Precarious Tactics of Habitability in the French Banlieue

The wounded and dejected Issa seeks respite on an abandoned sofa in Les Misérables (2017)
Drawing on the ideas of Michel De Certeau, Isabelle McNeill discusses filmmaking practices in the banlieue as part of a wider struggle for habitability.
[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.]

In her introduction to round two, Anna observes that the difficulty faced by those making a home is a common theme running through the round table. We might think about this alongside Michel de Certeau’s writings on spatial practices in The Practice of Everyday Life.1Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, translated by Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 96. De Certeau argued that the modern city becomes less “habitable” when urban policies strive to unify, discipline and rationalise space.

De Certeau was writing in the 1970s, at a time when the grands ensembles had already lost their more optimistic image as a solution to crises in housing. Yet the earlier promise of large-scale collective living, figured by media imagery that Camille Canteux has identified of “precise architects’ drafts and scale models” in contrast to the “unplanned chaos of housing tracts”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, ed. Philippe Met and Derek Schilling, 158-169 (Manchester University Press, 2018), 160. evokes the “technical rationalities and financial profitabilities”3De Certeau, p. 106 identified in De Certeau’s text.

In this post, I consider films showing banlieue4See my first post for a contextual discussion of this term. space being made “habitable” through “multiform, resistant, tricky and stubborn procedures that elude discipline without being outside the field in which it is exercised”.5De Certeau, 96. This can be understood as part of a struggle over representation, in which the permeability of space, its entries and exits between private and communal space, may enable a precarious tactics of habitability.

Caterina’s post shows residents of an inner London housing estate reclaiming their homes from dominant imagery that, in focusing on exteriors, “conveys a sense of desolation and alienation and erases the presence of residents”. On the Aylesbury Tenants First website, they share photographs of varied and lovingly decorated interiors, emphasising their creative agency and attachment to their homes. This resonates with the struggle for filmmakers from the banlieue to make their visions seen over the prevailing media imagery of HLMs (low-rent social housing).

For example, Céline Sciamma’s successful film Bande de Filles (2014) has been criticised for reinforcing stereotypes of the banlieue, such as the fatherless family and the violently oppressive older brother.6See Mame-Fatou Niang, Identités françaises: Banlieues, féminités et universalisme (Lieden & Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2019), 231. Ouma Amadou has observed that cultural specificity is missing from the film. We know nothing of the cultural background of the Black main character, Merieme, whose family origins are elided along with their connection to a colonial past.7Ouma Amadou, “Constructing (Black) Girlhood: Americanization, Assimilation, and Ambivalence”, Film Matters 7, no. 3 (Winter 2016): 5-11, 8.

The bland mise-en-scène of Marieme’s family home in Bande de filles (Céline Sciamma, 2014).

The interior décor of Merieme’s home, offering no hint of attachment to any particular culture, could be read alongside Amadou’s analysis as part of this effacement of an “Afropean” identity in line with problematic universalist ideology in France. Interiors in themselves may not be sufficient to overturn a cultural imaginary.

One path to diversifying representation of banlieue is to create more opportunities for filmmakers from minority backgrounds. The filmmaker Alice Diop has spoken about the barriers facing such filmmakers in France,8Niang, 26. while Houda Benyamina created the company 1000 Faces alongside her filmmaking in order to help diverse talents penetrate the French film industry.

Ladj Ly’s 2017 fiction film Les Misérables thematises the struggle for representation in its narrative, as well as being made by a filmmaker who grew up in the banlieue, in Les Bosquets housing estate in Montfermeil. Early in the film we follow a drone camera along the side of an HLM housing block in Les Bosquets, drawing close to a window where a young woman is taking off her t-shirt.

Drone voyeurism is foregrounded and reframed in Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables (2017)

This voyeuristic shot is complicated moments later, when we see a young boy lying on his bed watching the scene on a handheld device. Just as the film’s viewer might do, the boy gazes into another interior from the privacy of his own room. Buzz, as he is known because of the sound of his omnipresent drone, is soon confronted in person by the young woman in question, who angrily makes it clear that such exploitative use of the technology is unacceptable. On the other hand, she invites Buzz to film her basketball game, recognising the potential in his skill.

Buzz replays his drone footage in Les Misérables.

When Buzz’s drone captures footage of a police blunder that leaves a young boy, Issa, seriously injured, the film evokes a fine line between intrusions into private life and documentary evidence. The question of who is able to register and disseminate images of the banlieue is distilled here into a desperate fight for control between police and banlieue inhabitants.

The film ends with a literal battle between a group of child residents of Les Bosquets and the police, where the children overpower the police using their local knowledge of the estate and its buildings, along with a range of makeshift weapons. This ending acts out the fear, evident in numerous news reports, of the banlieue as an uncontrollable space. But it does so in the context of an attitude by the police that is shown as neither necessary nor inevitable. The children’s anger is justified. However, we might also understand the children’s tactics within a broader context of a quest for habitability.

Indeed, several scenes in the film foreground children’s spatial practices in ways that repurpose space playfully, from the concrete slope that they slide down on cardboard sledges to the rooftop accessed by Buzz thanks to a handy screwdriver. Old, dumped sofas and furniture create a kind of outdoor interior that offers both a playscape (in a water fight scene) and respite.

Such spatial practices are common feature of banlieue films: we might think of the rooftop party in La Haine (Matthieu Kassovitz, 1995), for example. When it is shut down by police, we are reminded that such “surreptitious creativities”9De Certeau, 96. are always precarious and subject to suppression: in Les Misérables, the police eventually find Buzz’s equipment in its rooftop hiding place and smash it to pieces.

Yet in Ladj Ly’s film, the children ultimately outsmart the police who, for example, fail to locate themselves using conventional address systems, unable to distinguish the high-rise HLM blocks from one another. In Benyamina’s Divines (2016), the two friends Dounia and Maimouna use service corridors to scramble up into the eaves of a theatre in their local shopping centre, stashing shoplifted goods with the bonus of peeking at the dancers.

Dounia and Maimouna use local knowledge and alternative pathways to access new perspectives and alternative ways of inhabiting the banlieue in Divines (Houda Benyamina, 2016)

For De Certeau such spatial practices constitute local “legends”: ways of reading space through movement that “permit exits, ways of going out and coming back in, and thus habitable spaces”.10De Certeau, 106. This perhaps finds its clearest expression in the short-lived parkour genre, films focused on the practice of free movement or “tracing” through urban space, combining gymnastics, climbing and running in a fluid motion.

The opening sequence of Yamakasi (Ariel Zeitoun, 2000), like Divines, plunges us into liminal areas of a building. The stairwells and corridors that often evoke the brutalist bleakness of HLM architecture in media imagery here become a secret access point and a training ground.11For further discussion of Parkour films and the banlieue, see Neil Archer, “Virtual Poaching and Altered Space: Reading Parkour in French Visual Culture”, Modern & Contemporary France 18, no. 1 (2010): 93-107, DOI: 10.1080/09639480903504284

Parkour in the opening sequence of Yamakasi (Ariel Zeitoun, 2000)

My previous post ended by observing the cinematic permeability of home space in La Haine and Swagger (Olivier Babinet, 2016), where aerial shots (via a dissolve and unmanned helicopter in La Haine and a drone shot in Swagger) enable spectatorial movement between interiors and exteriors. Perhaps, like the spatial practices of characters struggling for habitability – for the agency to “read” places as home – cinematic practice might also offer a tactics of habitability for resident filmmakers, even if, as for Buzz, it remains precarious and subject to contested meanings.

Notes[+]

McNeill, Isabelle. "Precarious Tactics of Habitability in the French Banlieue." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 6, no. 5 (November 2021)
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