This intelligent and current picture about childhood fears and understandings also serves as a damning indictment of French immigration policy under Sarkozy. Narrated retrospectively from the year 2067 by central protagonist Milana, she tells the story of her near-deportation from France at the age of ten and the plan her young classmates hatched to save her. Milana (Linda Doudaeva) lives with her Chechen family in Paris and attends the same school as her friend Blaise (Jules Ritmanic) and his younger sister Alice (Louna Klanit). After their friend Youssef is deported along with his family, Blaise’s mother (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) takes Milana into their home, hoping to protect her from the police, busy chasing deportation targets. The children hear stories of their immigrant neighbours falling to their deaths from balconies trying to hide from the strong-armed authorities and entire families disappearing and so eventually take their safety into their own hands by absconding to an underground basement as a kind of protest of solidarity with Milana. It’s a culture of fear and paranoia in which even the classroom is no longer safe for those not natively born in France, their multi-cultural community is effectively portrayed as a police state and whilst set today and grounded in reality, images of groups of officers marching down the street evoke the darkest Orwellian dystopias.
Director Romain Goupil elicits brilliant performances from his young cast, terrified for their friend yet ready to take affirmative action against laws even a child can see are destructive. That’s not to say all sides of the argument aren’t discussed, Goupil (playing Blaise’s father) occupies a reformative but more centrist position than his wife and becomes frustrated with her ultra-liberal idealism. Her argument with her politically-opposed brother (Hippolyte Girardot) provides one of the strongest scenes in the film. But it’s the time spent alone with the children that’s ultimately the most rewarding. Like Laurent Cantet with The Class (2008), Goubil directed the kids through a series of improvisations and there’s no sentimental element to any of the characters, just all the complexities, insecurities, naiveties and self-assuredness of childhood.
Shot digitally on the RED camera system, the scenes on the streets have an urgency and tangible sense of tension whilst those in the cellar where the kids hide out are candle-lit to womb-like effect. The question of immigration in France today is much more than a subtext in Hands Up, it’s the backbone to the story, and whilst never moralising or dictatorial in its’ message, it is quietly optimistic yet clear in its’ view that it’s the next generation who’ll need to implement change. Hopefully the future-set framing device of the film will prove a premonition, and the next generation will be able to tell a similar story to this one to a future audience in disbelief that this was happening in 2010.