Risky Gaul declares two-part ‘Jihad’

Controversial primetimer to air on Canal Plus

PARIS — After years of playing it safe, French TV is getting riskier and more topical.

The latest sign of that is “Jihad,” a $6 million, two-part drama commissioned by paybox Canal Plus.

As its title suggests, the controversial primetime show deals with the Iraq conflict as seen through French eyes.

Shooting begins in a northern suburb of Paris this month, with Said Taghmaoui starring as one of three Frenchmen of North African origin recruited to fight in Iraq by Gaul-based Islamic fundamentalists.

There are dozens of cases of Frenchmen who took up arms for the fundamentalist cause — including Zacarias Moussaoui, who is on trial in the U.S. and is the only person to face justice so far in connection with the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America.

Thierry Fremont, who nabbed last year’s Intl. Emmy for actor for a perf as Gallic serial killer Francis Heaulme, plays a French diplomat investigating the war and advising on France’s position.

In a third story strand, an as-yet unnamed actress will play a French aid worker living in Iraq who is captured by kidnappers, echoing what happened to Brit worker Margaret Hassan. The Iraq scenes will be shot in Arab towns in Israel at the end of May.

The drama, which has been in the works for nearly a year, is from Noe Prods., the company behind last year’s surprise Cesar awards triumph “L’Esquive.”

That movie, made on a shoestring $1.5 million budget, was also set in Paris’ ethnically mixed suburbs.

Canal Plus boarded “Jihad” nearly a year ago, says Noe’s topper Jacques Ouaniche, months before mass rioting in France’s suburbs flashed on TV screens around the world, highlighting discontent among Gaul’s ethnic communities.

“It’s not the sort of drama that other channels would have touched,” says Ouaniche, “but it fitted in perfectly with Canal Plus’ current editorial policy of making topical, fact-based drama.”

But after fictionalizing the sinking of Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior while it was protesting French nuclear testing, and other controversial events that happened a couple of decades ago, the paybox has gone a step further by choosing a topic that is still in the news.

Written by Franco-American Felix Olivier and American Richard Schlesinger, who penned the feature “All Night Bodega,” “Jihad” will cover such topics as the Abu Graib and Guantanamo prisons, promises Ouaniche.

“When it comes to the Iraq conflict we’ve seen America’s version of events in drama form,” he says. “It’s time to show the war from the French point of view.”