French Cinema Unveiling Societal Turmoil: Reflections on Violence, Police, Riots, and Racism

Jean Luc Godard once said: “If you want to make a documentary you should automatically go to the fiction, and if you want to nourish your fiction you have to come back to reality.” And when it comes to reality, French cinema has a long history of exploring the themes of violence, riots and exclusion. These films often reflect the country’s troubled history and its ongoing struggle with these issues. However, they also offer a glimpse of hope, suggesting that it is possible to challenge the status quo and create a more integrated society.

In light of recent events – such as the killing of Nahel, a 17-year-old Algerian teenager, in July 2023 by French police, and the subsequent protests – these films have taken on a prophetic character. They depict the anger, division, and frustration present in French society, particularly in the underprivileged and immigrant communities. The portrayal of such issues in French cinema helps to raise awareness and initiate discussions about the urgent need for social change and tackling racism and discrimination within law enforcement agencies.

The Roots of the Problem

The roots of these issues can be traced back to the massive immigration to France during the 1940s and 1950s, mainly from Algeria and Morocco. These immigrants, along with their descendants, often faced discrimination in various aspects of life, including wages and rights. As generations passed, the frustration with inequality led to public demonstrations as of the 1980s.

The Portrayal of These Issues in French Cinema

French cinema has played a vital role in reflecting and shaping public perceptions. Films such as “La Haine” (1995), “Athena” (2022), and “Les Misérables” (2019) have portrayed the violence, police brutality, and racism in marginalized communities. These films have sparked discussions about the need for social change. And here is a closer look at each of these films achieved that:

La Haine: A Pioneering Film Reflecting Societal Unrest:

“La Haine” (1995), directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, stands as an iconic film exploring these themes. It follows the lives of three friends from an impoverished Parisian neighborhood, primarily inhabited by immigrants. The movie showcases poverty, racism, police brutality, and youth violence, providing an unfiltered and realistic portrayal of life in the banlieues.

The plot unfolds when a young Arab man’s arrest and brutal beating by the police trigger riots in the suburbs, exposing deep-rooted tensions. The police are often portrayed as a symbol of oppression in French cinema. “La Haine” shows how the police can be seen as an “occupying” force by young people in the suburbs. The film also raises questions about the role of the police in a democracy and how it needs to be held accountable. Almost three decades later, “La Haine” continues to be relevant.

“La Haine” depicts the cycle of violence that can be triggered by one side or the other; then perpetuated by the police, the government as well as by ordinary citizens. It is as much a symptom of uneasiness as a cause of problems. “La Haine” was a hit in the box office, a success due to its unusual theme at the time and the boldness in tackling it.

Les Misérables (2019): Unveiling Harsh Realities

“Les Misérables”, the debut feature by Ladj Ly, brings to the forefront the harsh realities of life in impoverished Parisian suburbs, depicting the complex interactions between the police and marginalized communities. The film delves into systemic racism and discrimination faced by the underprivileged, urging viewers to confront these pressing issues. Masterly directed, it was submitted by France to the 2020 Academy Awards. For that, the French concerned cinema authorities are to be hailed for their readiness to support the portrayal of the ugly side of their society, expose it internationally and encourage vital discussions on social matters. 

Athena (2022): Unraveling the Uprising

Riots are another recurring theme in French cinema, and they are often used to explore the anger and frustration by marginalized communities. “Athena,” released in 2022, revolves around the killing of Idir, an Algerian-French boy, by the police. Co-written by Ladj Ly and directed by Romain Gavras, the film portrays the aftermath of this tragic event, as Athena, a French suburb, descends into quasi-civil war.

The film shows how riots can be a result of the economic and social disenfranchisement of young people, as well as the frustration and anger of immigrant communities, who feel targeted and discriminated against by law enforcement. It also portrays tensions and divisions within migrant communities themselves, with conflicting allegiances sometimes amongst siblings in the same family.  Like “La Haine,” “Athena” serves as a poignant reflection of the social tensions in contemporary France.

The Impact

The impact of these films has been significant. They have helped to raise awareness of the challenges faced by marginalized communities in France, and they have sparked discussions about the need for social change. These films have also had a positive impact on individuals who have seen them, contributing to a better understanding of the “other”. They have also provided a sense of validation and empowerment for those who have experienced human rights violations by exposing these cases, showing they are not unique. They serve as powerful tools for initiating discussions on important social matters, raising awareness, and encouraging change in society.

The huge popular success of these movies stems also largely from serious research and deep knowledge of these communities – be it the migrant or the police – by the film directors themselves, and the way unfolding events are tackled. Obviously, the scriptwriters, the crew and the cast know their topic and the society they are showcasing on the big screen. Although taking all a clear stand against slippages and expressions of unacceptable hatred, they shy away from simplistic Manicheism. Violence is not always one-sided; police brutality not always unjustified; diverse positions within the community of migrants are often highlighted; racism can sometimes be two-way, although justified differently. Dealing with the complexity of issues at stake in the movies, while shying away from Manichean stands, adds largely to the credibility of the narratives and hence their impact.

The Future of French Cinema

“I was born and grew up in Saint Denis in northern Paris, which has the reputation for being one of the most disadvantaged places in the entire Paris region. The question of police violence has been a political issue in France for years and is something that has touched me personally as a young man growing up where I did and then reporting about the issue for 10 years.”

French Director Mehdi Fikri’s comment goes along with the much needed and overall crucial role French cinema has played in portraying and understanding the complexities of violence, police brutality, riots, and racism in the country. Such films not only bring attention to the urgent need for social change but also provide a platform for marginalized voices and a call to action for a more inclusive and just society.

French cinema remains an indispensable medium for reflection, dialogue, and societal introspection, not hesitating to show the contrasting sides of the French nation, in hope to best use cinema as a means of self-expression and self-discovery, while remaining a source of pride.

Israa Radaydeh

Film journalist, writer, and SEO editor for Al-Ghad and Jordan News newspapers.

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