Interview: Enemies Within

A much needed look into the consequences of France’s colonial past

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French director Selim Azzazi brought his captivating short “Enemies Within” to the Lift-Off film festival this year in Manchester. Over a run-time of 27 minutes the audience could very well be watching a play due to Azzazi’s attention to detail, sharp dialogue and use of only 2 lead characters in one space. These elements emphasize the multiple layers to this necessary short about the scars of France’s colonial past.

After asking Azzazi himself questions on the subject of “Enemies Within”, we begin to delve into these layers, and if you would like to read a review of the short click here.

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Beginning with the production process, Azzazi explained that it started in May 2015, gathering around €100 000 through the CNC’s financing (French National Centre for Cinema). This allowed them to pay every crew member and build a set. An important aspect this budget allowed them was to rehearse for two weeks with the two actors, “just like we would for a play”.

As the subject has such depth and the actors’ performances are so gripping, I could have imagined a full-length feature version being equally as powerful if it could hold the same high-standard throughout. But Azzazi had always imagined “Enemies Within” being a short film and was meant to remain that way, making it clear that he “never imagined or hoped on doing it a feature version”, and was always meant to be “only worked as a 20-30 minute intense duel”.

Despite only being a half hour long, the script took three years to write and to gather the financing, then taking ten months to produce entirely. This time was essential to the development and perfecting of details, such as the feeling of claustrophobia. Azzazi stated that “the sound was crucial in order to get that claustrophobic atmosphere”, turning the space into an anechoic chamber that absorbs sound instead of it reverberating.  To do so, they made use of “several huge velvet curtains” with which they surrounded the set, and hung large acoustic foams from the ceiling. The set’s location being in an unused government building, they managed to reduce the original cathedral like sound “to a very pure dry sound”. An important factor for Azzazi, in order to “enhance the feeling of claustrophobia for both the actors and the audience”.

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In an article published on the Qualia Films site, Azzazi mentioned rehearsing for a play that centred around the HUAC (House of Unamerican Activities Committee), and how he made the link between America’s despising of communism and their “enemies within” and France’s refusal to see Algerians as French, especially after the war of independence. I asked if he could go into more depth about how he felt the way HUAC dealt with communism in America was similar to how France dealt with Franco-Algerians, to which he replied:

“There are similarities in the way a society builds up the image of ‘an enemy from within’. In France for example it was the case after the 1870 war against Prussia after which many accused French-Jews to be responsible for the defeat. Antisemitism grew on that idea and it led to the Dreyfus case 1894. The same with the French -Muslims originating from North-Africa (mainly Algerians) especially when the independence war started in 1954. In the mind of many, every French-Muslim became a possible threat. So this idea that North-African people are a threat from within has been around for over 60 years now and it’s been very costly to our society (lack of integration, inequities, unemployment, riots, etc)”.

He also pointed out that it is easy to find the same mechanics in the Soviet system “with the ‘enemy of the people’ image”, in addition mentioning a British play he loves that deals with that called “Collaborators” by John Hodge.

Hassam Ghancy and Azzazi worked together as actors in an adaption of The Sunset Limited, of which the setting was also in a singular closed space. This was another source of inspiration for “Enemies Within”, with actors Hassam and Najib’s insight and feedback enhancing the quality of the script. On this subject, Azzazi responded that “great playwrights are always inspiring as they manage to bring characters to life from what they say/do or don’t say/do. So working as an actor was definitely crucial for me in order to grasp what writing was about. The same with working with Hassam: his feedback was very important to me because although he isn’t a writer, he could tell me when what he was reading didn’t feel right. He would say it with his own words, which would necessarily translate into answers for a writer, but which would point out problems to solve. It is very important when you have no experience to be able to trust the actors you work with. Both Hassam and Najib were dedicated to help me bring out the best of this script”.

“Enemies Within” is powerful because it’s topic is the much-ignored bloody colonial history of France, which led to questioning France’s trouble facing this past. Azzazi expressed disappointment and shame, observing that France’s political debates constantly overlook the subject. Azzazi does not mince words— “There is still a large amount of my fellow countrymen who refuse to acknowledge that the French military went into the undifferentiated slaughtering of a massive number of people in order to invade their land. You can call that however you’d like: the fact remains that the French army came to Africa and they burned, killed and expropriated. We have to live with this. Yes France also built cities, roads, railways and hospitals but it doesn’t wipe out the slaughtering. To get over this and happily live altogether with this common history will remain difficult if this isn’t at least acknowledged”.

This led to the government’s paranoia of enemies within the country, and looking at when this idea of enemies from within started. Azzazi located the French-Muslim target as a problem coming “at least from the Algerian independence war in the 50’s”. It is in fact from a book by French sociologist Mathieu Rigouste that covered this area called “L’ennemi intérieur”.

Whilst Azzazi could not divulge much about his future projects, he did say that he will “keep on writing about identity and the French colonial past but not only!”

His inspiration is fuelled by great plays and character driven stories, which led to me asking him which in particular touched him the most. Too many coming to mind, he settled for his three personal favourite playwrights: “Shakespeare – Ibsen – Pinter”.

Along the same lines but mostly just out of interest, I asked him for his personal top five films, responding “That’s very difficult to say. There are so many. All I can say is that my favourite films would involve Kurosawa, Truffaut, Hitchcock, Tarkovski, Lumet and The Monty Python!”.

“Enemies Within” is a rare window into the paranoia of the French government. Azzazi’s profound knowledge on the subject in addition to his background in theatre are very much what made this short such high quality.

Click here to go back to the Lift-Off Homepage to check out more reviews and interviews.

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Manchester Lift-Off 2017: Shorts Programme Two (2/2)

The second half of our day 2 coverage

Enemies Within (Ennemis Interieurs)

Selim Azzazi impressively demonstrates the control of human emotion with Enemies Within. From the very first second, he keeps the audience with baited breath as a simple citizenship turns into a tense interrogation.

The interrogator shoots questions at a dizzying pace, especially given the weight they seem to carry. After a few questions that our main protagonist answers with ease, the interrogator purposefully throws him off course. “Say we give you French nationality. What can you give us?” and suddenly the air is thick with indignation. It is now clear what is going on, the state’s paranoia surrounding Algerian terrorism seeping through the interrogator’s stance and tone. Under interrogation, the man goes through different stages of response to the questions and is initially amused at their simplicity, only to end up scoffing at the underlying accusations. The neutrality this man came in with evaporates in front of our eyes as the interrogating goes on.

Changing his approach, the interrogator smooth talks our main protagonist with words of “needing” and “belonging”, he resembles something of a puppet master pulling the strings to get what he wants. The abundance of innuendos is anything but subtle, Azzazi gives us a straightforward, no nonsense short that will leave you doubtful if “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” truly has any meaning.

Enemies Within was by far the most deserving of recognition out of all those on display at this year’s festival for me, as Azzazi flawlessly exposed a raw nerve of the history of France that touches on the consequences of their colonial past.

Directed by Selim Azzazi

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Pazzo & Bella 

This wonderful Italian short introduces us to a humorous couple with very real problems.

Pazzo is a middle-aged man in a makeshift wheelchair who owns a small gas station with his attractive, alcoholic wife. Both have buckets of character, with very little prospects. Offered a large sum of money by a local mobster to kill a man, Bella is prepared for anything to break up the monotony of their life, yet it is safe to say that Pazzo is not thrilled by the proposition. In typical Italian fashion, the pair argue vividly, the scenes seem straight out of a Scorsese production. Bella finally decides to go through with it alone, although it is an act of love as she wants the money to get Pazzo a real wheelchair. The actor playing Pazzo is a pleasure to watch as he conveys a wide range of moods and emotions through dialogue and silence alike. When preventing Bella from committing the crime outright, he explains that as disabled man pulling the trigger “You’re not a murderer anymore, you’re the story!”. The last scenes of the short bring warmth to their relationship, as Pazzo gently washes the blood off Bella’s forehead in the bathroom sink, ending on a shot of them watching television together, still in shock from committing murder but content with each-other’s company.

Directed by Marcello Di Noto

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Hipopotamy

One of the few animated shorts on at Lift-Off, Hipopotamy is not about people, but about humans. Inspired by the post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, Piotr Dumala envisioned a story of simple movement and simple characters.

From what I understood, this doesn’t portray a feminist society, it doesn’t even attempt to elude at civilization. Primal instincts and survival as a race are the themes at stake. There seems to be a reference to the futility of war amid humans. A serene dog passes by overlooking the conflict, showing that even animals are more civilised than them, bringing to mind the quote that “Mankind is truly the cruelest of species”. Stripped of colloquial language that we use today, these humans use dance in order to communicate and signal peace amongst each other, notably when their children are dead and they need to reproduce, apparently following nature’s course. This was deeply polarizing short, and if you are into symbolism or very left-of-centre creations, this one is for you.

Directed by Piotr Dumala

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Relentless

Just six minutes long, this short explores a young woman’s decision between a scholarship or pursuing training to be a boxer.

Quite explicitly emphasising the pressure put on by her single mother, the decision she makes will need to serve them both to eventually end their struggle as Latin-Americans. The scholarship to study medicine at Georgetown University is a prestigious one, and could very well be their ticket to the American Dream. Her mother makes sure to remind her that she shouldn’t question sacrificing her passion for the financial security and future of the family: “You can’t box forever, you should do something better with your life.” This realistic short explores family dynamics and what the American Dream signifies to different people in their respective situations, and leaves you wishing we could follow the character a little longer.

Directed by Tayanna Todd

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