The Creators Project: There’s a great picture of you by the photographer JR where you’re holding your DV camera like a gun. Do you view your camera as a weapon of sorts?
Ladj Ly: Yeah, it’s my weapon of mass destruction, with which I’ve done many holdups. A lot of people would like to see it destroyed.
You shoot with a digital video (DV) camera, which is very portable and inconspicuous. Is it essential to your work?
Of course. Without this weapon I would be in prison right now. For instance, during the 2005 riots the cops arrested me while I was filming. It turned out I had an empty tin of diesel oil in my possession, so I was handcuffed and brought to the police station. My camera continued to shoot—the whole scene of control and arrest was filmed with my little DV.
That's intense. What happened?
When I arrived at the police station, I was told that I was being placed in custody and they put me in a cell. A few hours later I was questioned, and they brought me a white tin filled with gasoline. The inspector said to me, “This is what we found on you, a tin of gasoline. You are going to prison.” I told them that this tin wasn’t mine; my tin was transparent and empty. The inspector insisted it was mine. I told him to return my camera, which contained footage of my arrest. The inspector was taken aback and returned me to my cell. An hour later I was released. I avoided prison thanks to my weapon of mass destruction.
Your documentary 365 Days in Clichy Montfermeil was banned by traditional broadcast outlets in France. Were you satisfied with being restricted to distributing it through online outlets like YouTube and Dailymotion?
With the internet today, we are allowed to show stuff that can’t air on channels like TF1 [France’s most popular domestic network]. 365 Days in Clichy Montfermeil has more than 800,000 views on Dailymotion, so the public is obviously able to see it. It’s hard financially, but at least we stay independent and our commentary isn’t misconstrued.
Can you tell us about your third film Go Fast Connexion, which was also shot in Clichy Montfermeil and focuses on cannabis trafficking in the area?
Go Fast Connexion is a docu-fiction presented by Charles Villeneuve, the TV host from TF1, who denounces the media’s treatment of the suburbs. It’s a parody of The Right to Know [Charles Villeneuve was once the host of The Right to Know and agreed to appear in Laj’s film to make it appear more “real”], the famous TF1 show that denigrates French suburbs from all angles. To listen to journalists talk adds very little; the problems in the suburbs don’t date from yesterday. It’s been a persistent problem for 30 years and isn’t always regulated.
What's being done about it?
Politicians always make promises and, once elected, they abandon us. It’s always the same scenario. Four years after the deaths of Zyed and Bouna—two kids who died escaping the police and partially set off the riots in 2005—we are still waiting for the sentencing, even though we don’t believe in our justice [system] anymore.