With a pale, sad face, Abdel, a French officer of Algerian origin, addresses a large crowd of journalists and residents, after the murder of his brother Adir by a French policeman whose identity has not been identified. Abdul asks attendees to remain calm at the silent march scheduled for the next day to protest the killing, adding that the police department has promised an intensive investigation into the matter. As soon as he finished speaking, in the background of the crowd were young people lighting a Molotov cocktail that they quickly threw near the crowd, to prevail in the French film "Athens" by French director Romain Gavras, produced in 2022.
The film is a model of a French cinematic phenomenon called suburban films, which focuses on the problems and suffering of the inhabitants of the French suburbs, and revolves around the killing of the young Adir by the police, while his brothers, one of whom works as an officer in the French army and received decorations for his work in Mali, the second is a community leader, and the third is a drug dealer. The film takes place in a neighborhood known as "Athens" in a French suburb.
Suburban cinema in France can be seen as an important window that has probed deeply one of France's most complex social problems, and to its credit, it has crossed many red lines in artistic and narrative treatment.
Interestingly, the film sounded an alarm coming and caused a reverberation in the French press when it was released last year, so much so that the French magazine Le Point published an article about the film last October 2022, under the title "A city on its way to burning... France is on the brink of civil war," he said, offering a reading of the Netflix film.
French film "Athens" screens on Netflix
The film was recalled immediately after protests and violence erupted in France as a prediction of what was happening. Some images from the film were even used on social media as news facts, such as the image of protesters seizing a police vehicle, which is taken from the film and not real, but spread like wildfire and was seen by more than 9 million users on Twitter.
The outrage in this film is part of a broader state of anger expressed by many films in the French suburbs that have been popular and won many awards, such as the film "La Haine" by French director Mathieu Kasowitz, which was produced in 1995 and is one of the important milestones in this type of film, and won the award for best director at the Cannes International Film Festival held the same year. It depicts 24 hours of the lives of three friends, one Jewish, one of African descent and the third of Arab Muslim origin, facing discrimination and racism at the hands of the French police.
The film presented a bold and distinctive visual narrative, because it depicted all the scenes in black and white, and also used images of news footage of a riot that broke out in a French suburb, and at the time of its release was one of the major cinematic cries to warn of the worsening problem of suburban residents and their relationship with the authorities, and is still called upon for any riots that erupt in the suburbs, including the recent violence.
Characteristics of suburban cinema
The suburban cinema has reserved a special place for itself in French cinema, and hardly a year goes by without a film about one of the problems of the French suburbs. Critics attribute this phenomenon for several reasons, including: that the French suburbs in themselves are a melting pot of contradictions of pain, hope, suffering and ambition, and thus provide endless stories and contain great paradoxes, which constitutes a fat material for any cinematic film, and the director or author does not need to work his imagination much to weave dramatic stories for his film project, because reality exceeds imagination in the stories of the people of the suburbs.
Another reason for the spread of suburban cinema is that second- and third-generation immigrants have used cinematic support opportunities in France to portray their suffering and problems, such as racism, inclusion and marginalization, through films that automatically fall under this category. Technically, however, suburban cinema in general has not departed from the characteristics of French cinema, such as delving into the individual and the psychological factor. Thus, the different narrative offered by this type of cinema is the power of the story and the subject that embodies many of the events of reality.
It is interesting that the stories of French suburban films revolve around negative and troubled characters or of a criminal nature, and this can be understood if it is a free choice for the director because of the dictates of the nature of the treatment, but film critic Hamid Al-Oqbi offers a different reading of this matter in his book "The marginalized and the suburbs in French cinema", he believes that such topics are the ones that find care, acceptance and support by French film funding bodies when it comes to a film about the suburbs, and adds that films Deep, serious and objective ones that do not adopt this narrative do not find the same support and funding, and must either fight a difficult productive battle for financing or be implemented with low production amid difficult conditions.
Suburban cinema can be seen as an important window that has been able to probe deeply one of the most complex social problems in France, and to its credit it has crossed many red lines in artistic and narrative treatment, and I imagine that it has introduced a new and different style of cinematic realism in French cinema, leaning a lot - perhaps exaggerated - towards reality and its challenges. An important observation of this type of film is that it was not limited to directors with immigrant backgrounds, but extended to many French directors, making it a purely French cinematic phenomenon that is not confined to a particular society.