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Concrete jungle where life imitates art in the concrete jungle

France/ new film linked to riots
THE scene in Noisy-le-Grand yesterday afternoon was one of scorched buildings, rubble-strewn streets, and a phalanx of marchers protesting in subdued anger against the death of a young man of Moroccan origin, Belkacem Belahbib.

Earlier in the week, in violence reminiscent of Blackbird Leys or Toxteth, this satellite town to the east of Paris had suffered two nights of rioting in which bands of youths stole and burnt cars, torched public buildings, including several schools and a sports hall, looted shops and fought contingents of police sent to restore order.

The rioting erupted on Wednesday after 21-year-old Belkacem's stolen motorbike crashed into traffic lights at high speed, knocking off his helmet and killing him. Local people blamed the police who, they said, had been chasing the stolen bike and caused the crash. Police and local officials insist, however, that there was no chase, that the patrol car was incapable of catching the powerful bike and that the accident was caused purely by excess speed.

The new Gaullist government acted tough, flooded the area with police, promised many more, and insisted that the problem was largely one of law and order. "However strong our desire for dialogue and understanding . . . we will not tolerate criminal acts,'' the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, said after the second night of rioting.

''No government can accept a situation where the law of the land is flouted with impunity in whole areas," said the Interior Minister, Jean-Louis Debre. Events in Noisy "verged on urban guerrilla warfare," said Eric Roualt, Minister for Cities.

In most respects, the disturbances seemed just another example of early summer tension on one of the dozens of concrete jungles that ring Paris to the north and east. Many of these grim and seemingly hopeless places are cauldrons of racial friction and anti-police hostility. The real surprise was that the estate at the centre of the trouble had been regarded as a model housing project with low-rise buildings and individual homes, not high-rise flats.

There was, and still is, an unspoken fear among many people that the riots at Noisy are only the beginning, not just because there is a new government, not just because one in four young French people under 25 has no job - and far more than that on the estates - but because of an awful dread that life may be imitating art.

The particular work of art in question is a new film called Hate (La Haine), which two weeks ago won its maker, 28-year-old Mathieu Kassowitz - son of director, Peter Kassowitz - the best director prize at the Cannes film festival. When Hate went on general release 10 days ago, colourful crowds of young people thronged from their run-down suburbs to the lavish cinemas of the Champs Elysees to see it. The scenes were repeated wherever the film went on release.

Almost a million French people saw it in its first week, many from the young ethnic minorities of the concrete jungle who are its subject. "It's about us, it's our film," were sentiments commonly heard in the queues.

The film, shot mostly in black and white, chronicles 24 hours in the lives of three unemployed youths from an estate, starting with a minor incident that develops into a full-blown riot. In between, they visit Paris - a few miles away, yet to them a foreign country, a country in which people have flats to themselves and police use the polite form of the verb - even to them. "Did you hear that?" one whispers incredulously to the other, after he has plucked up the courage to ask a gendarme for directions. "He wished me a nice day!"

Events are seen entirely from the youths' perspective; they are bored out of their minds; they taunt the local mayor, they dabble in drugs and petty theft, and they play with guns. The search for diversion is desperate - the appearance of a cow on the edge of the estate is a major talking point - and violence is never far away.

The estate scenes were filmed mostly on a notorious high-rise estate to the north of Paris with the incongruously bucolic name of Chanteloupe- les-vignes. It is not a film about racism - the three "heroes" are black, white and brown. It is not an anti-police film, though the police are not shown in the best light. Nor is the grimness unrelieved; there is humour, and not only the cruel humour of the estate kids visiting the city.

The film has its critics; they say the heroes are stereotypes, that everything is painted too black, that there is no morality. But the young people from the estates,still flocking to the cinemas, identify with most of it. Their attention is caught at once; the argot is theirs, and the action, if not theirs, is familiar. They disengage only at the very end, in the film's one "moral" scene, when the small incidents mount to a climax, a killing and direct confrontation.

They leave the cinema quietly, and less carefree than when they went in. Despite this, some critics have suggested that the title is provocative and the film will foster confrontation.

The first night La Haine went on general release, Chanteloupe-les-vignes was reportedly thick with police. There was a specific fear, apparently, that one of the estate's police informers, who has a minor role in the film (not as himself), might be attacked. But there was a more general fear that the estate could erupt, and the film had shown how. Noisy-le- Grand is far away from Chanteloupe; it looks and feels quite different and is not known for trouble. But the police say the violence was highly organised, akin to a small urban war. They fear its recurrence elsewhere; they fear La Haine.