If anything my first viewing of Matthieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995) was a rude awakening. This is a film about youth living in Paris; however, the map has moved slightly off-centre to focus on the banlieues scattered on the outskirts of the city, as opposed to Haussmann’s perfect boulevards at the centre. Prior to the mid-nineties release of La Haine few filmmakers were willing to venture into the banlieues and depict the racism and police brutality that had become so entrenched in daily life. Kassovitz’s film taps into a specific socio-historical period that is marked by violence resulting from unemployment, racism and discrimination, frustration and social exclusion. Its social awareness and focus on realism supplements what is a brilliantly effectual and visually striking film.
There’s nothing more violent than news footage, than real images…because we know that they’re true. Seeing those sorts of images stirs up our emotions. Adding violins and special effects only destroys the violence.
– Matthieu Kassovitz
Kassovitz was reportedly motivated to write the screenplay for La Haine following a horrible incident in 1993 in which Makome M’Bowole was fatally shot in the police precinct while handcuffed to a seat. Starring Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé, Saïd Taghmaoui as disillusioned youths living on the margins of society, the film captures the boredom and restlessness of estate living, the manner in which youth violence is exploited and sensationalised by the media and the problematic relationship between immigrants and the police. Belonging to the genre of new realism, La Haine falls under a particular category, entitled les films signaux d’alarme (or films that signal the alarm), which aim to shed light on social issues and change narrow perceptions.
In his director’s commentary Kassovitz stated that he wanted the film to look as though it had been shot live. The film does possess a feel for cinéma vérité filmmaking in Pierre Aïm’s cinematography, albeit through a lens of high stylisation. Utilising documentary footage of the banlieue riots that took place from 1986 to 1995 and naturalistic mise en scène, the film situates the viewer in the middle of a class and race war; however, it is from the perspective of the silenced and suppressed banlieue inhabitants. In so doing, Kassovitz shifts the focus of responsibility to the police and media in shaping a racist milieu that adversely affects and shapes the identity of the film’s characters.
For all of its focus on realism and the depressing nature of the plot, La Haine is undeniably beautiful to watch. Shot in high-contrast black and white, the cinematography and sound design cleverly distinguish between the banlieue and the centre of Paris by switching from shot focal shots to long shots, and alternating from stereophonic to monophonic sound recording. The resulting viewing experience is, for me, almost visceral. If you haven’t seen La Haine I highly recommend that you check it out.