Selim Azzazi manages to tell a very strong story with very little means. An impeccable directing, a tight and striking writing, the right aesthetics. The director admirably uses all his assets to serve best his purpose.
A stunning film by a director we already want to follow.
A few looks, pauses, a magnificent picture and an impecable performance are enough to deeply move the audience. This is the great work of an upcoming filmmaker.
A masterpiece that through a simple story helps us understand the greater history..
During my training as an actor I worked on a play which focused on the McCarthy era and the hearings conducted by the House of Unamerican Activities Committee. Over and over, this ritual question was asked : "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party ?" In this society weakened by fear, anyone connected with this political party was suspected of sympathizing with the enemy and had to be confronted. The destinies of many men and women hung by a string tied to that symbolic question.
As I was working on this play, I realized it had a strong connection to the Algerian war that had left a mark in my family history.
My father was born in 1951 in Algeria, a land that was still part of France. He was then considered a "French muslim" or "native indigenous". Algeria had been colonized for over 100 years but the native muslims were never fully recognized as French citizens.
When he was 6, my father left Algeria with his parents and moved to Lyon, a city 300 miles south of Paris. After Algeria got its independence, they chose the Algerian citizenship but stayed in Lyon.
Ever since the French-Algerian war, many considered Algerians as some kind of enemies from within, just like the communists in the 50's USA.
In the 90's, when the civil war in Algeria drew terrorist attacks on the French territory, this image of "enemies from within" came back to life. At the time, my father was finally asking for French citizenship and went throught a blackmail at the police station. He was asked to prove his patriotic inclination by working with the police in spying on his neighboors and friends in search for radical islamists. He refused. He wasn't even religious.
As my father passed away in 2012, France encountered multiple terrorist attacks that culminated last year at the Bataclan and Nice. Now the fear of having enemies from within leading to a sort of civil war developped in the minds of many.
These are the reasons I wrote and directed Ennemis intérieurs (aka : Enemies within).
I had a sense that the French colonial history, the Algerian independence war and the situation we know today, all that was tied together somehow. I felt the need to question our complexe identity and remind ourselves of the kafkaesque situation French Algerians used to be.
On the side of my main job as a supervising sound editor in Paris, I wrote the script which finally completed its financing in 2014 when we were able to go into production.
We shot the film near Lyon, my hometown. We were searching for a place were we could find various types of hallways, a room who could come out of a 1950's hospital and a large space were we could built the main set. Early during location scouting, I was told that a feature film was being shot in an unused government building nearby Lyon. I went to see it and it appeared to have everything we needed : halls, hallways, offices... Most of the building was from the early 70's. After DOP Frederic Serve and production designer Françoise Arnaud came to have a look, we decided to go for it.
The irony was that despite the fact that the whole building was just offices, we had a hard time finding a right place for our main set. We needed to build a removable fourth wall so we'd have enough space for the camera to back up. For that we eventually chose a sort of law ceilling depot. It was going to be awefull for the sound but it was the most convenient place to set-up our flats. Production designer Françoise Arnaud was able to recover enough panels from the feature that was being shot there to build our entire set. As for the sound problem, a theater in Lyon lended us several huge velvet curtains that we surrounded the set with. On the ceilling we hanged large acoustic foams. We brought down the cathedral type of reverb to a very pure dry sound. This was very important to me because it was a way to enhance the felling of claustrophobia for both the actors and the audience.
For the two main characters there hasn't been any casting. I wanted to work with Hassam Ghancy and Najib Oudghiri from the start.
I had met Hassam at the Jack Garfein Studio in Paris. We worked together as actors on a Cormac McCarthy play, The Sunset Limited. As Ennemis intérieurs was my first script, Hassam was a great help confronting the ideas I had to something an actor of flesh and blood would have to say eventually.
When I met Najib I knew he was an experienced actor and I had a sense he would be right for the part. Behind a seemingly frail figure you could guess a confidence driven by moral certitude and righteousness. I felt this inner strengh would balance on a moral level the physical power Hassam has over you - he's a formally trained boxer.
We rehearsed for 2 weeks before shooting. This was one of the most precious time I've had. I needed to work in depth with the actors before deciding on the shot list. At one point I used a handheld camera and the decoupage started to unfold in my mind.
We all favor certain type of cinema. I definitely found the films I want to do in the great plays and character driven stories. The fact that I had learned acting before going into writing certainly had something to do with it.
DOP Frederic Serve then joined us during a rehearsal. As the first observer, his feedback was crutial. Then production designer Françoise Arnaud came into play with a scale model she'd made, we started making decisions on the set design as we knew what we would need to be able to film.
The film was shot in 5 days at the end of June 2015 with 3 and 1/2 days in the office itself. As DOP and producer Fred Serve always says : prep like a strategist, shoot like a barbarian. Fred and I were in film school together. He's been a DOP for features for years and to have him on board for a short was a great chance. Without his energy and experience we would have never made it. We had to cover all of the face-to-face in 3 and 1/2 days : the actors needed to be sharp on the spot. And they were.
As this was my directorial debut, I remembered everything I've always been told by other directors I've worked with : the frustration of ever running after the clock, the obligation to find quick solutions to every unexpected event, the need to rest when you can, etc. Coming from the post-production world, I didn't know how I would adjust to the hardships of production. I came out of this assured that this would not be my last film. I loved everything about the set and above all seeing all this prep come to life.
The editing lasted for 5 weeks and ended at the begining of september. Editor Anita Roth and I had met on a Jean-Pierre Jeunet commercial and worked for months on a Jean Jacques Annaud feature. We had been friends for years and I completely trusted her judgement. Also, for the first time, I was going to work in an editing room and I couldn't touch at the keyboard... until the sound work came.
As a sound editor I took care of the dialogue, sound editing and music myself. Dialogue editing was especially rewarding for me to do as a director since I knew technically all I could do to make the most out of the material I had.
From pre-production to post-production 7 months had passed. At the end of november we learned that the Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival had selected the film. By then we were ready for the final mix and color grading.
We premiered in Clermont-Ferrand on february 2016. This gave us a magnificent audience of over 1200 people for the first public screening I attended. We were honored to leave the festival with the audience award and the student jury award. From that the film went on to a great festival life with an Academy Award qualifying prize in Vienna VIS. Amongst many other festivals, the film was also selected in Tampere, Cleveland, Palm Springs, Odense, Seoul, Badalona, Kyiev or Calgary and took 15 prizes so far.
We're extremely honored to be shortlisted to the Academy Awards as this almost 28 minute verbal French speaking film focuses on a French identity issue that doesn't strike by its univeralsity at first glance.