La haine and after: Arts, Politics, and the Banlieue
To start on a personal note: I wrote a book about La haine that came out in November 2005, just as the Paris suburbs (banlieues) erupted in an unprecedented wave of violence. Every night, as in the Bob Marley song we hear over the credits, there was burning and looting and clashes with the police—which I could hear, as I was staying with my parents, who live next to one of these “difficult” suburbs. Thus the book, which coincided with the tenth anniversary of the film, proved timely for unexpected reasons. The convergence of Mathieu Kassovitz’s film and social unrest, however, was nothing new: at the time of its release in 1995, La haine was already, and controversially, linked to suburban violence and police bavures (slipups). The explosive contents of the film, its unusually young creative team (Kassovitz and the three lead actors were all in their twenties), the fact that it won the prestigious best director prize at Cannes, its huge popular success, and the media circus that followed turned La haine into a phénomène de société that reached beyond its cinematic value. This black-and-white chronicle of twenty-four hours in the life of a mixed-race young male trio from a run-down banlieue has resonated ever since.
Kassovitz started writing the script of La haine on April 6, 1993, the day Makome M’Bowole, a young man from Zaire, was shot while in police custody in the eighteenth arrondissement of Paris. He wondered in an interview “how a guy could get up in the morning and die the same evening in this way.” M’Bowole’s officially accidental death is one of the many bavures that have plagued the French police in recent decades. More than three hundred mortal “slipups” have been recorded since 1981—common enough to have become a topic for comic films. For Kassovitz, however, they were no cause for laughter. Before M’Bowole, another famous case, that of Malik Oussekine, in 1986, had had particular resonance for him, and it is referred to in the opening montage. The narrative spring of La haine is the shooting of a young beur (a second-generation North African) by the police during the riots that open the film. His death in the hospital propels Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Hubert (Hubert Koundé), and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) on an eventful journey through their suburban estate (cité) and then central Paris, ending in shocking violence. In the process, the film shows clashes between police and youth, and in one famous scene, two policemen sadistically molest Hubert and Saïd while a trainee officer watches. No wonder La haine instantly, and despite Kassovitz’s denials, acquired the reputation of being antipolice. As the daily Libération reported, after the Cannes gala at which the film received a standing ovation, “uniformed police supposed to form a double ceremonial parade [. . .] ostensibly looked toward the sea; in other words, they turned a hateful back to the team who made the film that hates them.” La haine is punctuated by a ticking clock and by Hubert’s story of a man in free fall—Kassovitz’s metaphor for the banlieue as social time bomb.
Unrest in the working-class banlieue was a familiar phenomenon before La haine. The cités concentrate social problems: run-down housing, a high concentration of young people from immigrant backgrounds, drugs, and rampant unemployment. Their social deprivation and cultural alienation are echoed in their topographical isolation from the city center. As in the film, they are routinely portrayed in the media as violent, dysfunctional spaces. But if La haine had, in the words of one journalist, “the effect of a bomb,” taking the Cannes Film Festival and then cinemas across France by storm in May and June of 1995, it was also because its effect seemed to continue to reverberate after it came out. On June 8 and 9, shortly after the release, there were violent riots in the Butte-Verte cité, in Noisy-le-Grand, east of Paris, provoked by yet another death of a young beur, Belkacem Belhabib, who crashed his motorbike while being chased by the police. Coming so soon after La haine, the Noisy-le-Grand riots were inevitably seen as “copycat,” sparking a debate about the responsibility of the film in particular and of the media in general for the violence engulfing French society. The daily France-Soir neatly entitled its June 9 story “Noisy-la-Haine,” and the far-right Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen exclaimed: “Do these yobs have la haine? Send them to jail!” François Dubet, a sociologist renowned for his work on the banlieues, wisely cautioned that “one must not overestimate the role of cinema or television; the banlieue kids did not wait for La haine to express themselves.” Nevertheless, the die was cast. La haine had its finger on the pulse of the French malaise: President Jacques Chirac sent an appreciative letter to Kassovitz, Prime Minister Alain Juppé asked for the film to be screened for government officials, teachers from “difficult” suburbs took their pupils to see it.
In the more than ten years since La haine came out, a lot has happened, both to France and to Kassovitz. His career has taken a radically different path, away from socially committed cinema and toward big-budget genre films, such as The Crimson Rivers (2000) and Gothika (2003). Yet La haine stubbornly clings to him. As he put it when he introduced the film in London in August 2004, “I’ve been living on that movie for the past ten years. I’ve done so many things in between, but nobody cares. It’s my curse. It’s also something I’m very proud of.” In real life, Kassovitz has kept up a passionate interest in the underprivileged. In February 1997, he was one of sixty-six filmmakers who signed a petition calling for “civil disobedience” in support of the sans-papiers (illegal immigrants), as the government was asking French people to denounce them to the authorities. More recently, he was a prominent participant in the intense public debate surrounding the November 2005 riots, in particular through his blog dialogue with the right-wing minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy.
After the riots spread through the suburbs in early November, when every night saw the torching of cars and the looting of schools, gymnasiums, and police stations, Kassovitz was besieged by the world’s media for his opinion. Unable to respond to such demand, he decided to go public through a blog. His first salvo, posted on November 17, was a ferocious attack on Sarkozy, prompted by his infamous remark that the rioters were scum and that the suburbs should be cleansed of them with a power hose. Dubbing Sarkozy a “little Napoléon,” Kassovitz focused on the minister’s repressive strategies for dealing with the violence (such as a curfew and “zero tolerance”). He accused Sarkozy of violating the true values of the republic (liberty, equality, fraternity) and of being motivated only by personal ambition (it was no secret that Sarkozy intended to run for president in the 2007 elections and was courting the ultraright vote in his plea for discipline).
As befits a politician (especially one known for his eloquence), Sarkozy responded, on November 22, in measured terms, praising La haine for having “evoked this malaise” in 1995. Sarkozy, however, went on to accuse Kassovitz of supporting the minority of violent “hooligans,” those who stoned firemen and burned cars, rather than those whose cars were burned, people from the same background and the same ethnic groups. In turn, Kassovitz called Sarkozy “irresponsible” in his call for repression, before developing a fervent argument for improving the lives of the underprivileged. (For translated excerpts from these blog exchanges, click here.)
In many ways, the Kassovitz-Sarkozy argument perpetuates the issues raised by La haine. Vinz, Hubert, and Saïd’s alienation is representative of the social rift that divides the haves from the have-nots, the mainstream from the underclass, and the beautiful city center from the banlieue. Kassovitz’s blog declarations are animated by the same genuine passion that runs through the film. La haine convincingly shows how young people from the banlieue, especially nonwhites, are harassed by the police, but it also demonstrates the violent gun culture that pervades their milieu, with terrible consequences in the film’s stunning finale. Sarkozy points out that Kassovitz’s blog concentrates on the violent minority rather than the whole population. This is true of La haine too. The film gives a vibrant portrayal of youth culture—the clothes, the music, and the colorful language, known as verlan (an ancient form of back slang, revived in the 1970s, in which syllables are inverted—té-ci instead of ci-té, for example—and that unmistakably points to banlieue identity). Nevertheless, the film’s focus is narrow, choosing the violent and the spectacular above the mundane.
The Kassovitz-Sarkozy exchange also reflects what is left unsaid in La haine. Two things are strikingly absent. The first is any reference to the fact that La haine, as well as the discourses around the November 2005 riots, conceptualize “youth” as entirely male. When Kassovitz was questioned in 1995 about the absence of women from his film, he replied that they would have detracted from the seriousness of its purpose: “I did not want to soften the topic. What would love have to do with this story?”—as if women could only signify love and did not have a social identity too. The plight of women as victims of male violence, and their frequent opposition to violence in real life (for example, black and beur women staged demonstrations against the rioters in several locations), are ignored.
The second interesting, and even more striking, absence is any direct reference to ethnicity. In 1995, La haine’s central black-blanc-beur trio made racial difference visible only to downplay it. Racist violence is a trigger for the film, but it rapidly disappears to make way for a consensual view of the three friends, united in their social exclusion. La haine, in this respect, was similar to the beur films of the 1980s. However, the racial situation in France has significantly changed since 1995, and 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 (Jacobin) integrationist model, while the cités are perceived as recruitment grounds for Islamic terrorists. The banlieues, as a result, have seen a greater ghettoization, but this aggravated racial situation is a minefield that neither Kassovitz nor Sarkozy wishes to attempt to cross—all the more ironic since, as Kassovitz points out, they are both the sons of Hungarian immigrants.
La haine thus continues to generate heated debate thanks to its close relationship with some of the most traumatic social and political events in contemporary France. The 2005 debates, as well as the continued popularity of the film, notably with DVD reissues, attest to its central place in French society and world cinema culture. At the same time, it would be wrong to see the film as only a phénomène de société. La haine has had such an impact also because it is a brilliant film, with stylish widescreen noir photography and virtuoso camera work. It captured a young generation on the brink, caught between French culture and that of their parents, and in love with American rap music and cinema. Last but not least, it is blessed with three exhilarating performances, by Cassel, Koundé, and Taghmaoui. La haine has social relevance, but it also possesses a raw energy and all the ingredients of a cult movie: a young director, attractive young stars, humor, violence, style—in one word, cool. La haine speaks of France but succeeds in transcending the national borders. This visionary film elicits passion and provokes thought, and is that rare combination: a cult movie that is also a classic film.