Critic's Notebook: New French Films Consider Terror at Home

Courtesy of Pretty Pictures

Recent and upcoming French movies tackle issues related to last Friday's terror attacks, trying to answer questions that are, now more than ever, on everybody's mind.

As reports have now confirmed, the devastating attacks that ripped through the Paris region on Friday night, leaving 129 dead and hundreds more wounded, were carried out by three teams of terrorists, several of whose members were French nationals. Disturbing as such news can seem, it was, unfortunately, hardly surprising for anyone actually living in France — especially following the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher supermarket attacks last January, and the Toulouse and Montauban shootings of March 2012, all of which were perpetrated by French-born individuals, with families hailing from former colonies in North Africa (Algeria) and West Africa (Mali).

While terrorist incidents on French soil are nothing new — 13 bombings occurred in Paris between 1985-1986, and in 1995, a bomb on a commuter train killed eight people at the Saint-Michel metro station — what is particularly troubling about the recent wave of events is how, in most cases, the assailants were raised and educated locally, often in working-class “quartiers difficiles” (“difficult neighborhoods”) in the suburbs of Paris and other major cities. Many are now asking the question: How is it that these French men — some of them former amateur rappers or soccer players — could come to commit such crimes against their fellow citizens, massacring journalists at work, children at school or groups of people enjoying a night out on the town?

A pair of new French movies (Made in France and Cowboys), as well as one released back in 2012 (The Disintegration), all try to answer that question, tackling deep-seated issues that will continue to haunt the public for years to come. In one of the three cases, the filmmakers underline a socio-economic climate that breeds isolation, disillusion and inert anti-French sentiment among a certain segment of the population, though none of the films provide cut-and-dry explanations as to why their protagonists eventually cross the line and decide to carry out jihad back home.

In director Philippe Faucon’s The Disintegration, much of the movie’s premise can be summed up by its title. In the original French, La Desintegration is a play on words combining “disintegration” with the negation of “integration” — the latter being a term often thrown around by public officials with regards to the problematic banlieue neighborhoods, where “integration policies” over the past decades have not necessarily improved the lives of those who reside there.

Faucon uses a pared-down, documentary-style narrative to follow the gradual indoctrination of three young men from one such troubled suburb outside the northern city of Lille. The film mostly focuses on Ali (Rashid Debbouze), a rather gentle 20-year-old of Moroccan origin who, despite completing a course in electrical engineering, is unable to land as much as an internship. Meanwhile, his elderly, devoutly religious mother makes a harsh living as a nighttime cleaning woman, while his ailing father lies on his deathbed in a nearby hospital.

Ali and his buddies from the hood, Nasser (Mohamed Nachit) and Hamza (Ymanol Perset), cross paths early on with Djamel (Yassine Azzouz), a soft-spoken jihad recruiter who meets them at an outdoor Muslim rally taking place in the heart of their public housing project, during the film’s memorable opening sequence. Through lengthy Koranic sessions and the distribution of pamphlets and videos, Djamel slowly transforms Ali and his friends into willful warriors of extremist Islam, setting them up for a kamikaze attack on a NATO building just across the border in Brussels.

To date, The Disintegration is clearly the most comprehensive cinematic glimpse into the motivations driving young men like Ali to action, and Faucon’s analysis of the situation is fairly blunt: With immigrant parents hardly getting by, and few job prospects of his own, Ali sees violent fundamentalism as a calling that offers him much more than the country he grew up in — the country his family arrived at following the painful process of decolonization. The film was shot before the most recent terrorist attacks mentioned above, but the conclusion it reaches heads in the same direction. For Ali, France is less of an ally than an enemy.

With its catchy title and sensationalist marketing campaign (see the official poster above), Nicolas Boukhrief’s Made in France continues Faucon’s argument within the framework of a Hollywood-style thriller. Slated for release on Nov. 18, the film was removed from the lineup by distributor Pretty Pictures following the attacks on Friday, with no future release date scheduled yet. (This is the second time Made in France has suffered such a fate: Shot in the summer of 2014, the movie was dropped by original distributor SND after the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January. Its only official screening to date was at the Busan Film Festival in October.)

Boukhrief — otherwise known for pure genre efforts like Cash Truck and Cortex — was inspired by the 1995 Paris bombing to create a story about a journalist (Malik Zidi) infiltrating a cell of French jihadists in order to write a tell-all book. At a storefront mosque headed up by a radical preacher, he befriends three young men representing three possible paths to extremism: Driss (Nassim Si Ahmed), a boxer of Maghrebin origin who toughened up in prison; Sidi (Ahmed Drame), a sweet-faced African kid revenging the death of his cousin; and Christophe (Francois Civil), a bourgeois Caucasian who converts to Islam, seemingly to get back at his rich Breton parents.

The filmmakers clearly researched their subject, and as recent news reports have revealed, the vast amount (estimates are as high as 15 to 20 a week) of young French citizens attempting to join the jihad in Syria hail from nearly all regions in France and just as many backgrounds. Made in France attempts to boil that phenomenon down to a handful of archetypes, with Driss and the others falling sway to the commands of Hassan (Dimitri Storoge), an extremely volatile cell leader who claims to have been trained by Al-Qaeda, and who pushes his team to pull off a major bombing in Paris.

If he often favors suspense over realism, Boukhrief attempts to show with some verisimilitude how 20-somethings can be drawn to fundamentalist Islam for various personal reasons, while the idea of committing acts of violence allows them to play out fantasies first experienced in video games. (A recent French TV documentary on ISIS indoctrination tactics included clips from a recruitment video that references the Assassin’s Creed series.) Less interested in social causes than The Disintegration, Made in France helps shine a light on another aspect driving young jihadists to action: the idea of being part of something thrilling, adventurous and shockingly real.

Tackling the issue from an entirely different angle, screenwriter-turned-director Thomas Bidegain turns the threat of homegrown jihad into an epic family quest in Cowboys, a film slated for release on Nov. 25 and currently still in the lineup. Bidegain has worked for years as a screenwriter for Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Dheepan), and like many French filmmakers is a bona fide cinephile. He crafted his feature debut as a modern-day take on John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece The Searchers, switching the setting to contemporary France and replacing the Native Americans of the Ford movie with Muslim extremists who may or may not be terrorists.

The film is much less about the workings of a specific terror cell than it is about the ripple effects that one young runaway’s flight to Islam has on her father (Francois Damiens) and brother (Finnegan Oldfield), who, like John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter in The Searchers, will spend over a decade trying to get their little girl back. Along the way, the two cross paths with various characters (a private intelligence officer, a bounty hunter) in various countries (Belgium, Afghanistan), revealing the vast international network that jihadists pass through on their road to the Middle East and back to Europe, where they remain in largely Islamic communities in metropoles like Paris or Brussels (where, it seems, last Friday’s attack plans were hatched).

Without giving away the finale, it’s important to note that Bidegain takes a very different route compared to Faucon and Boukhrief. Instead of closing with a bang, he offers up a certain adjustment of perspective, very much in the way that Wayne’s character ultimately reacts when he saves Natalie Wood from the Comanche in the Ford film. Cowboys may be more steeped in myths both French and American than it is a ripped-from-the-headlines tale based in fact, while its candidate for jihad is an odd one indeed: a young white teenager from a perfectly solid and loving family. Still, it proffers an idea that the other films do not necessarily consider, with the possibility of appeasement between two cultures that, now more than ever, seem to be at war.

Given how long it takes to develop, write, shoot, edit and release a movie, it’s impossible for filmmakers to directly be in the zeitgeist, though the best films are often ahead of their times in one way or another (a perfect example being Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, which foresaw the collapse of Europe just before the outbreak of WWII). In the case of The Disintegration, Made in France and Cowboys, each director is attempting to address questions about homegrown terrorism that have been on the minds of the French public for a long time now, trying to understand what drives certain young believers to take up arms against their own countrymen.

None of them, however, could have possibly foreseen the kind of events that transpired in and around Paris last Friday. As much as the movies can make us think or even dream, they can’t always overcome the fact that truth can be scarier than fiction.