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A Movie Torn From the Pages of His Life

In 2005, he filmed riots that shook France, eventually making a movie about them that was too tough for French television. In 2008, he filmed an act of police brutality that was picked up by the television stations and briefly made him famous.

A bundle of nervous energy, he barely sat still during an interview. Startled critics in France have noted the intensity — an unusual quality in the tame, static world of well-behaved contemporary French cinema — that pulses through his work. His camera is nervous, jumping tautly from scene to scene.

“Les Misérables” has struck a chord in France, inside and outside the projects. “It’s overwhelming,” said Mr. Kechaou, the teacher. “It gives the authentic picture of the banlieues that we are not used to seeing.”

The film’s title hints at the sympathy and ambiguity that Mr. Ly projects on all of its characters, including the most repugnant.

The racist police officer, Chris, is a nervous wreck with a dysfunctional family life. The immigrant youth with the angelic face, Issa — the victim at the center of the story, and Mr. Ly’s version of the child hero Gavroche in the Hugo novel — has demonic reserves of violence. The police officer who brutalizes him in the film’s central incident is a Franco-African, Gwada, at the edge of a breakdown. And the understated hero, Pento — a reference to an old French hair gel and synonymous with “Greaser” — is a confused white police officer who tries to do the right thing in a mean world, without immediately understanding what he is seeing.

“I wouldn’t say I was sympathetic — I would just say fair,” Mr. Ly

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