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Interview: Director Sélim Azzazi on his Oscar nominated short ‘Ennemis Intérieurs’

February 23, 2017

FilmReview | by Cormac O'Brien


Ennemis intérieurs is of the year’s most vital surprises. Short in runtime but heavy in political punch, it’s a strongly-scripted chamber piece that comes as the fearsome directorial debut from established actor and sound engineer Sélim Azzazi. An immensely skilled storyteller, Azzazi crafts a tale it’s difficult not to relate to today’s international news. Set in the wake of the 90s Algerian bombings in France, an application for French citizenship turns into a closely played drama that pits the wills of a French-Algerian Hassam against his interviewer come interrogator Najib.

Already garnering a myriad of awards internationally, the dual impact of its main players’ tour-de-force performances and Azzazi’s deftly intelligent direction make it one of the strongest contenders for this year’s Oscar Short Film Awards.

Candid magazine spoke to Azzazi about his desire to tell his father’s story and the importance of telling more complex political stories.

Did you intend to make this film for a long time? 

Basically, it all comes from the fact that when you’re a kid you watch your parents, you observe and analyse them and everything they feel. You try and find a way to make sense of it. My father has always been very gloomy and I always related that to the French Algerian Independence War. He was a kid during the war and his dad was with the FLN (the Algerian political party). I was trying to understand what was going on in his mind and I came up with this story. At one point I was acting in a play about the House of Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s in Hollywood and I crossed that with the story my father when through when he asked for the citizenship in the 90s. It was before the World Cup and they were afraid there were going to be bombings because we had bombing in 95/96 and the police were asking people to cooperate with the secret service to spy on people around them. In exchange you would get citizenship. I wrote the film to try and link the Algerian War and the terrorist acts in the 90s and what’s happening today because in my mind this makes sense and is all related.

What has been the response to Enemy Within worldwide?

The film has won many prizes in Spain; in Barcelona, in Madrid, in Galicia. My father was Algerian, my Mum is Spanish. The reason why my Spanish grandmother moved to France was because her own father was a communist who had been arrested and tortured by the Franco police during the war. The story had always been around with my family. He was interrogated and he was tortured and he was asked to give names. So, of course, in Spain they can relate to that story. Or in South Korea, for example I was in Seoul some people in their 50s in the audience came to tell me that they had been through the same thing. The 80s when they were students and the regime was …. Well, there is a universality.

What has your own experience been like?

I was kind of a little fish who swam through the net. Where I grew up it was not so bad a neighbourhood. But when you are a kid you don’t realise that a place is filled with disagreement and crime. You don’t see it at all. I remember when I was a kid, I saw an interview of Alfred Hitchcock saying that he had a fear of the policeman’s uniform, maybe you’ve seen this interview? Everyone around me always grew up with that. That you had to watch out for yourself because the police were watching you more than it was watching the other ones. The other French citizens. I never felt it was unfair because I grew up with this feeling. This is one of the topics of the film. What goes on in this man’s mind is “I could talk to you, I could give you the names, I could trust you, because I know there is nothing wrong with these people. But I can’t trust you because I’ve seen too much.” It doesn’t mean it happens every time, but it could happen. And it destroys this neighbourhood, those acts destroy the hope for being part of society.

Did you want to talk about today?

Well, when I was 20 years old, in the suburbs of Leon, there was one terrorist. Actually I had cousins who knew him, and we were from the same town. He was in this terrorist bombing linked to the Algerian civil war and he got hunted down and killed. At that time, I was doing radio, I was in university and on the side I was doing radio shows. I remember I had talks about that on the radio trying to understand what was going on with it. And a little less than 20 years later when we had young men starting killing people in France, like Mohammed Merah killing military people, killing little kids outside the Jewish community school in Toulouse, it all came back. It kind of felt that it was something that was always there but it would explode from time to time. It was there for decades. So that’s why I chose to set this story in the 90s, with the story of my father and relating to the Algerian civil war. But of course I wanted to talk about what was happening today with the young Frenchmen going amok on society and killing whoever they could.

There’s so much protest and as well as how do you think we change the conversation?

Today? I don’t know. On my part from I want to keep making films that try to reconcile the memories of people who were at war. We have to write stories that are more complex than what we hear in the media today. It is never as simple as the general idea, you know? The idea behind the film was really that I wanted the audience to be oppressed and especially the audience that would think like the policeman. I was trying to reconcile differences and the people who think like the policeman. I wanted to help them to get into the film through the policeman first saying, “Yes, those are legitimate questions.” And as it goes on and on and on and on, I wanted to give them a chance to feel how it feels. To feel how those people feel going through that humiliation and maybe have them see that these are humans too and that makes you angry. So that was the point of having this space that lack of air and oppression. That was the idea behind it.

Words by Cormac O’Brien