Four years after setting the Croisette in Cannes ablaze with his feature debut Les Misérables, Ladj Ly is back with a gripping and highly personal new portrait of life in the working-class neighborhoods of the Parisian suburbs. Building 5, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), tackles the growing housing crisis against a backdrop of racial tensions, poverty, prejudice and police brutality.
For the 45-year-old director, who was inspired by his own childhood in the housing estates of Clichy-Montfermeil, the reality of the suburbs "hasn't really changed" since his first film. "The suburbs are where I grew up, it's a territory that is close to my heart," said Ladj Ly during an interview with AFP on Saturday. "There are different issues - of displacement, of gentrification", he explains, pointing out that "many inhabitants have been displaced to be housed in even more dilapidated or very distant districts". "It's a problem that affects a lot of people, in France or elsewhere abroad, in big cities, in the United States, in Brazil or elsewhere," he adds.
In Building 5, the storyline revolves around Haby (Anta Diaw), a young housing rights activist who lives in a suburb whose mayor suddenly dies, leading to the appointment of the idealistic young doctor Pierre (Alexis Manenti) to replace him. While Pierre continues his predecessor's urban redevelopment plans, Haby and other residents of his dilapidated building attempt to resist evictions.
Tension escalates when a tragic fire in a clandestine restaurant prompts the new mayor to empty the building. Haby then enters politics, while his friend Blaz, desperate and furious, decides to take matters into his own hands, with dramatic consequences.
For Anta Diaw, this filming was "a fairly exceptional experience", despite certain harsh scenes, such as the painful descent of a loved one's coffin into a narrow stairwell, which could have been trying. “When I was called to the set and I discovered this coffin, there, in the middle of the room, it’s true, it wasn’t easy. I didn’t think it would affect me to that extent,” reveals the young actress. “It took me five minutes to refocus.”
Ladj Ly's career quickly took off thanks to his first work Les Misérables, presented at the Cannes festival in 2019 and which earned him the jury prize. In total, the film won four Césars, including best film, as well as an Oscar nomination. Alexis Manenti had meanwhile received the César for best male hope in 2020. In this new opus, his character, Pierre, a white man in a neighborhood mainly inhabited by people of color, is forced to navigate the meanders of a political explosive local situation, while trying to preserve his work as a doctor and his family life. “He’s someone who wants to make things happen and he does it in a somewhat radical way,” notes the actor when talking about his role. “He thinks he is right and above all he thinks that the end justifies the means,” he explains.
But when he evacuates the building following the fire at the illegal restaurant, leaving residents with only a few minutes to prepare their belongings for an uncertain future, nothing goes right. Inspired by real events, the film aims to talk about the “housing problem” in a world where no one today has “real political ambitions to move the lines”, underlines Ladj Ly. The French director, whose parents are from Mali, still keeps in mind the idea of making a third part, which he “will do much later.” “It turns out that the tower, building 5, is the tower in which I grew up,” he confides, adding that “it is from this tower that I was evicted to be rehoused so it's a story that is quite personal to me”.