a society in freefall...”
The film follows three young friends struggling to live – and survive – in the banlieues of Paris. Vinz is a Jewish wannabe gangster with a chip on his shoulder and revenge on his mind: he hates all police indiscriminately, and indeed is simply looking for an excuse to take the fight to them; itching to kill a cop just to prove his worth. Hubert is an afro-french boxer whose boxing club was burned down in the riots; he is mature and contemplative, merely wishing to escape the hell that he is in, despite having no means to do so. He knows that there are good cops and bad cops, and knows that the situation is bad for everybody, and on the brink of exploding into utter chaos. Said is an Maghrebin Arab whose opinions lie somewhere between the polar opposite extremes of his two friends – he can see why Vinz is enraged, and can understand why Hubert just sees mutually assured destruction, and consequently wants to escape, but all Said wants is to get on with living his life.
Over the course of a single day we follow the trio of disparate friends as they leave their housing project homes, avoiding police confrontation, and travel to Paris only to find that things aren’t much better for them there. Their fate entwined with that of a poor youth who lies at death’s door on a hospital bed – his final breath could be the spark to ignite an all-out war with the now-despised police – will the three youths succumb to the hatred surrounding them, or rise above it all...
“La haine attire la haine – hatred breeds hatred.”
Long before the 2005 Paris riots, and based on the personal experiences of writer/director Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995’s La haine takes a poignant look at the state of the Paris banlieues – and at the self-destructiveness of teen youth without direction and without opportunity – and remains shockingly relevant even to this day.
Kassovitz has been interested – and involved – in this struggle for several decades now. His father, an immigrant Hungarian Jew who fled Hungary during the Revolution, could easily be the reason behind his defiant streak; their participation in protests, and even riots, sparked off as a direct result of one horrendous incident involving an African named Makome, who was shot point blank in the face whilst handcuffed to a radiator and in police custody. This incident also inspired Kassovitz to embark upon his sophomore project, La haine, writing the story, taking his cast and crew – on a nothing budget – over to the banlieues to live for a few months whilst they captured real riot footage and honed their script; shooting the film using mostly handheld cameras to retain a documentary feel; using real-life non-actors they encountered during the shoot (including Kassovitz’s father), whilst integrating some improvised scenes just to further add to the fresh and raw style.
Indeed of the three lead actors he chose, two made their acting debut with La haine, and the third was only a little more experienced than them, having worked with Kassovitz on his debut feature just a couple of years earlier. All retaining their first names for the characters they played, the most famous of them now, Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) made a startling breakthrough here as the angry wannabe gangster Vinz. Whilst Cassel has exhibited the same potentially violent unpredictability in numerous film projects since (from his follow-up with Kassovitz, The Crimson Rivers, to the genre-bending masterpiece Brotherhood of the Wolf), it perhaps never felt quite as apt as when he was playing this angry teenager, a product of his hostile environment, almost oblivious to its effect on him. In perhaps his most memorable scene – also a prime example of Kassovitz’s talents as a filmmaker – Vinz faces off with himself in a mirror (it’s actually a double, which is why you can’t see the reflection of the camera), mimicking Robert De Niro’s famous “You talkin’ to me?!” monologue as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. It’s a prime example of how Vinz sees the world, and what has brought him to this place; and the simplicity with which he sees the ‘solution’. To him, his path is predetermined: if the youth who was injured by the police dies, then he will shoot a policeman in retribution.
The most experienced actor at the time, Hubert Kounde, is now probably the least famous international star (although he did play in The Constant Gardener, and has been a prolific actor, director, stage actor/director, TV star and writer in his native France), despite the fact that he is simply superb here, bringing us not only the wisdom and intelligence you would expect from the most mature of the trio, but also the tragic impotence of a man who simply cannot escape the situation he is in, despite desperately wanting to. In one superb sequence, where Vinz is about to execute a skinhead for attacking his friends, Hubert cleverly keeps prodding and pushing at Vinz to pull the trigger in an attempt to highlight the fact that his hot-headed friend is far from the cold killer that he so wants to be. Of course, infinitely more symbolic of his character’s inability to escape the desperate downward spiral towards violence – hatred breeding hatred – is the ominous closing shot.
Said Taghmaoui – who you might best remember as the “My main man” Iraqi interrogator in Three Kings (he gives the darkly comical “what is the matter with Michael Jackson?” speech) – plays Said, the more lighthearted middle-man in the group. Born of Moroccan immigrants in the Parisian suburbs, Taghmaoui not only acts in the movie, but also co-wrote it with Kassovitz, based on his own experiences, and this is particularly evident in the characterisation of his own role, where he is less a negotiator between the two opposing factions of Vinz and Hubert, and more an example of a youth just trying to live in the banlieues. He has contacts in the police and contacts on the street, but he doesn’t really want to take sides; he neither has the immaturity and raw aggression of Vinz, nor the maturity and stoicism of Hubert, treading a middle-ground that mostly consists of his trying to enjoy life, in spite of the circumstances that they are all in.
Which is, of course, one of the key points that Kassovitz is trying to make clear: these people just want to live, to be respected, to have an identity, and to have a future. In a 2005 blog-based open debate between the outspoken director and none other than recent ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy himself (then Minister of the Interior), Kassovitz took Sarkozy to task over some unwelcome comments made in the aftermath of the 2005 riots. Sarkozy referred to “blasting... the scum... off the streets with a fire hose” on the eve of the death of two banlieue-dwelling teenagers, of North African Muslim descent – the event which sparked the ensuing riots in the first place. Kassovitz viewed it as antagonistic and ignorant to mislabel the impoverished underclass in this way, stating that it was a “tragic accident, highly symbolic of the living conditions in the French suburbs”, and that the only way a solution can be found is by offering the “the majority of these young people the opportunity to envisage a better future through coherent and generous social assistance to help them get out of delinquency.”
Indeed, in a situation made painfully tense by ignorance and injustice; by a lack of education on both sides – the law enforcers and the banlieue delinquents – it’s a wonder that it took ten years to reach boiling point once again, as Kassovitz had experienced this all before back in 1995, and reflected it so poignantly in La haine.
Fans will recall the surprisingly stylish (particularly considering the budget) cinematography: from the introduction to each of the characters to that “you talkin’ to me” mirror scene; from the split-screen shooting ‘reaction’ shot to the seminal dolly-shot where Kassovitz rolls the camera back whilst zooming in, expanding the background behind the three characters, whilst leaving them standing in the same middle-ground focus. They will remember the brilliant use of black and white filmwork (filmed in colour and processed in post), the excellent hip-hop soundtrack which now pervades not only the suburbs but your very living room, and the sometimes silly, often humorous, and frequently very poignant reflections of the trio.
“Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying, to reassure himself, ‘So far so good... so far so good... so far so good’. How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land.”
Yet what makes this film such a brutal and brilliant masterpiece; such a keenly observed study of socio-political machinations; and such a thoroughly effective and insightful urban indie drama, is Kassovitz’s intelligent juxtaposition of the day-in-the-life exploits of these three multicultural youths with the violent backdrop that is the world they live in. By crafting this compelling look from the point of view of these delinquents – all pent up with no opportunities, nothing to invest their energy in; shown experiencing prejudice at every turn, from aggressive police profiling and (mis)treatment to utter disdain from the bourgeois Parisian city-folk, to racial abuse from anti-immigrant skin-heads – Kassovitz successfully creates a microcosm that effectively symbolises the entire struggle within the Paris banlieues and beyond. The loss of identity, respect, worth, direction, income and opportunity experienced by many who live within the area, coupled with the aggression, prejudice and abuse from all sides, is as tragic as it is horrific that the malicious few (on both sides of the law) manage to precipitate almost perpetual violence as a result of their ignorant actions.
Kassovitz posits the fact that history has proved to us time and again that a lack of openness and communication between different communities engenders misunderstanding, prejudice, confrontation and hatred. Yet nobody appears to be listening; the ‘war’ having raged for over three decades now, before, during, and long after the making of his seminal movie. Of course the answer could come in a demand for better education for both parties, and a keener understanding by the authorities as to the cause behind the symptoms, but whether or not anybody will satisfactorily approach the situation is yet to be seen. It’s a shame because, as he says, “the future of a multicultural and antiracist France depends on it”.
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