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La Haine

Revisiting the French film exploring police brutality

‘La Haine’, the 1995 film depicting fatal riots, corrupt policemen and institutional racism is a sobering reminder of the battles still not yet won

It was 21 years ago that Mathieu Kassovitz unleashed the critically-acclaimed La Haine, an unflinching tale of racial tension and police brutality in the banlieues of Paris. These banlieues can be literally translated as ‘suburbs’, a translation which is somewhat misleading. The English word is intrinsically linked with idealistic portraits of quaint family life in countryside towns; the French word, on the other hand, refers to areas rife with youth unemployment, urban poverty and high crime rates. 

These banlieues provide the backdrop for Kassovitz’s story of three young male immigrants living in a multi-ethnic council estate. The film details 19 hours in the lives of Vinz, Sayid and Hubert, all of whom are badly shaken by a riot which leaves their friend, Abdel, in a coma after being brutalised by police. Vinz discovers a policeman’s revolver dropped in the midst of the action and vows to use it to kill a cop; his personal revenge mission tells the story of ongoing mutual hatred between local youth and local law enforcement which manifests itself throughout displays of racial profiling, unapologetic discrimination and excessive force of the openly racist officers.

These stories are not exaggerated for cinematic flair. The film’s opening riot scene is authentic documentary footage. These scenes later repeated themselves a decade after the film’s release in 2005 when nationwide riots broke out following news that two teenagers had died from electrocution in a Clichy-sous-bois power station while hiding from policemen. Cars were torched and power plants were symbolically destroyed in a series of riots which claimed victims in the form of Salam Gahan, Jean-Claude Irvoas and Jean-Jacques Le Chenadec – none of whom were involved in the demonstrations themselves.

Kassovitz has also elaborated on the specific events that led to the creation of La Haine, the first of which was the story of Zairian Makome M’Bowole, a victim that was handcuffed to a radiator and shot at point blank range in police custody in 1993. Then there was Abdel, the film character attacked in the riots, whose story was lifted from the death of Malik Oussekine, a student protester chased and beaten to death by riot police in 1986. Again, like Gahan, Irvoas and Le Chenadec in 2005, Oussekine had not been violent or actively rioted.

La Haine succeeds in its mission of articulating the anger felt by minority communities at their mistreatment. It also succeeds in highlighting the consequences of this hostility – more death, more violence, more discrimination. Of the three main characters, it is Hubert that speaks the most sense, famously speaking the line from which the film’s title is derived – “La haine attire la haine”, or “Hatred breeds hatred”. His words echo throughout the film as we see the characters beaten by policemen and forced to sleep on the streets; they resonate again as neo-Nazis beat the boys in a racist attack (followed by a scene which sees Vinz incapable of cold-blooded murder) and they become extremely pertinent when Vinz is accidentally shot dead by a police officer. There’s a tagline which recurs throughout the film that loosely translates as “so far, so good” – it’s a reference to the importance of one act of violence which subsequently becomes a catalyst.

That catalyst came in America last week when Alton Sterling was shot dead whilst selling CDs on the streets of Baton Rouge. Just hours later a graphic video emerged depicting the minutes following the murder of Philando Castile in his car in front of his fiancé and four-year-old daughter. These acts weren’t committed in the violent throes of a race riot; instead, both men were murdered without justification in broad daylight. The devastating news saw Twitter feeds and timelines flooded with #BlackLivesMatter, a movement which originated back in 2014 when the lives of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner were all snatched by law enforcement for no good reason. Racism was a problem in the Parisian banlieues of the mid-90s and remains a problem today – last week acted as sobering proof that this abuse of legal power is still resulting in race-fuelled deaths worldwide.

“The world needs to rally together in solidarity and declare in unison that Black Lives Matter, if only to avoid widespread real-life rendering of La Haine’s fatal finale”

It may have been released twenty years ago and it may be contextually rooted in the suburbs of Paris, but the parallels between La Haine and these recent atrocities cannot be ignored. Police brutality exists and institutional racism is real. There’s a poignant line in the film which loosely translates to “It is not the fall, it is the landing” – events following a horrific incident are often more devastating than their catalyst.

Riots, arson and further fatalities have been the reaction to French police brutality. It remains to be seen what will happen from now on in America but sporadic massacres – including the Orlando massacre, the biggest terror attack on the country since 9/11 – illustrate the country’s continued need to tighten gun control laws and Trump’s nationalist rhetoric is currently buoying existing racist views nationwide. It’s a scary and confusing time to be alive, especially for racial minorities living in fear of institutional racism and violence. The world needs to rally together in solidarity and declare in unison that Black Lives Matter, if only to avoid widespread real-life renderings of La Haine’s fatal finale.