25 years on, gritty French crime drama ‘La Haine’ is as relevant as ever

Mathieu Kassowitz’s iconic 1995 film spotlighted inequality in the country

In partnership with the BFI

La Haine, director Mathieu Kassowitz’s groundbreaking portrait of three disaffected young men living in an underprivileged Paris banlieue – or suburb – is being re-released in UK cinemas this Friday (September 11) to mark its 25th anniversary. When it premiered in 1995, Kassowitz’s savagely realistic film exploring urban discontent, youthful alienation and systemic racism became a French cultural phenomenon that reverberated around the world. Here’s a guide to why his incredible film still resonates so strongly today.

It was inspired by real-life incidents of racially motivated police brutality

Kassowitz has said that he started writing La Haine in 1993, on the day that Makome M’Bowole, a 17-year-old from Zaire, was fatally shot at point-blank range while in police custody in Paris. Kassowitz was also inspired by the tragic case of Malik Oussekine, a 22-year-old French-Algerian student who died in 1986 after being badly beaten by riot police following a mass student demonstration.

Kassowitz poured his fury over these heart-rending deaths and many other incidents of French police brutality – which were typically brushed off as mere bavures, or “slip-ups” – into his screenplay for La Haine. The film opens with news footage of riots in a banlieue which take place after a young man, Abdel Ichacha, is attacked by police so violently that he ends up in hospital. The film follows three of Abdul’s friends: Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Hubert (Hubert Koundé) and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui), as they process what happened and clash repeatedly with cops in the 20-hour period following the riots.

Vincent Cassel
Vincent Cassel in 1995 French classic ‘La Haine’. Credit: BFI

It held up a mirror to crushing inequalities in modern-day France

La Haine‘s depiction of banlieue life was so vivid and realistic that France’s then-Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, organised a special screening of the film which cabinet members were required to attend. President Jacques Chirac even sent Kassowitz a personal letter thanking him for his enlightening portrayal of a portion of French society which had traditionally been ignored.

But because Kassowitz’s film hit such a raw nerve, it also proved highly controversial. Following a screening at the Cannes Film Festival which earned La Haine a standing ovation, police officers pointedly turned their backs on Kassowitz and the creative team for making a film that they and many others perceived to be anti-police.

When riots took place in Noisy-le-Grand, east of Paris, shortly after La Haine‘s high-profile opening, links were drawn between the film and growing social discontent in France. One newspaper even titled its piece on the riots “Noisy-la-Haine”.

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Hubert Koundé in ‘La Haine’. Credit: BFI

It also shone a spotlight on French hip-hop

La Haine neatly illustrates how France’s disaffected youth drew strength from grittier elements of American pop culture. In an early scene, we see Vinz aggressively recreating Robert De Niro’s iconic “you talkin’ to me?” scene from Taxi Driver. It also shows how French young people who had been inspired by American hip-hop music, then put their own Gallic twist on the sound. Parisian DJ Cut Killer appears in the film, mixing KRS-One’s anti-police brutality track ‘Sound Of Da Police’ into an old Edith Piaf song – France-meets-America in a nutshell. Shortly after the film’s release, an album of music inspired by La Haine came out. It featured tracks by big names from the French hip-hop scene including Assassin, Sens Unik and La Cliqua.

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Saïd Taghmaoui in ‘La Haine’. Credit: BFI

It was a major artistic statement

Searing storytelling and visceral socioeconomic tension are at the heart of La Haine, but Kassowitz’s technical achievements shouldn’t be underestimated either. The director cleverly incorporates TV news footage into his story, giving the film a rock-solid grounding in real-life, and uses sweeping aerial shots of the banlieues to convey their scale and menace. Shot in stark black-and-white, La Haine shows us a much harsher side to Paris than the romantic visions we’re used to seeing in Hollywood movies.

Kassowitz wanted the film to resonate with as much of French society as possible. “I wasn’t talking to the guys from the projects – I was talking about the guys from the projects,” he said earlier this year. Though the film confronts institutional racism head-on, it also offers a vision of unity: the film’s central trio are all from different ethnic backgrounds – Vinz is Jewish, Hubert is black, and Saïd is of Arabic descent – but at the same time, they’re bonded by their sense of alienation and lack of prospects.

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‘La Haine’ arrived in controversial fashion just before riots in east Paris. Credit: BFI

It captures the true horrors of violence in a shockingly matter-of-fact way

La Haine ends with a pair of tragedies that feel both senseless and inevitable. As the film ends, an iconic line spoken earlier on feels all too relevant: “Do you believe in God? That’s the wrong question. Does God believe in us?”

‘La Haine’ will be re-released in selected UK cinemas on September 11 in a new 4K restoration to mark the film’s 25th anniversary

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