The banlieue in flames: in Netflix film Athens by Romain Gavras, what happens for which classic La Haine warned in 1995. In that film, three friends clash with the police, who behave like an occupying force in the periphery of Paris. “This is the story of a society in free fall,” prophesied La Haine. “Which tells himself on his way to the bottom: so far everything is going well.”
Ten years later, in 2005, the time had come: a contagious wave of riot, looting and arson swept through the French banlieues after two boys on the run from the police died. The harvest: enormous devastation in our own neighbourhoods, law and ordercandidate Nicolas Sarkozy as new French president.
Filmmaker Ladj Ly filmed the riots in his banlieue Montfermeil in 2005; in feature film debut Les Miserables In 2019, local hotemetotes – shadow mayor, Islamic fundamentalists, criminals – secretly collaborate with the police to remove the fuse from the powder keg after an incident of police brutality. Nobody wants a repeat of 2005. But hate is hard to suppress.
Les Miserables ends, just like La Haine rather, in a question mark: more violence or reconciliation? That stage has already passed after two minutes in Athenswhich Netflix is releasing as a streamer this week – a shame, because this spectacle deserves a large canvas.
Athens is the name of a fictional Parisian banlieue. Images of the murder of 13-year-old Idir, apparently by officers, are circulating on social media. His brother Abdel, a soldier, tells the crowd in front of the local police station to calm down. His hot-tempered, charismatic brother Karim and his friends immediately loot weapons, bulletproof vests and shock grenades in a stampede on the same desk. The battle can begin.
That long opening shot of storming and chasing sets the tone: Athens is a bloody nervous film in top gear. The camera follows four brothers in long shots through a maze of concrete, Bengal fire, laser pointers, tear gas and rockets. In addition to Abdel and Karim, there is the drug criminal Moktar, who consults with his police contacts on how to get his money, drugs and weapons to safety. And the psychotic jihadist Sébastien, who prefers to blow everything up immediately. On television, the local riots meanwhile appear to escalate into a real civil war.
French filmmaker Romain Gavras (41) is known for energetic music clips and action comedy Le Monde est a toi (2018). He is a scion of a film family; father Costa-Gavras won an Oscar in 1983 with the political drama Missing. In the 1990s, Romain co-founded the youthful film collective Kourtrajmé, slang for ‘short film’, which wanted to film for and through the banlieue. Through Kourtrajmé, Romain Gavras befriended filmmaker Ladj Ly, who wrote the screenplay of Athens wrote.
Ladj Ly and Romain Gavras have wanted to work together for twenty years, they say in the elite hotel Excelsior on the Lido; Athens will premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Ladj Ly: “Our idea was simple: massive street violence in a suburb, which turns into a citadel besieged by the police.”
The battle has mythical contours. The four brothers in the lead roles are archetypes rather than characters: disciplined conformist Abdel, excited, short-sighted Karim, cynical opportunist Moktar, crazy Sébastien. The story unfolds like a Greek tragedy in which noble and less noble intentions become fatally entwined as the flywheel of violence sets in motion.
Gavras: “In a Greek tragedy, everyone has their own will, but fate is stronger. The story is always intimate: brother turns against brother, son against father.” To emphasize that timelessness, Gavras provided the brutalist architecture of banlieue Evry, which serves as the backdrop, with quasi-medieval battlements. “You also see the mobile unit going into a kind of turtle formation with its shields. The real police never do such a thing, I was concerned with the association with Roman legions.”
Athens intends to warn. Riots bring the banlieue pure self-destruction. Dark forces benefit from this. That message of self-control rubs against the exciting dynamics of violence, enhanced by threatening march music and sacred choral singing. His own documentary from 2005 was the visual guideline, says Ladj Ly: “We want you to experience a riot from the inside through the camera. The aim is to nail you to your chair for ninety minutes, with no time for reflection. Overwhelmed by the hectic pace, the urgency.”
But doesn’t that also make violence attractive? If I were younger, I would immediately demolish a bus shelter afterwards, I joke. Gavras, shaking his head skeptically: “Would you do that? For real? Well, it’s an ancient debate. Do kids riot because they get worked up about video games and drill rap? I tend to see inequality and hopelessness as causes. I also don’t believe that people start smoking because Marlon Brando is so attractive in a movie or young people by Scarface going into the cocaine trade.”
According to Gavras, the choreography of the riots required more than two months of rehearsal. “I don’t use green screens, and minimal digital trickery. That’s what kids get out of it. fakemy daughter then says.” The first round was with the actors and a small camera to find the right angles. “Then came the stuntmen who play the mobile unit. And then the extras.”
These were mainly young people from banlieue Evry. Gavras realized that things could get out of hand if they got carried away. “They are kids, they see the police before them. It concerns very long shots that have to be done very often. At shot 15 they had only warmed up properly, 25 shots was not exceptional. With explosions and fireworks.” Rehearsing helped in that regard as well. “The stuntmen spent weeks teaching the kids their tricks, training, having lunch and chatting together. In this way fighting turned into a dance for thirty to fifty men who want to spare each other.” Were there any injuries? Gavras, laughing: “Define ‘wounded’. Abrasions, bruises and a sprained ankle, that is. But nobody missed an eye or a limb afterwards.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 21, 2022