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After Attack, Are French and Euro Filmmakers Ready to Confront Terrorism ?

Two weeks after suffering the most devastating attack since WWII, France is slowly getting back on its feet. The recent massacre exposed the phenomenon of disenfranchised French youths joining the ranks of ISIS in Syria but so far this growing phenomenon has seldom been portrayed in Gallic movies.

For now, networks are cautious as French TV channels try to steer clear of shows containing images or plot details that could echo the Nov. 13 attacks. A rep at TF1, France’s top commercial channel, said the network was going through episodes of series such as “CSI” to avoid airing sensitive content at this critical time.

Unlike the U.S. or the U.K., France doesn’t have a tradition of movies depicting its own recent history, nor does it generally address geopolitical issues in a cinematic way, acknowledged French-Moroccan director Laila Marrakchi.

But could the November 13 attacks prove a gamechanger the way 9/11 did for American popular culture?

“There are two camps: those who censor themselves for fear of being indecent, and those who dare because they have the urge to ‘resist,’ ” said Jean-Baptiste Babin, co-founder of Backup Films. “In the following weeks and months, we’re going to see this dichotomy everywhere.”

“Personally, in light of the attacks, I’ll have even less apprehension about investing in violent projects dealing with touchy subjects,” said Babin, whose shingle is producing Wim Wenders’s romantic thriller “Submergence” which will star James McAvoy as a reporter who is captured by jihadist fighters in Somalia.

The violent riots that erupted in Paris in November 2005, revealing the social and economic struggle of children of immigrants from North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa living in underprivileged suburbs, gave France’s creative community its first impetus to address immigration in films such as Phillipe Faucon’s drama “La Desintegration” and Jacques Audiard’s crime thriller “A Prophet” and series such as Abdel Raouf Dafri’s “La Commune.” Much has been done since then by TV channels, leading with Canal Plus, to commission series and pre-buy films that reflect France’s diversity.

A decade later, there seems to be a willingness to use specific genres to tackle pressing issues such as terrorism and also reach wider audiences. Some recent example of series include Eric Rochant’s “The Bureau,” Canal Plus’ spy thriller set at a clandestine branch of the French Secret Service that deals with counter-terrorism, and Nicolas Boukhrief’s “Made in France,” a gripping thriller about a journalist infiltrating a jihadist cell in Paris — both of which were initiated well before the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Other genre efforts tackling terrorism include Thomas Bidegain’s “Les Cowboys,” a Western-style pic turning on a father searching for his teenage daughter who has converted to Islam and disappeared to follow her jihadist boyfriend, and Nicolas Saada’s “Taj Mahal,” a thriller chronicling the true ordeal of a young woman (played by “Nymphomaniac” star Stacy Martin) who was trapped in one of the suites of the hotel during the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack. Neither film’s opening was delayed by the attacks — Pathe opened “Les Cowboys” on Nov. 25 and Bac Films will roll out “Taj Mahal” on Dec. 2.

A few upcoming films also address terrorism through different lenses. Bertrand Bonello, whose last two films “House of Tolerance” and “Saint Laurent” played at Cannes, is wrapping up post-production on “Paris Is Happening,” a action drama about ordinary young people coming from all social classes who riot and drift into senseless terrorism.

Marrakchi is currently working on her English-language debut “My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece,” an adaptation of Annabel Pitcher’s eponymous novel about the friendship between a 10-year-old who lost his sister in the London terrorist attack, and a young British-Pakistani girl who wears the veil.

“Terrorism and radicalization are subjects that are going to be treated because we are all concerned, there are repercussions in all of Europe,” said Marianne Slot, producer at Slot Machine, the Paris-based company behind Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac Volume 1 & 2,” who oversaw the Cinema du Monde committee at the CNC and greenlit 17 pics that opened this year at Cannes including films by Jia Zhang-Ke, Yorgos Lanthimos, Nanni Moretti and Joachim Trier.

But Jean Labadie, president of Le Pacte, says films dealing with terrorism and radicalization are difficult to treat and require a legitimacy. “There have been attempts in France but nothing outstanding. We might see more going forward but we’ll never have superheroes-at-the-Bataclan type of movies,” Labadie said.

Per Roberto Olla, the executive director of Eurimages, the Council of Europe’s co-production fund, “French cinema likes to talk about characters and relate personal stories. We might see more character-driven stories set against the backdrop of terrorism but it will not happen right away. Some feel uneasy because they think they’re exploiting other people’s suffering to tell stories.”

“In the meantime, TV shows and documentaries will be the first to feed into that trend,” said Olla.

Olla noted that Italy’s plethora of organized crime movies seem to include charismatic characters, something which would be hard to pull off with movies dealing with Jihadists.

One of the main reasons why there are no high-profile, big-budgeted movies dealing with terrorism and radicalization is that free-to-air channels don’t invest in these kinds of films because channels can only broadcast four movies for audiences over 12 (equivalent to PG-13) during primetime each year, usually action films or mainstream thrillers. Pay-TV channel Canal Plus is more willing to invest in the films tackling terrorism and Jihadists — it helped finance “Made in France,” for instance.

Even public institutions like the CNC are particularly critical of projects dealing with terrorism in France. 

“Made in France,” for instance, didn’t get backed by the CNC. “Cowboys,” however, did receive the advance on receipts from the org, possibly because it was presented as an auteur-driven pic with a high-profile festival pedigree.

“A recent project dealing with French Jihadists got swiftly rejected on the board because it didn’t explain the reasons why the characters drift into terrorism,” said French-Israeli director Michale Boganim, who sits on a selection committee at a prominent public org which distributes funds for script development.

In Spain, some execs might also shy away from terrorism-themed pics for different reasons. “It would be reasonable to think that, going forward, people will think twice before green-lighting films about terrorism,” out of fear of not only a backlash but also meager audience interest, a film exec said.

But elsewhere in the world, the Paris attacks could make pics tied to Islamic fundamentalism more timely and therefore more likely to get made. Case in point is Egyptian auteur Mohamed Diab’s Islamic fundamentalism-themed thriller “Clash,” which is currently shooting in Cairo, co-produced by Mohamed Hefzy’s Cairo-based Film Clinic shingle with Gaul’s Eric Lagesse, who is selling internationally via his Pyramide Intl., with Franco-German network Arte also on board. “Clash” is set inside a police truck packed with both pro and anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators in Egypt.

“I was promising myself that, after ‘Clash’ my next movie would be about something different,” Diab said. “But after what happened in Paris, I’m thinking that I have to do this again, and again, and again: delve into the roots of terrorism. This is, for our generation, the most important topic of our lives.”

Another ripple effect of Charlie Hebdo and the Friday the 13th attacks is the rise of nationalism, which could lead to a wave of films featuring patriotic themes as in the aftermath of 9/11.

As the far-right party is gaining popularity in the run up to the 2017 presidential election, some people in the French film industry fear a backlash. “Twenty years ago, being patriotic in France was considered outdated and shameful in France, today it’s not,” said Cecile Gaget, head of international sales at Gaumont, citing provocative figures like Michel Onfray and Eric Zemmour who are gaining popularity.”

At best, this patriotic trend could boost the market share for Gallic movies, at worst, it could lead to the production of more pics like “Serial (Bad) Weddings,” which was criticized for being derogatory toward minorities by many within France and abroad, but turned out to be last year’s highest-grossing French-language film.

Nick Vivarelli and John Hopewell contributed to this report.

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