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How French cinema had already chronicled the Paris riots

All the visuals of Athena and Hatred, now just like the past

How French cinema had already chronicled the Paris riots All the visuals of Athena and Hatred, now just like the past

Back when he wrote Athena (2022), together with Ladj Ly - director of Les Miserables (2019) - Romain Gavras didn't want to make a work of social commentary on France or the Paris Banlieue: he wanted to make a Greek tragedy. Gavras' film, his third long-term experiment, tells the story of the riots that broke out in the fictional neighborhood of Athena, Paris, following the killing of a young boy by the police. Released a year ago on Netflix, Athena has nothing extremely revolutionary about its plot. There is in fact an entire genre of filmography, particularly in France, of which the aforementioned Les Miserables and Hatred (1995) are the most immediate examples. Gavras himself had already practiced the making of Athena's aesthetics in No Church In The Wild, the track contained in Watch the Throne that consigned Frank Ocean to eternal glory. Athena is a masterful film in many ways, not least the superb construction of characters and family drama portrayed by Gavras, as much as the distressing and perfect camera work. But more than anything else, Athena was an extremely truthful film.

On Tuesday 27 June in Nanterre, a neighborhood in the West of Paris not too far from the Arc de Triomphe, police shot and killed 17-year-old Nahel during a regular inspection. Since that day, Paris has been invaded by protests, which on the one hand recalled those of 1992 in Los Angeles for their violence (more than 1,300 people were arrested in the first four days alone) and scenics, but on the other led many to share clips of Hatred - as was obvious for a timeless classic - and Athena online. What immediately led several users to think of Athena was the average age of the Paris riots protesters: 17. In Gavras's film, there is in fact an obvious disconnect between groups that somehow try to communicate with institutions and a youth that is just too angry to even think about forming a dialogue. A feeling that sociologist Jérémie Gauthier had explained a few years ago in numbers: according to his comparative studies on the police in Germany and France, it turned out that only 40% of those interviewed thought that the police did not have a bias in dealing with ethnic minorities. Their concentration in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates has generated a conflict that has never really been resolved - ever since France began to become a nation, and Paris a predominantly multi-ethnic city. A conflict that explodes cyclically, far more tragically than the Greek tragedy Gavras had in mind, but just as fierce and violent.

Gavras's film also had the merit of perfectly mapping and describing the aesthetics of its time, made of football shirts, Nike tech, and TN 'Shark', in the same way, that Hatred had forever changed the world's aesthetic perception of France, rising over the years to a real 'brand'. The creation of a 'brand' around even dramatic moments of extreme social relevance is, moreover, fundamental to the propagation of the message itself; proof of this is the Black Lives Matter movement, which immediately became a slogan and therefore 'shareable'. America had Kendrick Lamar's Alright, Hatred had Nique La Police: immediately recognizable symbols that served to convey a message, in a deliberately incomplete way, but which has the task of functioning as a vehicle. The first scene in Athena opens with a clear reference to Delacroix, and the last close with open fires: in between, a family drama that exemplifies the different ways in which France tries to compromise with itself. The problem, however, lies precisely in this: every day there is a segment of the population forced to compromise in order to survive. But this compromise cannot be eternal, and the moment it breaks down, France burns. Like Athena.