Constructing Precarity: Media and Social Housing in the French Banlieue

The Tours Marron in Sevran, from Swagger (Olivier Babinet, 2016)
Can cinema generate alternative visions of precarious life in the banlieue? Isabelle McNeill investigates scenes of domestic interiors that challenge the dominant media imagery of French social housing and its high rise architecture.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Media, Precarity and the Home.” To read the introduction and other posts in the series, click here.]

Whether constructed in the studio or explored through editing and mobile cameras, films can open up intimate spaces of home to the viewer’s curious gaze. In the French banlieue, or suburbs, an exterior image of high-rise social housing and surrounding public areas tends to dominate media imagery and scholarly analysis. In this post I begin to look inside and consider how representations of domestic space relate both to exteriors and the representation of precarious lives in the banlieue. First, however, it is necessary to sketch out some context for the type of housing I will focus on and its relation to precarity.

The banlieue in France signifies an urban area outside city limits, an apparently neutral term that has narrowed to become almost synonymous with stigmatised, working-class neighbourhoods. In particular, the tower blocks of the cités (estates) built to accommodate an influx of workers in the 1950s and 1960s – including immigrant workers from France’s colonies – have come to dominate the cultural imaginary of banlieue space.

The opening shot of Wesh Wesh Qu’est-ce qui se passe (Wesh Wesh What’s Happening? Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, 2001) surveys the Cité des Bosquets housing project in Seine Saint-Denis

Through numerous news reports and the recycling of clichés, the banlieue has become a particularly over-determined setting. Mame-Fatou Niang describes this as a process of “hyperfocalisation”, whereby the media repeatedly reiterate imagery of the banlieue as a threatening space of otherness.1Mame-Fatou Niang, Identités françaises: Banlieues, féminités et universalisme (Lieden & Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2019), 2, 24. Indeed, the problematic image of the banlieue is often more or less explicitly linked to representations of immigration, a vexed question in Republican France, which has traditionally rejected multiculturalism in favour of an often exclusionary ‘universalism’ that refuses to acknowledge systemic racism and the legacies of colonialism. The context for the connection between the banlieue and immigration lies in both France’s colonial history and the increased need for labour in the decades following WWII. Sprawling shanty towns, bidonvilles, served as makeshift housing for workers who, as Yamina Benguigui shows in her documentary Mémoires d’immigrés: l’héritage maghrébin (1997), were often recruited in a highly systematic way from French colonial territories and protectorates in North Africa (in addition to rural areas within France).

Cheap social housing blocks known as HLM (habitations à loyer modéré) were initially conceived as a solution to the housing crisis and appalling living conditions in the bidonvilles. Many HLMs emerged through a new type of urbanisation project, known as a grand ensemble – a vast collective habitat of between 200 and 1000 apartments. These imposing structures promised a bright, modern future, housing large numbers of people in clean and functional apartments. While the real situation is more complicated and heterogeneous, explains Camille Canteux, media representations of the banlieue have tended to focus on these large constructions, ‘with their visually distinctive horizontal blocks and vertical towers’.2Camille Canteux, “Erasing the Suburbs: The Grands Ensembles in Documentary Film and Television, 1950-80″ in Screening the Paris Suburbs: From the Silent Era to the 1990s, edited by Philippe Met and Derek Schilling, 158–169 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018), 163.

Although they were designed to solve the problem of precarious housing, HLM buildings have, on the contrary, come to incarnate precarity in several interconnected ways. First, because of their association with immigrant populations, HLMs signal the economic and social precarity that is often presumed or prescribed to be the fate of migrants in France, particularly those from outside Europe. Paradoxically, the working-class and postcolonial inhabitants of HLMs are xenophobically perceived to make mainstream Frenchness itself precarious with their inability to assimilate in French society.

An archival image from Yamina Benguigui’s documentary 93: Mémoire d’un Territoire (2008) shows a prefabricated housing block under construction

Finally, HLMs are rendered materially precarious through the deterioration of the architectural fabric of the notoriously cheap blocks, whose construction focused on cost rather than longevity, as Yamina Benguigui has shown in her documentary 93: Mémoire d’un Territoire (2008).

As the buildings’ flaws became increasingly apparent, news media increasingly focused on ‘deteriorating walls, damaged mailboxes, sullied elevators and omnipresent graffiti’. 3Canteux, 165. Fiction films have underscored this emphasis on decline, highlighting the neglectful attitude towards HLM housing. In Houda Benyamina’s Divines (2016), for example, the character Rebecca – a powerful local drug dealer – points out the dilapidated buildings in her cité as part of a rationale for her plan to move to Thailand to profit from the sex tourism industry. ‘How long have they left it like that?’ she asks, arguing that ‘no-one cares about our lives here’. The way that the block-like housing frames exterior space underpins the protagonists’ desires for escape, contributing to a justification of their operations outside the parameters of law and order.

A shot showing broken glazing and exposed lagging illustrates Rebecca’s point in Divines (Houda Benyamina, 2016) that no-one cares about the inhabitants of her cité

While HLM exteriors frame a space of both neglect and constraint, home interiors often offer an alternative vision of banlieue life. Contrasting with the homogeneity of the exterior façade, interiors offer an intimate and subjective world within the domestic interior. Less often the focus of news reports, interiors may also be de-emphasised in fiction films, where they serve as backdrop to familial or private interactions. Yet their presence is crucial in evoking life in the banlieue.

The shot immediately following the credits in Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s Wesh Wesh Qu’est-ce qui se passe? [Wesh Wesh, What’s Happening?] (2001) plunges us into a tactile domesticity with a close-up on a maternal hand kneading dough. Pulling back to reveal a woman wearing traditional Algerian dress, the shot begins close to the floor where she is sitting to work, framed tightly to focus on her gestures, gradually moving up to reveal more of the kitchen space. She is talking with her daughter about housing here, rejoicing that her daughter is moving to better housing, recalling her past suffering in the bidonville. As the daughter counters that she has seen her mother suffer just as much in the cité and simply wants to leave altogether, a cutaway reveals the exterior of their block, as if to remind us how this architecture shapes the precarity of banlieue life.

Mother and daughter cook and talk together in the kitchen in Wesh Wesh, Qu’est-ce qui se passe? (Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, 2001)

By contrast, this domestic scene evokes tactile and sensory pleasures, connectedness, and a private space in which Algerian culture – and the Arabic language – can flourish. In Wesh Wesh, as in many banlieue-set films, there is a gendered division between interior and exterior spaces. While business between men (such as drug deals) may take place behind closed doors, the interior as a space of respite, community, and pleasure, is often depicted as a feminine space.

This gendered division is what makes a comparison between two moments from Olivier Babinet’s creative documentary Swagger (2016) and the iconic banlieue film La Haine [Hate] (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995) so revealing. A sewing thread connects these films and their interiors. In La Haine, a film focused on three male protagonists, we follow Hubert into his HLM home and meet his mother and sister in a scene in which a sewing machine plays a key role, both as the mother’s work and in her request for money to buy a new machine.

Women in La Haine’s banlieue are mostly preoccupied with the necessities of daily domestic labour, including sewing as Hubert’s mother is doing here

In Swagger on the other hand, a documentary focused on school students in Aulnay-Sous-Bois, sewing appears as a creative opportunity for the fashion-obsessed Régis. His interior space is shown as the site of reverie and possibility. His sewing is more akin to the patchwork of sound generated by the DJ Cut Killer in a famous scene from La Haine, rather than Hubert’s mother’s implied practical work.

A drone shot in Swagger (2016) takes us into Régis’ interior to show him sewing with brightly patterned Ankara fabric

Both these sequences have in common a cinematic permeability of interior and exterior space in HLM housing. While the precariousness imposed by poor-quality housing and neglectful social policy may imply a lack of security and privacy, films reveal the creative possibilities of movements between outside and in, offering representations that trouble the rigid clichés of media imagery.

Notes[+]

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