District B13 and the French riots of 2005

By Jason Wojciechowski on March 25, 2007 at 4:48 AM

I've just watched District B13 (the original French title is, apparently, "Banlieue 13", "banlieue" being a word of many meanings; Wikipedia informs me that a dictionary would say it means "outskirts," but it's commonly used in France today to refer specifically to those poor outskirts of the cities that Americans might, if our cities were structured the same way, call ghettos), and it's a little scary how prescient it was.

(Note: I'm going to talk freely about plot, so stop reading if you plan to see the movie and haven't yet.)

Perhaps more interesting is the way the movie foreshadowed the riots of the fall of 2005. The character not from Banlieue 13 asks the one that is whether burning cars is really an effective way of accomplishing anything. The other responds by asking whether he's got any better ideas for the moment. Burning cars were, I think, the major image reaching the U.S. during the 2005 riots, so that line struck a particular chord. Further, the expression of the frustration with not being able to get out, with having no recourse, is consistent with the feelings that bubbled forth in the riots.

The point is driven home by the ethnic makeup of the inhabitants of the two zones - the gangsters, inhabitants of B13, who occupy the screen for most of the movie, are a mixed lot, but generally dark-skinned. The head gangster is a man named Taha. The name is ambiguous to my ears, but when I Google "Taha," the third result is the wikipedia entry for Rachid Taha, a French-Algerian musician. Who knows if he's famous, but I'd imagine that a French audience might immediately associate the name with Algerians. (There's not much on the actor's IMDB page; his brother, also an actor, was born in Paris, but played "Yassir" in the recent film about French Algerians fighting in World War II.) Furthermore, at least to my eyes, the governmental actors were played by some particularly pasty white men, emphasizing their difference from the residents of the banlieue.