After exploring the tumults of French politics in “Baron Noir,” Oscar-nominated French-Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri (“The Insult,” “The Attack”) immerses audiences into the rough world of French Special Forces in Iraq in “Dark Hearts.”
Ordered by Amazon Prime Video in France, “Dark Hearts” is set on the eve of the battle for Mosul in October 2016 and follows the lives of men and women who are part of a commando group deployed in Iraq to fight ISIS. They are tasked with exfiltrating the daughter and grandson of an important ISIS leader who will only cooperate with them on this condition.
Doueiri, who started his career in Hollywood working as a first assistant camera on movies like Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” was always curious about war movies but thought of them as a genre pre-empted by American filmmakers. So when French producer Gilles de Verdière at Mandarin Télévision approached him with the pitch for “Dark Hearts,” he didn’t say yes right away. Shortly after, he went on an official trip to Lebanon in the wake of the tragic explosion in Beirut and saw French military forces on the ground, helping locals amid the chaos and massive destruction. Doueiri, who is best known for politically minded movies such as “The Attack” and “The Insult,” says he “was so moved by what [he] saw, [he] felt the urge to tell their stories.”
“‘Dark Hearts’ is about an aspect of France that we don’t know about, and that we don’t see,” says Doueiri. “I know that in France we don’t have the tradition to say positive things about the army or we don’t talk much about them…the army is not what we think. They’re people who take a lot of risks and who do a lot of heroic things,” says Zouieri, who also spent time with special forces at a military base in Bayonne, France.
De Verdière, meanwhile, says he was drawn to make “Dark Hearts” because he has a “personal taste for war movies,” and is a big fan of Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott and Terrence Malick.
“This is a genre that is underrepresented in France in films and especially in TV,” says the producer, who felt Doueiri, with whom he had previously collaborated on the limited series “Inhuman Resources,” was “the ideal person” to direct “Dark Hearts.”
“He checks all the boxes — he’s Lebanese so he has an oriental culture, he knows the reality of war because he witnessed it during his childhood, he’s also French, so he gets the sensibility and understands the nuances of French culture, and his cinematic style is very American because he assisted Quentin Tarantino on all his first film,” says de Verdière.
One of the challenges de Verdière says he experienced was making the series with “high production standards even though we didn’t the budgets of Clint Eastwood or Kathryn Bigelow’s movies.”
“Focusing on an elite unit was great for several reasons, firstly because it’s quite mysterious and audiences are attracted to that, and it was also easier on a logistical standpoint to portray them than the regular military,” says the producer. “If we had tried to depict the conventional army, we would have needed to film heavy military engines like tanks, which wouldn’t have been available for the show.”
The ensemble cast brings together French stars such as Nicolas Duvauchelle (“Braquo,” “Polisse”), with up-and-coming actors including Marie Dompnier (“Les Gazelles”), Tewfik Jallab (“Spiral,” “Oussekine”), Nina Meurisse (“La vie d’Anaïs”), Jérémy Nadeau, Victor Pontecorvo, Quentin Faure, Thierry Godard and Moussa Maaskri.
De Verdière says the actors completed a one-week training with special forces and were paired with their alter egos to learn about the technical aspects of their jobs but also their mentality. The production also tapped a former leader of a special forces unit to advise actors, screenwriters and Doueiri during the development and filming.
The ambitious six-episode series, which marks the first collaboration of Prime Video and public broadcaster France Televisions, “isn’t a straight-up war show,” says Sahar Baghery, head of content at Prime Video in France.
While it’s packed with robust action scenes, it also “weaves in drama and geopolitics with fully developed characters, and a psychological dimension brought by Ziad Doueiri,” Baghery continues. “I was struck by the realism of the series, it’s extremely well documented and we get a sense that we’re in there with them, seeing how they live on front lines.”
“Dark Hearts” also has an espionnage layer that comes from the series’ creators Duong Dang-Thaï and Corinne Garfin, whose credits include “The Bureau.” But Baghery argues that “Dark Hearts” is very different from “The Bureau” because it shows what happens in the field rather than in the offices.
The executive says the series’ female roles were another important aspect for the streamer. “It’s part of our DNA, and we wish to shine a spotlight on female characters in all our projects whether in films or series,” says Baghery.
Indeed, one of the particularities of “Dark Hearts” is the place of heroic female characters, for instance a French sniper, a commando leader, a Kurdish soldier and an Iraqi informer.
“In Iraq, Kurdish women have been leading the fight against ISIS, and Iraqis have been the first victims of ISIS so it was important to include these different point of views,” says Doueiri.
The helmer also reveals that he was highly inspired by “Mosul,” a documentary directed by Olivier Sarbil, who followed a group of young Iraqi Special Forces soldiers during the nine-month battle.
Doueiri says he watched Sarbil’s documentary about 50 films and got the idea of filming “Dark Hearts” as if the camera was being held by a “virtual journalist.” “I wanted to be with the soldiers at all times and see the war through their eyes,” explains the director, adding that he shot scenes with a camera on his shoulder to create that immersive and imperfect quality.
“Dark Hearts” will premiere exclusively on Prime Video in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg on Feb. 3. France Televisions will broadcast the show nine months after its launch on the streamer.
Baghery says the collaboration between the streamer and pubcaster on “Dark Hearts” illustrates Prime Video’s “more flexible approach in terms of acquisitions.” “We’d like to continue partnering with broadcasters and combining our ressources to accompany more great projects like ‘Dark Hearts,’ the executive continued. Prime Video is currently in talks with other TV groups on further acquisitions. Newen Connect is handling international distribution.