October 27, 2005. Following the deaths of two teenagers of north african descent, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, in an electricity sub-station after being pursued by police, riots break out in the Clichy-sous-Bois suburb of Paris. The violence spreads throughout other disadvantaged areas of Paris prompting President Jacques Chirac to declare a state of emergency on 8th November. This does nothing to stop the spread of unrest and within days rioting has broken out in numerous other areas of the country, Toulouse, Lille, Strasbourg, Lyon and Marseille. The state of emergency is only lifted on January 4 2006, three months after disturbances began, France having experienced its worst rioting since May 1968, with churches, police stations and other public buildings attacked with everything from acid to firebombs, and sporadic violence breaking out even in rural areas.
Exactly 10 years earlier, the film La Haine depicts events with a frightening similarity. In the film, the police’s beating of Abdel Icaha, his subsequent hospitalization and eventual death cause a night of heavy rioting and the ransacking of the estate’s police station. The film’s most powerful image: of a petrol bomb flying in slow motion towards a globe, with Hubert’s narration “It’s the story of society in free fall, to reassure itself it repeats endlessly ‘so far, so good, so far so good” and the screen enveloping explosion as the flaming bottle finally hits earth forms a shockingly accurate prophecy, warning of the volatile unrest brewing beneath the surface of French society.
When the petrol bomb explodes on screen, the polite and respectable facade of French society is also blown away to reveal the anger and racial tension simmering underneath and their effect on the Jewish outsider Vinz, happy-go-lucky Said and petty drug dealer Hubert.
The release of the film in 1995 caused a fire-storm of controversy and an outcry from France’s right. The film’s depiction of the police prompted the gendarmes on duty at the films showing at Cannes to turn away from the screen for the duration of the film in protest.
The reason the film created so much controversy on its release, and why it is such an excellent piece of social commentary, is because it exposed properly for the first time France’s deep class divide and conveyed the sense of despair, anger and frustration that those at the very bottom of French society feel every day. La Haine speaks for the underprivileged, unemployed and primarily immigrant underclass, ignored or demonized by mainstream French society and pushed into the HLMs or habitation à loyer modéré (moderated-rent flats), the poverty and crime-ridden estates well outside the wealthy city centres.
In Paris – and France generally – the poor and the rich are kept well apart, and this is illustrated perfectly by the Gare du Nord where Eurostar and other high-speed trains arrive on the upper level, while the commuter trains packed with the poor from the suburbs arrive below. The station has become a flashpoint of conflict between two separate worlds, and the frontline of the class war. The site has seen many riots over the past few years, and is one of the most heavily policed stations in the world, with every law enforcement agency in France posting officers there.
Although it was the exposition of this largely unseen social conflict that garnered most media attention upon release, the fact that La Haine is a skillfully constructed film bursting with iconic imagery makes it certain to be remembered as a profound political commentary as well as a classic of modern cinema.
Many scenes could illustrate the inspired film-making that serve to make La Haine exceptional, but the confrontation between the police and youths from the estate on the rooftops is perhaps the best example. The camera snakes its way through the two vying masses in a long take which manages to circle both groups, cut effortlessly through the middle of the two gesticulating hordes, and show the police from the perspective of the teenagers and then the other way around. The camera gets in close, conveying the sense of violent chaos and capturing individual exchanges between policemen and youths. There is so much going on in this scene it is hard to know what to watch the first time, but watch a second time and see the fiery exchange between Vinz and an undercover policeman. The personal hatred between the two culminates in the film’s searingly powerful climax. The combination of complex and imaginative cinematography with inspired direction, drags the viewer into the conflict and gives the film its biting realism.
Another exceptional scene features a helicopter shot – to the beat of a mix of KRS-1 and Edith Piaf reverberating out from a DJ’s open window – slowly skimming out over the rooftops of the estate. This musical mix highlights another reason why the film is iconic. It combines sophisticated cinematic techniques with the culture of the HLMs – graffiti, hip-hop and breakdancing.
The film, despite being serious in many respects, also has a sense of humour, and this is portrayed through the dialogue which is frequently hilarious, but also through a number of visual jokes, usually laced with irony. One has the characters sitting in a children’s playground. In the foreground one of the teenagers is flicking a discarded hypodermic needle around with his feet while behind is a mural that proclaims ‘the future is yours!’.
Another has the three main characters on a rooftop in central Paris at night, clicking their fingers attempting to turn out the Eiffel Tower. One teenager says, “That only happens in films”. But when the three walk off screen, after a pause, the lights of the tower do in fact go out. The scene is funny, although it also highlights the characters’ sense of futility and powerlessness, coming after Vinz says the city makes him feel like an “ant in intergalactic space”. But maybe it also offers a glimmer of hope.
La Haine is a film to be commended for many reasons. Every aspect of the film’s construction has been carried out with thought and imagination, the command of the art of film-making demonstrated by director Mathieu Kassovitz is exceptional and the social awareness it demonstrates is visionary. To find a work that successfully combines all these complex emotional, social and political aspects in one film in such a profound way is surprising. Although the film is now nearly 20 years old, it has lost none of its caustic power.