It is a point of honor for the French filmmaker Ladj Ly to still be living in Les Bosquets, one of the most impoverished housing projects in the Paris suburbs. The neighborhood, which Ly refers to as a “ghetto,” was at the epicenter of the French riots that erupted in 2005 following the accidental deaths by electrocution of two teenagers. Les Bosquets is also the setting of Ly’s debut feature film, Les Misérables, which is the French entry for best international feature film at this year’s Academy Awards.

It is the first time a black French director has had a film nominated by France’s Oscar committee. Les Misérables will open in the U.S. on January 10, after being acquired by Amazon Studios at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize (tying with the Brazilian film Bacurau). The film’s title is a bold hat tip to Victor Hugo’s sweeping 1862 novel about social injustice in post-revolutionary France. “We all felt like Gavroches when we were growing up,” Ly told me in a recent interview.