la haine (1995): a hybrid, heterogeneous cultural patchwork.

By Floris Mosselman

In 1995 Mathieu Kassovitz introduced Western Europe to aspects of urban France that was until then, scarcely available to most of the general public. He did this through La Haine (Hate), his second directional feature-film about three men in Chanteloup-les-Vignes, a Paris banlieu. We follow Vinz, Said and Hubert for 24 hours after a violent riot happened in their neighborhood and in which the police severely wounded a friend who is now in the hospital. The film is based on actual events.

La Haine presents a more close-up view of the banlieu and its daily reality and interaction of its inhabitants with the police and the rest of society to a broader public. Many people only knew (and still know) these neighborhoods through their newspapers or tv screens, from camera crews filming from behind the riot police. In the most ‘hot’ or highly active part of these neighborhoods (les quartier chauds), the riot police have an almost permanent presence as can also be seen in the movie which focuses heavily on the relation between these men and the police.

Through its rough camerawork, setting, street-wise dialogue and emotional and tense situations the movie feels very real for most of its viewers and it immediately became a hit in France. It actually seemed so real, that The Interior Minister and Prime Minister of France supposedly watched it three times in order to understand the underlying causes of the riots the film is based upon. They even ordered the whole Parliament to watch it. I don’t really know if this should be seen as something positive, in the sense that these statesmen were genuinely interested in what was going on in their own backyard, or as something negative, in the sense that these men had absolutely no clue how to deal with these neighborhoods so they turned to a movie.

This suburb of Paris like many other neighborhoods of big cities in Western Europe are characterized by the collapse of models of productivity built on factories and workers. These workers were imported from other countries or came from former colonies. Most of these men and women were perfect for the simple jobs at hand; they worked hard, took care of their own communities were content with what they got and needed minimal education or other investments from the state. Modernity rushed forward however, and within a few decades more favorable production conditions were found elsewhere, leaving these neighborhoods with extremely high unemployment rates, low educational levels, increasing relative poverty and all its consequences.

The movie sparked a lot of debate on how these suburbs and social housing projects were handled by the government and the police brutality that was going on there. For the most part the film was received positively, but there were also critical voices. Some critics from the hip-hop community remarked that Mathieu Kassovitz was not seen as authentic enough, because his film was so stylized and cinematic literate that he was not ‘keeping it real’. According to others, he could not speak for the banlieu as he was clearly from a bourgeois, leftist family and had not really experienced that environment. Others however praised him for staying true to the realities of the communities, also because the La Haine project was not just a movie, but also a CD in which local hip-hop artists give their own views on the subject of the film and a photo exhibition showing the production process of the film in the neighborhood. According to some, the film is not just made by an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’, a ‘high’ or a ‘low’ cultural production, a ‘white’ or a ‘black’ movie: it is a hybrid, heterogeneous cultural patchwork.

I tend to agree with this last statement, although the debate of being able to represent someone else’s life-experiences is still ongoing. Actually I am more interested in why people want to see this movie, and why they like or dislike it and its characters. And if we think this is a proper depiction of the banlieu, isn’t watching this movie comparable to the controversial ‘neighborhood safaris’ we have here in Rotterdam, in which people that are interested in a poor neighborhood and its people, are ‘safely’ walked around so they can look intrigued at its ‘authentic’ inhabitants. And finally, almost 25 years after its release, is viewing this film and forming an opinion about it (again) enough? Can people watch this and go home telling themselves ‘now I understand how these people act and feel’ while still not being able to interact naturally with some young men that are standing on the streets. I look forward to learning about all your views and telling you about my research, the movie and why I think it is hard for some people to interact with those from neighborhoods with a different cultural and socio-economic environment.

Floris Mosselman studies the way groups of young adults give meaning to – and embody – conflict situations. After graduating in Cultural Sociology he worked at the Netherlands Institute of Crime and Law Enforcement mapping how robberies unfold using video analysis. As a PhD candidate he is now part of the Group Violence Research Program at the University of Amsterdam. Headed by Don Weenink they focus on how group behavior affects the likelihood and severity of violence.
At Roffa Mon Amour, Floris talks about how La Haine (1995) was received back when the film came out, and how the film could be watched today.