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French sound editor Sélim Azzazi tackles the universal issue of identity for his directorial debut, Ennemis intérieurs, one of ten films in the running for the Best Live Action Short Oscar.

The 27-minute short (also known as Enemies Within) is set in 1990s France, a time when terrorism became the leading source of fear. Hassam Ghancy stars as a French Algerian-born man who is being investigated by the police department for his connection with possible terrorists. Assigned to his case is an officer, played by Najib Oudghiri, whose unrelenting determination to uncover the truth could cost one man his home in France.

Azzazi, who has worked on the films of esteemed directors Luc Besson, Oliver Stone and Michel Hazanavicius, makes a strong debut in his first film as director and screenwriter, delivering a fierce one-on-one drama between two men of opposing agendas. And audiences have shown their appreciation. The film has nabbed top film festival prizes in countries like the U.S., Brazil, Spain.

Ahead of the Academy Awards’ nominations announcement, I interviewed the up-and-coming filmmaker about his transition from sound editor to director, how our identities affect our lives, and his goal in making the film. You can check it out below.

ScreenPicks: Just to get to know you more as a filmmaker, can you talk about your influences growing up? Who are the directors or screenwriters that inspire you?

Azzazi: All the great directors: Chaplin, Kubrick, Truffaut, Kurosawa, but I’ll be more specific for this film. I’m a big fan of courtroom films, and I really enjoyed the American 70’s, especially Sidney Lumet. In France, we have a filmmaker named Raymond Depardon who did several documentaries that take place either in police stations or in courtrooms. This influenced my choices for the film. I would mention as well the film Una pura formalità, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore and staring Roman Polanski and Gérard Depardieu face to face on a duel.

ScreenPicks: You’ve had a long career working in the sound department, and you have over 30 films to your name. How was the transition from being a sound editor to a director/screenwriter?

Azzazi: I love sound. I’ve been doing that for many years now. It really nourished my work as a future filmmaker because being close to directors in postproduction is a great school for directing. You learn a lot from the editing rooms regarding storytelling and what could go wrong during production. I had stories and topics I wanted to talk about in films, which pushed me away from sound, and it took me to the theatre. I learned the actor’s work for several years before feeling secure about writing anything for another actor. I needed to understand their process on a deeper level. So that transition took quite a while because I had so much to learn. When I felt confident enough, I went into it. The sound? I’m still doing. I’ve just finished a film by German director Volker Schlondorff, and I’m working now with two French directors who did The Intouchables, the French comedy from a few years ago. Next I’m going to be working on my writing, and we’ll see where that takes me.

ScreenPicks: Filmmakers often find inspiration from their own lives and use it for their work. I was wondering how much of your own experiences influenced the film.

Azzazi: All of it. On two levels: conscious and subconscious. First of all, the story comes from a crossover between something I worked on as an actor during my training; it comes from a play involving the McCarthy era. Next I associated that with what my father went through in the ’90s went he asked for french citizenship. In the film I tried to give a glimpse of what the Algerians, or French Algerians in France, have in their hearts, especially I was thinking about my father and the questions that haunted him — he’s passed away now — for many years about his own identity. I tried to give food for thought about their situation, being French-born, becoming Algerian after the independence, still living in France, and being torn between those two identities, because the war forced them to make a choice.

I discovered more recently that the film was doing really well Spain. In the past couple of months, we won four awards there including two grand prizes. It made me think because it’s kind of unusual to get this much attention in one specific country. It turns out that my mother’s side of the family comes from Spain. They had to leave their country in the ’50s because my great-grandfather was a communist. During the Franco era, he was arrested, tortured, questioned and asked to give up the names of his communist colleagues. I completely forgot that story until it recently came back to me.

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ScreenPicks: What I found really interesting was the contrast between both men. They’e both minorities, but one faces a level of prejudice that the other doesn’t. And the film really goes into this issue of identity and how much it defines our lives. What would you say was your biggest challenge in writing a story about such a sensitive and personal subject?

Azzazi: When I started writing the story, I wanted to give a glimpse to the audience of what it is to be a suspect constantly. This takes places in the ’90s, but I also wanted to talk about today’s situation with war on terrorist attacks. My point was that this has been going on for decades since the Algerian war. When I was writing, the terrorist side of the story was really a small, tiny thing. In my mind, terrorism was not at all the centre of the drama. Identity was. To me this man had nothing to do with terrorism, and the policeman was just taking it as an excuse to force him and constrain him verbally.

Then I realized that for some readers terrorism was really the main thing, and they wanted to know: Is he a terrorist or not? Are his friends terrorists or not? I was really amazed by that. I understood how the audience project their own fears. I acknowledged that and I used that North African origin policeman to follow a really fragile thread between the two. I was trying not to take sides so that someone who feels for the man asking for citizenship would follow him and someone with different ideas politically could also follow the policeman’s lead. I understood everyone was projecting their own fears and prejudices. To me, the big challenge was to keep in mind both sides of this situation equally and go all the way through.

ScreenPicks: One of your lead actors, Hassam Ghancy, coincidentally also stars in another one of the shortlisted films, The Way of Tea. Although his character is the protagonist, I think audiences are still going to find themselves questioning his honesty throughout the film. And he really pulls off that ambiguity. How did he become involved with the project? And what made him the right actor for this part?

Azzazi: Hassam and I met at the Jack Garfein Studio in Paris. Jack Garfein’s an American acting teacher and we worked on Cormac McCarthy scenes there. So I knew him as a partner, as an actor. He already shot The Way of Tea when I chose him. I didn’t do any casting because I knew him. I had a sense he would be right for this part, and I was writing knowing that he would go along and play in the film. In The Way of Tea, he’s a very confident and dominating character, the opposite of what I wanted in Ennemis intérieurs. So I had to work with him on that because Hassam is naturally strong on screen — he’s an athlete, a former boxer — and he likes to dominate. I wanted his strength to eventually surface, but not right from the start. The other actor, Najib, I met through Hassam. We had a few drinks and parties together. I knew he was a good actor and I had a sense that his personality would match the part as well. So this is how it went.

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ScreenPicks: Even though this is set in the 1990s, the issues it deals with, particularly with xenophobia and Islamaphobia, are so relevant in today’s world. What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing this film?

Azzazi: I hope the audience, through this character driven drama, will think about these issues, not as a story with a moral, but on a deeper level. I’m hoping the audience get a sense of the complex identity that the French have with the former colonies. Many young French people, even if they know it on a theoretical level, don’t fully understand what it implied that France was actually on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea, that Algeria was a part of the French territory. All those people were supposed to be French and they were not in truth. I certainly didn’t want to do a feel-good film condemning xenophobia, you know, where you come out of it feeling self-confident in your opinions. I wanted to have a debate.

ScreenPicks: While this is a French production, the film’s lead is an Arab man. In fact, of the ten films in this category for Best Live Action Short, five of them have Arab lead characters. I was wondering what your thoughts were on the current state of Arab cinema around the world.

Azzazi: I have no idea if there is one. As I said, my film is more about French identity and it concerns Algerians. But Algerians are not necessarily Arabs. Algeria made a choice of going to the Arabic language after the independence, because they were countering the official colonial French language — although certainly many Algerians consider themselves Arabs, they have a more complex identity. My father did not consider himself an Arab but a Berber. They’re a mix of various Berbers with an Arabic culture.

While I don’t talk about that in my film, there is a complexity of identities in the world that we cannot just summarize and say that this is the Arab world and this is the European world. Of course, you point out that with all the wars going on and the Arab revolutions, there is a need to understand what is going on. The shortlist probably reflects that.

It’s good that french actors of North African origin — Morocco, Algeria or Tunisia — get more parts in films. That’s really interesting. It would be great if they could get parts that actually don’t involve their own identity, meaning if you’re of a North African, you have to play an Arab. I think we have to learn to go further than that, myself included, of course.

ScreenPicks: Success comes in different forms, such as financial success, awards recognition or simply creative fulfillment. Not many people can say that they have had the honour of having their directorial debut shortlisted for an Oscar nomination. So you’re in a very rare position. What does this achievement mean to you?

Azzazi: I’m very, very honoured and humbled by the choice of the members of the Academy who had the chance to vote for the first round. I take it as a recognition of the amazing work the actors did after many rehearsals, trying to create these characters. We put a lot of effort in this. You know how it is. Short films are not usually very well financed, and we put a lot of energy into it. It really comes as a huge reward for all that work we did. And, of course, as you said, it doesn’t happen that often. But as you know, I’ve been working as well in postproduction for many years. Even though it’s my first film, I benefitted from the experience of all the directors I had the chance to work with and study. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants.

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All ten live action short finalists are listed below.

Bon Voyage, Marc Wilkins, director, and Joël Jent, producer (Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduction)

Ennemis Intérieurs, Sélim Azzazi, director (Qualia Films)

Graffiti, Lluís Quílez, director (Participant Media, Euphoria Productions and Ainur Films)

La Femme et le TGV, Timo von Gunten, director (arbel gmbh)

Nocturne in Black, Jimmy Keyrouz, director (Columbia University)

The Rifle, the Jackal, the Wolf and the Boy, Oualid Mouaness, director (Tricycle Logic)

Silent Nights, Aske Bang, director, and Kim Magnusson, producer (M & M Productions)

Sing (Mindenki), Kristof Deák, director (Meteor Filmstudio)

Timecode, Juanjo Giménez, director (Nadir Films)

The Way of Tea (Les Frémissements du Thé), Marc Fouchard, director, and Matthieu Devillers, producer (Existenz, BlackBox and P904)

The nominees for the 89th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 14, 2017.

(All photos are courtesy of Qualia Films.)

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