- Mapping Beur Cinema in the New Millennium
Recent Events in France have drawn international attention to the difficulties facing the nation's young people in an extremely tight labor market. In November 2005, riots on the outskirts of many major cities caused over 200 million euros of property damage and one death. The rioters were mostly young men from housing projects in urban fringe zones, or banlieues, with no religious or political agenda and no ties to Islamist fundamentalism. Rather, their actions were motivated by a general frustration at their lack of possibilities for social mobility; unemployment nationally stands at 22 percent for people ages sixteen to twenty-four, and it can reach as high as 30 to 40 percent in some banlieue areas.1
The use of the term racaille, or "scum," by then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to refer to the rioters raised a storm of controversy. Supporters praised Sarkozy, the center-right politician who was elected President of France in 2007, for his willingness to take a hard line with delinquency, but his critics were furious at his perceived lack of tolerance for the difficult economic and social situation that led to the riots. This debate blossomed during the presidential election into a full-blown discussion by all the major candidates about French national identity, a topic that raised questions about the ability of the French republican model to integrate recent immigrants and their descendants into mainstream French society. Since his election, Sarkozy has provoked further criticism from the Left for his creation of a new government ministry that explicitly links immigration to integration and national identity.
In addition to highlighting the French unemployment situation, the 2005 riots and the recent presidential debates also demonstrated to a broad audience the situation of topographical segregation that has come to characterize many cities in France. The riots were primarily confined to suburban areas and rarely reached any of the city centers. These "neighborhoods in difficulty" are defined by landscapes of grim cités, the low-income high-rises constructed by the French government from the 1950s through the 1970s as a hasty attempt to house a rapid influx of foreign workers in a time of unprecedented economic growth. Designated by various French euphemisms such as ZUP (zones à urbaniser en priorité) or ZUS (zones urbaines sensibles), these suburban areas are inhabited by a high concentration of immigrants from France's former colonies and their descendents.
Some critics argue that the architecture of the cités itself has created a world in which topographic segregation from the city mirrors cultural segregation because the architectural enormity and impersonality are so depressing that anyone with the means to do so leaves. The cités end up as "zones of highly concentrated social pathology," where poverty, police [End Page 42] confrontations, drug dealing, unemployment, and general despair become the norm (Laurence and Vaisse, par. 14). Immigrants, who make up a disproportionately high percentage of the nation's low-income population, and others who are unable to leave end up enmeshed in a process of de facto ghettoization. Their integration into mainstream society is slowed in part because of racial and ethnic discrimination, but also in part because they come from les quartiers défavorisés.
The perceived conflation of topographical and cultural segregation that characterizes the poorer banlieues in France has led, in part, to the dissemination in the media of unfavorable images of disaffected youth and burning cars such as those broadcast worldwide during the 2005 riots. However, these marginal urban spaces have also been sites of a significant cultural renaissance in France, giving rise to many new rap and rai artists as well as to the birth of a dynamic and multifaceted literary and film tradition. This article addresses one aspect of this cultural renaissance, the production of films in France by artists of North African origin or their descendents. The term "Beur cinema" has been retained to refer to this group of works, although the problematic nature of the term is addressed here. Produced in France through French production channels, these films pose intriguing questions about French national cinema and the films' relationship to it. These...