Framing the â€˜Urban Outcastsâ€™
Department of Geography, University of Toronto
100 St. George St., Toronto,ON Canada
Email: [email protected]
The Parisian banlieues, long absent from the dominant French imaginary,
have materialized as spatialized, racialized markers of political-economic crisis,
social fragmentation, crime and violence. In this paper I consider how the film La
Haine (1995) confronts this contemporary spatialized and historicized anxiety by
critiquing assumptions behind such dominant representations. I begin by situating
La Haine alongside other â€˜banlieue filmsâ€™ that have challenged hegemonic
conceptions of Franceâ€™s imagined geographic identity. I then outline some of the
key historical moments that transformed the banlieues from â€˜terra incognitaâ€™ into
the â€˜fractures at the end of the 20th centuryâ€™. I go on to examine La Haineâ€™s
combined narrative style and cinematic form to argue that the filmâ€™s attention to
spatiality â€“ or the social relations shaping the boundaries between the â€˜urbanâ€™ and
â€˜suburbanâ€™ â€“ explicitly confronts the hidden foundations of neo-racism in France.
The film, through both content and form, exposes historical and emergent forces
framing banlieues and youth, offering a critical reflection on the many levels of
mediation between the film itself and the material conditions which gave rise to its
Â© Amy Siciliano, 2007; collection Â© ACME Editorial Collective, 2007
La Haine: Framing the â€˜Urban Outcastsâ€™ 212
â€œWe donâ€™t exist, nobody sees usâ€ A youth from a banlieue outside of Paris
â€“ Laperyronnie, 1992; quoted in Wacquant, 1993, 377
Since the 1990â€™s the spaces of the French banlieues â€“ once beyond the
boundaries of the dominant geographic imaginary â€“ now emanate images of
deviance, violence, and disorder (Hargreaves, 1996); part and parcel of an
increasingly globalized image regime. In the wake of uprisings in these suburban
regions, most recently in the fall of 2005, youth from the banlieues have been
branded as a â€˜symptomâ€™ â€“ projected through a prism of structural risks (such as
globalization and advanced capitalism) and cultural fears (such as immigration and
national identity) â€“ of a nation in crisis.2
It was in the midst of this moment â€“
marked by a rising tide of reactionary nationalism â€“ that â€˜banlieue filmsâ€™ emerged
in France. The most critically acclaimed and commercially successful film of this
period was Mathieu Kassovitzâ€™s La Haine (1995), a story which captures one day
in the life of three young â€˜outcastsâ€™ from a Parisian banlieue. In this paper I
examine how the filmâ€™s narrative style and cinematic form confront this spatialized
and historicized anxiety, interrogating assumptions behind dominant
representations of banlieues and youth. The film not only renders visible people
and places hitherto denied the right to represent themselves â€“ it does so without
harbouring any illusions concerning the ideological nature of representing the socalled â€˜underclassâ€™ and its habitat. In other words, it is not sufficient to read La
Haine as an exposÃ© of the alienated everyday life of the â€˜underclassâ€™ in the
banlieue: much of its artistic and political value comes from critical reflections on
the many levels of mediation between the film itself and the material conditions
which gave rise to its production.
Many reviewers have noted (and sometimes faulted) the film for centering
its problematic not on ethnic differences, but rather on the socio-spatial inequities
between Paris and its suburbs. Indeed, space plays a central role in determining the
aesthetic of the film, and is profoundly constitutive of the protagonistsâ€™ subject
formations. But it is precisely because the film devotes such attention to this
spatiality â€“ without resorting to a â€˜remappingâ€™ of the social â€“ that makes it of
particular interest to critical geographers of the city. As Jameson (1992, 2) notes,
the totality of forces contributing to â€œurban dissolution and reghettoizationâ€ cannot
simply be socially â€˜mappedâ€™ (be it spatial, cognitive, cinematic, or otherwise),
An anxiety confined not only to the French nation: In 2005, a concentrated rise in violent
activity among racialized youth in Torontoâ€™s inner suburbs prompted Franceâ€™s Canadian
Ambassador Daniel Jouanneau to offer Torontonians some â€˜Lessons from the Violence in Parisâ€™
(see Jouanneau, 2005).
ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 6(2), 211-230 213
because it inevitably only provides a caricature of the globalized structure of
relations producing the spaces our lived experience. What is key is how such tools
render visible the mediated relationship between ideology, representational
practices, and the spaces of everyday life, evoking a sense of how such relations are
materially grounded and historically produced (Goonewardena, 2005). The film
speaks to both the suburbanization of poverty and racialization of the suburbs in
France through a postmodern fragmentary aesthetic to â€˜shockâ€™ as Walter Benjamin
( 2005) might say, its viewers into insight. The juxtaposition of images,
sounds, and camera angles, alongside the narrative itself evince veiled relations
between space and time, prodding its audience to question received attitudes and
perceptions, or the various levels of mediation that have enabled the words
â€˜banlieue youthâ€™ to become synonymous with crime, poverty and arrested social
Critiquing the film for a lack of attention to â€˜ethnicityâ€™ threatens to ignore
how the film explicitly confronts shifting social relations shaping the boundaries
between the centre and periphery â€“ a central part of what Balibar calls part of a
â€œspectrum of ideological formationsâ€ defining an emergent neo-racism in France
(2001, 480). The youth have become â€˜symptomsâ€™ of a nation in crisis, not only out
of the forces of racialization, but also because of their â€˜cultural othernessâ€™:
marginalized as residents of a Parisian banlieue. Past exclusions rooted in a
colonial mentality have been reconfigured into the present (Balibar, 1991, 9),
fashioned in such a way that â€“ migration, and â€˜the immigrantâ€™ in general, are
transformed into both a â€˜cause and effectâ€™ of an insecurity (1991, 226), which finds
its â€˜naturalâ€™ spatial fix in Franceâ€™s multi-ethnic banlieues.
It was FranÃ§ois Maspero’s novel, Les Passagers du Roissy-Express,
published in 1990, that perhaps first anticipated the latent anxiety stemming from
the intense socio-spatial segregation between Paris and the banlieues. The novel
represented a â€œnew and different type of urban literature, one that include[d] the
periphery rather than delegitimating itâ€ (Wilson cited in Jones 2004, 127). The
novel centres on a group of Parisians who embark on a â€˜journeyâ€™ to the banlieues
of Paris â€“ a place â€œmany Parisians sawâ€¦as a shapeless muddle, a desert containing
ten million inhabitants, a series of indistinct grey buildings: a circular purgatory,
with Paris as paradise in the middle. The suburbs were something â€˜all aroundâ€™. A
wasteland. A land for wasting soulsâ€ ( 1994, 16). If Masperoâ€™s novel began
to reconfigure the boundaries of Franceâ€™s imagined geographical identity, the socalled cinÃ©ma de banlieue that emerged in the mid-nineties gave this movement
concrete cultural form. Film critic Bernice Reynaud notes that French cinema has
long neglected the banlieue,3
which has had the effect of keeping the (largely)
3 Neglected, but not ignored. See especially Godardâ€™s Une femme mariÃ©e (1964), Deux ou
trios choses que je sais dâ€™elle (1967) and Numero deux (1975); Pialatâ€™s Loulou (1979); and
La Haine: Framing the â€˜Urban Outcastsâ€™ 214
immigrant working class and their histories cut off from the dominant French
cultural imaginary (1996). But the multiethnic Parisian banlieues have increasingly
become a space from which French cinema has consciously challenged hegemonic
representations of â€˜Frenchnessâ€™ (understood as white, metropolitan, and middle
class) (Tarr, 1997), and La Haine became only one of many films emerging from
the banlieues, giving cultural expression to a side of France not readily visible. This
genre is exemplified in such films as Thomas Gilouâ€™s RaÃ¯ (1995), Jean-FranÃ§ois
Richetâ€™s Ã‰tat des lieux (1995), Chibaneâ€™s Douce France (1995), and Karim Dridiâ€™s
Bye Bye (1996). What these films share is a desire to interrogate existing and
historical social relations between periphery and centre.4
What separates them
from other genres of French cinema is their attention to the lingering effects of
French colonialism, something which the majority of mainstream French films
have been â€œnotoriously reluctantâ€ to do5
(Tarr, 1997). Most â€˜banlieueâ€™ films share a
common theme of a â€˜journeyâ€™ between the banlieue and the city â€“ often plagued
with difficulty and dwelling on an acute socio-spatial divide, by way of plot lines
and other cinematic techniques. They also attempt to interrogate universalist
notions of citizenship, showing how this concept on which the French Republic
was constructed, has for many of the â€˜urban outcastsâ€™, become little more than an
empty signifier. But if these films have become an allegory for the postcolonial
present, they also emphasize the possibility of subversion and transgression, as
their narratives oscillate between spaces of state-regulated, highly controlled
landscapes to abandoned warehouses and vast rooftops where the protagonists â€“ at
least momentarily â€“ are able transgress the boundaries of state surveillance to
cultivate spaces of their own accord (see Fielder, 2001).
The banlieues: from â€˜terra incognitaâ€™ to the â€˜fractures at the end of the 20th
The twentieth-century suburbs of Paris have often remained beyond
the boundaries of popular imagination. In few of the worldâ€™s great
cities is the contrast between urb and suburb so dramatic as in Paris;
as soon as one crosses the pÃ©rÃ©phirique, the outer belt that is the real
boundary of the city, one abruptly leaves the elegant row houses of
the capital behind to enter a world of architectural disarray. Even
though the Paris suburbs have grown enormously since 1900 and are
Rohmerâ€™s Les Nuits de la pleine lune (1984). For a more comprehensive discussion of French
cinema and the banlieue, see Tarr (2005).
4 What they also share is a stereotyped portrayal of women as the object of sexual desire
and agent provocateurs. As Carrie Tarr (1997) ironically notes, Kassovitz â€˜solvesâ€™ the issue of
female representations by erasing them almost entirely from the script of La Haine.
Michael Hanekeâ€™s haunting film CachÃ© (2006) provides a recent exception.
ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 6(2), 211-230 215
now home to one out of every nine people in France, they are
nonetheless terra incognita to most (Stovall, 1990, 1)
Conventional assumptions of the banlieue as a stigmatized space can be traced as
far back as the thirteenth century, where banlieues marked the peripheral space one
league from the centre of the city and the term au ban meant to be excluded from a
group by proclamation (Viellard-Baron, 1996). The 19th century Hausmannian
projects inaugurated under Napoleon III led to a massive dispersal of the urban
poor, contributing to the formation of the historic working-class Red Belt bordering
Paris by early the next century. After the Second World War, another wave of
expulsions began, fuelled by a massive economic boom in Paris that provoked an
acute housing shortage as people from both the countryside and the colonies
migrated to the city for employment. Branded as Les Trente Glorieuses, this period
extended from 1945 to 1974, and was marked by extraordinary growth in the
banlieues, as the so-called bidonvilles on the outskirts of the city were demolished
to produce clean, modern homes (Ross, 1996;Merlin 1998). Many of these were
council properties (logements sociaux) or grands ensembles â€“ high-rise modernist
estates on the outside of Paris whose names, such as Les Quatre Mille, (built in
1964), boasted the number of suites they contained.
As Kristin Ross notes, in her fascinating account of the modernization of France,
twenty four percent of Paris’ built environment was demolished and rebuilt under
the pretext of hygiene and security.
And while the numbers of working class living in Paris during this period
declined by 44 percent, the number of â€˜cadres supÃ©rieursâ€™ increased by an
astonishing 51 percent. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century this
rapidly modernizing city adopted an increasingly racialized urban form:
French modernization, and the new capital city that crowned it, was
built largely on the backs of Africans â€“ Africans who found
themselves progressively cordoned off in new forms of urban
segregation as a result of this process â€¦ By 1969, one in six
inhabitants of the greater Paris region lived in a grand ensemble.
Paris intramuros, peopled by the mostly white upper class and
middle classes, became in those years what we now know it to be: a
power site at the centre of an archipelago of banlieues inhabited
mostly by working class people, a large percentage of them
immigrants (Ross, 1999, 151-152).
By the late 1970s many low-skilled factory workers in the banlieue who had been
steadily migrating for work since the 1950s from the French colonies of Algeria,
Tunisia and Morocco were increasingly finding themselves laid off or permanently
unemployed. Between 1975 and 1990 France lost 1.3 million industrial jobs and
most of the public housing estates were concentrated in the areas severely affected
by this deindustrialization (Body-Gendrot, 2000). Alarmed by the dire social
La Haine: Framing the â€˜Urban Outcastsâ€™ 216
effects of the ongoing crisis of deindustrialisation, leaders from across the political
spectrum began to formulate struggles against the effects of such uneven
development by articulating plans rooted in the notion of â€˜equalityâ€™ and a
nationalist discourse of a â€˜collective French identityâ€™ (Balibar, 1991). Take for
instance, Banlieues 89, an ambitious urban revitalization â€˜movementâ€™, organized
under Mitterrandâ€™s socialist government, designed to address the problems
plaguing Franceâ€™s suburban regions.
6 For the leftist organisers of Banlieue 89, the
number â€˜89â€™ was chosen to encapsulate the notion of â€˜equalityâ€™ rooted in the birth
of French Republic in 1789. What is crucially missing from such representational
strategizing is of course, the story of French colonization, which in the late 18th
century, was on the cusp of its most expansionary, violent phase. Thus, a program
that was designed to overcome the stigmatization associated with banlieue life
valorizes a historicized â€˜Frenchâ€™ identity, while silencing a side of history integral
to the very problem its architects aimed to address.
If Banlieue 89â€™s cultural aspirations were distorted, so were its more
functional ambitions. In 1991, after being interrupted by the election of a
conservative government and plagued by internal bureaucracy, the program
officially ended. Even though over 100 projects were realized (Roberts, 2000), an
emphasis on aesthetics and fragmented policy changes did little to tackle structural
unemployment nor systemic racism, and the numbers of those without work in the
banlieues continued to escalate, approaching 50-80% in some regions. Little has
changed on these estates, or les citÃ©s as they came to be called. Stigmatized and
segregated from the metropolitan centres they surround, they remain disconnected
from neighbouring commercial centres. A study by Franceâ€™s Institut
dâ€™AmÃ©nagement et dâ€™Urbanisme revealed that in 82 neighbourhoods surrounding
Greater Paris, residents had to travel between one and two miles, usually crossing
railway tracks or highways, just to reach a shopping complex or movie theatre
(Body-Gendrot, 2000). Viellard-Baron, who has written extensively on the social
apartheid of Franceâ€™s banlieues notes that Chanteloup-de-Vignes (the citÃ© where La
Haine was filmed) was designed with no direct access to the neighbouring village
of La NoÃ« â€“ it was, quite simply, surrounded by a sea of empty fields. It was three
years before a rail station was built â€“ which, on opening day, was promptly set
The fractures at the end of the 20th century
In the summer of 1991, during the so-called Ã©tÃ© chaud, violent
confrontations between youths and police spread through the peripheral regions of
Lyon, Paris and Marseilles, thrusting the banlieues and youth into the spotlight; a
6 See Roberts (2000) for an extensive discussion of this program of urban and architectural
ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 6(2), 211-230 217
focus of widespread anxiety that fuelled fears of mass urban disorder (Dubet and
Lapeyronnie, 1992; Wacquant, 1993b). Consequently, the youth living in these
areas emerged as the target of spreading unease. Indeed, as LoÃ¯c Wacquant
observed at the beginning of the early 1990â€™s, much of the antagonism has not been
directed at particular immigrant groups, but toward youth themselves, who then are
projected as unified social subject. â€˜Youthâ€™ are publicly held responsible for the
decaying physical and social state of the banlieues â€“ the singular cause of
insecurity (1993a). More recently, Jocelyne Cesari noted that
the symbolic ghettoization of these neighborhoods â€“ particularly in
regard to the younger generation â€“ has only grown stronger in both
political discourse and the media. On a regular basis, suburban youth
are referred to as a threat: a dangerous social class made up of people
who do little but steal and engage in all sorts of illegal activity. In the
past five years, the teenagers of the suburbs have been portrayed as
budding terrorists, as rapists (with the gang-rape controversies of the
past ten years), and, after the debates over the headscarf, as their
sistersâ€™ oppressors (2005).
In 1995 the newly elected President Jacques Chirac branded the banlieues as the
â€œfractures at the end of the twentieth centuryâ€ (Reader, 1995, 12), announcing a
â€œnational plan for integrationâ€, based on his own â€œMarshall plan for the banlieueâ€
(Vincendeau, 2005,19). What emerged rather, was a renewed form of colonial
governance, inspired by the 1994 translation of Wilson and Kellingâ€™s (1982)
â€˜broken windowsâ€™ theory of crime. As such, the Interior Minister took a profound
interest in the stateâ€™s management of public housing projects, successfully
implementing changes to the penal code to allow prison sentences for public order
violations such as loitering in their entrance ways and stairwells â€“ policies which
targeted the most visible of infractions to aid in successful prosecution. Such
intensive policing, or what Silverstein and Tetreault (2006) have called the â€œdefacto
militarization of housing projectsâ€, has resulted in spikes in certain juvenile
offences that French legislators then use to justify funnelling more resources and
repressive tactics into the criminal justice system (Ossman and Terrio, 2006).
It was the perverse rationale behind such changes to Franceâ€™s approach to
social welfare that banlieue films aimed to confront head on. La Haine was the
most widely viewed and highly acclaimed of these films;7
shortly after its release,
Bernice Reynaud argued that La Haineâ€™s success
Kassovitz took the award for Best Director at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. The film
was also re-released as a â€˜Special 10th Anniversary Editionâ€™ with a new updated English translation.
La Haine: Framing the â€˜Urban Outcastsâ€™ 218
wasnâ€™t so surprising after all. The ethnic melting pot of the banlieues
has become an infernal brew, and the bubbles that have appeared
now and thenâ€¦are the symptoms of a long overdue volcanic
explosion. When a majority of French voters recently elected a rightwing government, it was with the frightened hope of containing that
explosion. [La Haine] hit home because it articulated the narrative
possibility of what everybody fears â€“ or hopes; yes, the banlieues
will burn (1996, 54).
La Haine: Burninâ€™ all illusionsâ€¦
La Haine charts a tense duration of nearly 24 hours, after a night of rioting
in a Parisian banlieue. The intersection between time and space plays an essential
role through both narrative and style, traversing the realm of the future, and
historicizing the sphere of the present. Ironically, this attention to time would lend
a predictive element to the film, as its release coincided with uprisings in the
Parisian banlieues in July of 1995, and foreshadowed the massive rebellion outside
the capital in the fall of 2005. The film opens with an image of the earth as a voiceover tells the story of a man falling from a 50 story building, chanting: â€˜so far, so
good; so far, so goodâ€™ when suddenly, a Molotov cocktail hurls toward the earth,
and it explodes in flames. The screen quickly dissolves into a montage of
documentary images relaying scenes of a riot incited by a police beating of a young
named Abdel. Finally, this montage is itself transformed into a televised
screen image, and subsequently â€˜switched offâ€™. This is a powerful opening, and
with Bob Marleyâ€™s prophetic song of insurrection Burninâ€™ and lootinâ€™ forming the
soundtrack, the scene works, as Sharma and Sharma have noted, â€œto connect these
acts of resistance and rebellion to wider post-colonial struggles against racist state
terror and social injusticeâ€ (2000, 104). But these images also recall the student
protests of May â€™68: as the youth of 1968 were rendered impotent by the emerging
â€˜bureaucratic society of controlled consumptionâ€™ and colonization of everyday life
by the commodity form, the youth protesting today, even though the majority are
French citizens, are reacting against the emptiness of this category, as they are
socially racialized, spatially marginalized and politically immobilized. The
protagonists â€“ all members of the so-called â€˜underclassâ€™ â€“ are unemployed and
unwanted by a Republic that prefers to deny or, at best, contain their existence
The three main characters of the film are SaÃ¯d, of Arab decent, Hubert, of
African decent, and Vinz, a Jew (Figure 2). The multi-ethnic image of these youth
projects the reality of the â€˜newâ€™ France, cleverly subverting bleu-blanc-rouge, (the
8 Beur, a popular slang term for a person of Arab origin, comes from Verlan â€“a vernacular
dialect popular in the 1970s and recently revitalized by banlieue youth especially in hip-hop culture.
ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 6(2), 211-230 219
Figure 1 Police occupation in the citÃ© the morning after the riot
national colours of France), for black-blanc-beur (black-white-Arab). Black-blancbeur is an essential part of the filmâ€™s imagery disrupting the ideology of â€˜solidaritÃ©â€™
â€“ an ideology vital to the formation of French nationalism. The multicultural image
of â€˜black-blanc-beurâ€™ for example, was popularized in the wake of Franceâ€™s World
Cup victory in 1998, where the term was harnessed to project the notion of
unification of the French nation (Vincendeau, 2000).
Figure 2 Vinz, Hubert and SaÃ¯d.
La Haine not only ruptures the metaphor of solidaritÃ© but also brings the
banlieue, the youth, and â€˜the immigrantâ€™ together into a historicized space and
spatialized time to reveal â€˜neo-racismâ€™ as an emergent social category onto itself.
The Maghrebian, African and Jew are not explicit targets of racial stigmatization
La Haine: Framing the â€˜Urban Outcastsâ€™ 220
due to their biological â€˜othernessâ€™, but rather their cultural â€˜othernessâ€™ as residents
of the banlieue â€“ transformed into spatialized, racialized markers of politicaleconomic crisis, social fragmentation, crime and violence. When Vinz remarks, for
example, that he doesnâ€™t want to be the next Arab killed in a police station, SaÃ¯d
jokes about Vinzâ€™s honourary Arab status. What this suggests is that all poor youth
from the citÃ© are likely targets of police brutality, recalibrating conventional
notions of racism from a â€˜legitimatelyâ€™ biological platform, to a â€˜legitimatelyâ€™
cultural one, where a particular â€˜style of lifeâ€™ or â€˜way of beingâ€™ becomes crucial to
French identity (see Balibar, 1991). Allusions to conventional acts of racialization
are re-configured in new socio-spatial terms: onto the banlieues and youth. This
recalibration is part of a necessary logic of the â€˜new racismâ€™ as Howard Winnant
suggests when he argues, that neo-racism in France and Britain:
has [had] the effect of displacing the hostile, competitive and
anxiety-ridden themes which figured race as â€˜othernessâ€™, but which
had been stigmatized in the post-World War period-and especially in
the 1960â€™s. These tropes could hardly be eliminated or uprooted, for
they signified the most fundamental social structure, both global and
local: the North-South divide, the international division of labour, the
ongoing legacies of colonialismâ€¦Yet officially they could hardly be
reaffirmed either. Any explicitly racist discourse, or officially racist
policyâ€¦would have been immediately discredited. In short, concepts
of racial differences had to be reinterpreted or rearticulated in at least
ostensibly non-racial ways (2001, 273).
As this film demonstrates, at the scale of the urban this neo-racism is grounded on
the cultural superiority of the bourgeois urbaniteâ€™s style of life over the young
banlieusards. The protagonists are paradoxically only a train ride away, but a
world apart from the cosmopolitan culture of late capitalist urban space. This
message is driven home in the film when the youth, having been held up by an
extended and unwarranted police interrogation, miss their last train home, and are
left stranded in Paris till dawn. Destined to wander the streets, they eventually find
their way to a vernissage. Yet once inside, a series of humorous, yet aggravated
attempts made by the youth to â€˜fit inâ€™ â€“ first by trying to engage with the artwork,
and when that fails, trying to stir conversation with some women â€“ proves futile,
and is punctuated with their dramatic expulsion from the gallery (Figure 3). With
the youth gone, the gallery owner turns to his visibly shaken guests and remarks
â€œOff the estatesâ€.
If the film works to show how conventional notions of racism in France
have been recalibrated into the contemporary moment, critical historical and
geographical referents, from working class France to American pop culture,
historicize and humanize the filmâ€™s cinematic landscape. Such techniques
challenges conceptual categories that rely on â€˜identityâ€™ as the organizing principle
ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 6(2), 211-230 221
of analysis so as not to reify such differences â€“ but rather to show how such
representations arise out of range of social situations that are themselves both
situation specific and structured by broader historical and globalizing forces.
Figure 3 The gallery owner informing his unwanted guests they must leave.
For example when the camera takes aim on a resident DJ in the citÃ©, he turns
his speaker out his open bedroom window to spin a mix of KRS-Oneâ€™s Sounds of
da police, Supreme N.T.M/ Cut Killerâ€™s Nique la police and Edith Piafâ€™s Je ne
regrette rien, as the camera embarks on an extended flight over the citÃ© (Figure 4).
This interlocking of musical referents as the camera takes â€˜flightâ€™ over the citÃ©,
forges the struggles of the youth with the popular music of the historical working
class and the contemporary critical politics embedded in French and American hiphop music.
The influence of popular culture extends beyond the musical sphere and is
noteworthy particularly in how American film and television are incorporated into
the lives of the banlieue youth. As one reviewer notes: â€œ[i]ts as if these characters
learned how to be ghetto dwellers by watching American moviesâ€ (Klawans,
1996). But while the film demonstrates just how such culture works to â€œframe,
form and deformâ€ the everyday lives of the youth (Elstob, 1997-8, 44), rather than
just smoothly integrating the â€˜inevitable descentâ€™ of American culture into the
protagonistsâ€™ gestures, the film dwells on the awkwardness, or incapacity, of their
varied attempts to do just that. These wanting â€˜performancesâ€™ show how such
globalized culture forces are not simply determinate of subject formation, but are
La Haine: Framing the â€˜Urban Outcastsâ€™ 222
Figure 4 A musical flight over the cite
actively interpreted, and even open to acts of subversion. Such practices of
performativity come, for example where Vinz impersonates Robert De Niroâ€™s
character, Bickle, in Taxi Driver, by standing in the mirror with a (not so)
threatening look, hand poised as a gun, yelling â€œYou talkinâ€™ to me?!â€ (Figure 5);
and again when the protagonists attempt (and fail) to hotwire a car by trying to
recall how MacGyver â€˜does itâ€™.
Figure 5 Vinz performing the character of Bickle in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
In another scene contemplating the relationship between media, violence
and youth, Hubert, SaÃ¯d and Vinz observe a wall of multiple television screens
projecting the war in Bosnia. This montage of war images is interrupted by a news
broadcast announcing the death of Abdel, the beur who was beaten by police in the
riots the night before. This is a climatic moment because Vinz, throughout the film,
has promised to â€˜kill a copâ€™ to get revenge for Abdel if he were to die. Ultimately
ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 6(2), 211-230 223
though, even with weapon in hand, war on his mind, and an afforded opportunity,
he is only able to fantasize about this act of vengeance.
This type of disruptive expressionism operates both in content and form. It
is not only the social, but geographic space that Kassovitz works to dislocate.
While the film is concerned with life in the banlieue, nearly half of it is set in Paris.
The division â€“ both in narrative and style â€“ between Paris and the citÃ© is vast, and
notable because it inverts conventional imaginary associated with each space. Most
of the scenes in Paris take place at night. This is also where most of the physical
violence occurs, and where short takes and long camera lenses help to foster an
anxious, alienating environment. Conversely, in the citÃ© Kassovitz uses short
lenses and long takes (some as long as 3 minutes), which fix the protagonists in
their setting, integrating them into the landscape. If the film works to subvert the
prevailing imagery of urban Paris, it is in the citÃ© where the film does its best to
enact a different way of seeing, juxtaposing sensational images of the banlieues
with banality to illustrate just how these images are produced as a consumptive
form of voyeuristic entertainment (for what has now become a global audience).
For example, as Hubert sits at the kitchen table with his mother, the television
projects images of the citÃ© in flames from the previous night of rioting (Figure 6).
As he laments about his hardships in life, his mother reminds him of his daily
chores, highlighting how everyday life in the banlieues has been reduced to
â€˜spectacleâ€™ fit for consumption.
Figure 6 Footage from the previous night’s riots in the citÃ© is projected
back into the home of its residents.
In another scene a journalist and cameraman hover over the three
protagonists hanging out in the park in an attempt garner an interview the morning
after the riots. This one brief scene demonstrates how the film â€“ rather than
offering a reflection of the social reality of everyday life in the banlieues â€“ is a
mediation on just how this reality is produced: we observe the youthsâ€™ hostile
interactions with the crew; their relative position to them in a playground below
ground level; their projected image, which oscillates between the view of the
La Haine: Framing the â€˜Urban Outcastsâ€™ 224
cinematographer and the cameraman; and ultimately how the youth themselves are
acutely aware of their â€˜safari-likeâ€™ appearance. (Figure 7)
Figure 7 A journalist approaches the youth the morning after the riots.
Journalist: Excuse me gentlemen; we are from the television station.
Did you take part in the riots? Did you break anything? Can we talk
SaÃ¯d: Do we look like thugs to you?
Journalist: I didnâ€™t mean that…
Hubert: Why donâ€™t you get out of your car? This isnâ€™t Thoiry!
Journalist: Because … Because we are late. We have a lot of work to
Vinz: Like what? To stir some shit? To get a good scoop? Who do
you think you are coming to my hood? No cameras! What are you
filming you son of a bitch?? Get the hell out of here you filthy
bastards! This isnâ€™t Thoiry!
Journalist: Okay! Okay! [The journalists drive away]
SaÃ¯d: Whatâ€™s up with those bastards?!
Vinz: Whatâ€™s Thoiry?
Hubert: Itâ€™s a drive-through safari park.
Vinz: This ainâ€™t a zoo!!
ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 6(2), 211-230 225
But it would be foolish to conclude, positioning the film in the way that I
have, without first addressing the political economy of its own colonial
architecture: Kassovitz, a member of the Parisian bourgeoisie, takes a story of the
â€˜underclassâ€™ and inserts this image onto the big screen of globalized cultural
commodity production. His tactical use of images, sounds and gestures extracted
from historical and emergent referents can undoubtedly be understood as its own
form of aesthetic colonization (see Jameson, 1991). To be sure, most of the early
filmmakers of the cinema de banlieue movement, including Kassovitz himself,
eventually migrated into mainstream filmmaking. And as much as La Haine has
become a cult classic, Chanteloup-les-Vignes itself has become an integral part of
the spectacle: the confrontational scene between the journalist and youth has been
transformed into an ironic feedback loop, as not only the press, but politicians,
academics and fans focus their gaze onto the residents and spaces of the citÃ©. These
critiques have prompted counter arguments in order to emphasize the director and
crewâ€™s high level of engagement with the residents of the citÃ© (he and his crew
lived there for 6 months), the casting of relatively â€˜unknownâ€™ leads and of local
residents as extras in the actual production, and the special advanced screening of
the film for the residents of the citÃ© on site. While only part of a debate much larger
than these pages allow, Kassovitzâ€™s attention to such details throughout the filmâ€™s
production suggests that he was not only concerned with making his art, but was
equally reflexive of his role as a producer in this process. Furthermore Kassovitz,
because of his own contradictory identity (as a member of both the left and the
cosmopolitan bourgeoisie) is, in a parallel way, aligned with the characters in the
film who are â€˜Frenchâ€™ yet excluded from dominant French society, and thus was
positioned to bring many of the paradoxes of his own existence to life in La Haine.
Kassovitzâ€™s authorial interventions throughout the film reinforce this point: the
most politicized of these is when he makes a cameo appearance playing the role of
the skinhead Vinz is charged with shooting in a random act of revenge for the death
of Abdel (Figure 8).
This explosive performance interrogates the â€˜realityâ€™ the film projects,
suggesting how this reality trans/deformed â€“ and masked â€“ through
â€œWe want to say we exist, not burn cars. For once the cinema gives
us this opportunityâ€ A banlieue youth, after a screening of La Haine,
quoted in Vincendeau, 2005, 82)
If La Haine, along with other banlieue films that emerged in the midnineties rendered visible a side of France that for too long dwelt in the shadows of
a dominant geographic imaginary, the political response to this rendering has been
La Haine: Framing the â€˜Urban Outcastsâ€™ 226
framed with an overtly colonial logic,9
that â€“ with the recent victory by Nicolas
Sarkozy in Franceâ€™s Presidential election â€“ shows no sign of abatement. While over
ten years old, La Haine can still provide a critical intervention into the cultural
Figure 8 Kassovitzâ€™s cameo as a skinhead.
politics framing the contemporary application of colonial-style governance,
interlocking spatial and historical referents that have been central to the ideological
construction of the French banlieues. Such cinematic representations â€“ through
both narrative and form â€“ expose the socio-spatial logic of an emerging â€˜neoracismâ€™ in France, interrogating the mounting anxieties behind increasingly
militarized measures of social control. By exploiting the cinematic power of
illusion over reality, the film disrupts dominant social and geographic imaginaries,
to reveal the aestheticized, politicized nature of its subject matter. Rather than a
â€˜remappingâ€™ of the social, the film appropriates working class history, colonial
imagery, contemporary pop culture, and nationalist metaphors to expose the social
relations shaping the centre and periphery and the multifarious levels of mediation
I would like to thank Kanishka Goonewardena, Sue Ruddick, Brent
Piepergerdes, Kevin McHugh, Kevin Dunn and one anonymous referee for
9 The most striking example was Prime Minister Dominique de Villepinâ€™s declaration of a
â€˜State of Emergencyâ€™ immediately following the uprisings in the banlieues in November 2005. This
law, designed to suppress the rights of citizens in both public and private spaces, and first conceived
in 1955 in an effort by the state to quell support for the emerging Algerian liberation movement, has
been applied 4 times previously â€“ all in colonial contexts (see Silverstein and Tetreault 2006, for a
more thorough discussion of current forms of colonial governance in France).
ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 6(2), 211-230 227
the many constructive comments provided in writing this paper. Thanks
also to Jim Craine, Harald Bauder and Rachel Pain for organizing this
special issue, and to Lazennec Productions for the use of images from
the film La Haine.
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