an unusual job in unusual circumstances is what Special Forces is all about.
FRENCH filmmaker Stéphane Rybojad was directing a documentary about the Special Forces of the French army back in 2005. This not only gave him access to some of the most interesting material, but in the course of researching for the documentary, he became interested in studying the young people who volunteer to be part of the Special Forces and are forced to keep their lives a secret even from their families and closest friends. On top of that, those who make the tough rounds must continue to hone their skills for 10 years before they are considered mature enough to go on the country’s most high-risk and sensitive operations.
Since Rybojad has always been interested in making films, he started working on a screenplay about a Special Forces unit sent to free a journalist taken hostage in Afghanistan.
In an interview transcript provided by the film distributor, Rainfilm, the idea of a journalist taken prisoner is something that happens in real life and only too often.
He said: “That’s a sad truth. It’s a profession I know well. We have a news division in our production company. We send journalists to the four corners of the world, including theatres of war like Afghanistan, and there’s always a moment when you’re worried about them. They’re friends, we know their wives, we know their kids, it’s hard to remain calm. And you’re always happy when the guys come home.
“I realised one day that the anxiety of having journalists in difficult places was the same as that of the families of soldiers who also get sent to difficult spots. What’s more, journalists and soldiers are obliged to be smart and work together on the ground. They need each other, despite the fact that their missions are very different.
“These are two worlds that I know very well. So all of that made me want to make this movie. The main job of Special Forces isn’t of course going to rescue hostages or prisoners, but they have the best experience, the best knowledge, the best preparation to do it. They have both the skills and the means. I came up with the pitch very quickly.
“At the same time, this story is as old as the hills, or in any case as old as literature. It is the six valiant knights who are going to save the princess who’s been captured by the Black Prince and who, to succeed in their mission, must cross the evil forest in peril of their lives. Except that I transcribed it to a contemporary context and the evil forest has become the Himalayas. It’s The Searchers, The Magnificent Seven. It’s a tale of a tough challenge – a lost cause, even – that comes down to a simple concept: sacrifice. As with the knights of old, sacrifice is those guys’ job.”
Playing the journalist is none other than German actress Diane Kruger who was immediately attracted to the subject matter and the adventure the shoot would entail. She said: “I was also drawn by the character of this dedicated journalist. I did a lot of research and I met many of these exceptional women. I was impressed by their commitment, especially in countries like Afghanistan. They are constantly obliged to negotiate. They are both fearless and vulnerable. It may be pretty tough for them but they’re always ready to go back into the fray.”
Her character Elsa arrives in Afghanistan determined to do her job, hoping that she would help in liberating Afghan women. But she soon realises that things are not as easy as that in the real world. Things get especially harsh when she comes right in the middle of a crossfire.
To ensure the audience is not cheated out of the harshness of a war-torn landscape, Rybojad travelled with his cast and crew to Tajikistan, a country bordering Afghanistan and resembling its neighbour (instead of the safer option of Morocco).
The director knew that by getting as close to the landscape as possible, it would change the mindset of those working on the project and they can be totally immersed with the story. He explained: “I also knew that it would pay off in terms of the images. I wanted to make something spectacular.
“Well before the filming, I went to shoot some footage in Kabul and I spent five or six days there for initial location scouting. I wanted to see if it was possible to take 65 French people there, including actors. When I came back, deep down I was convinced it would be OK. I knew it was going to be complicated on a day-to-day basis, but that it was really going to be worth it because each little peak you go over is magnificent, each face you see in the street could only exist there. We filmed for five weeks in Tajikistan, then we went for three weeks to Djibouti (desert) to film the start of the adventure and the end, when we’re in the low valley, and we finished with a week on Mont Blanc for the high mountain scenes.”
Besides the story and the location, another thing that came together for Rybojad was the cast making up the Special Forces unit. He needed actors who are able to endure the physical aspect of the shoot. You know things like “travel 20 hours non-stop in a 4x4, to sleep in yurts, to eat whatever was available, to climb to 4,000m in altitude”.
Luckily for Rybojad, he knew an army guy to toughen up the actors and some of the actors were already tough like Alain Figlarz is a stunt specialist; Denis Ménochet (of Inglourious Basterds) has the physique of a rugby player and Raphaël Personnaz, the newbie with the energy. Also they went on a week-long commando course for Marines, and where the real Special Forces trains as well.
“For their part, the actors felt as if they were arriving on another planet. But soon they were all getting along. Right away they got into the spirit of the thing, they understood the mechanisms of solidarity and teamwork. They were very curious and attentive, and soaked it all up like sponges. The Special Forces was surprised by their capacity to absorb things, and the ease with which they could reproduce their behaviour. The more the actors soaked it up, the higher the Special Forces set the bar. Until, on the fifth day, I gave them the green light to raise it even further.
“One night, 20 guys in helmets and hoods showed up by surprise where the actors were staying. They caught them, dragged them to the ground, tied their hands behind their backs and threw flash and stun grenades. It was a hell of a shock. It was just a way of saying to them: ‘They’re nice guys, but don’t forget they do a rather unusual job in rather unusual circumstances.’” – Mumtaj Begum Special Forces invades cinemas on Thursday.
Brink of danger: diane Kruger plays journalist elsa who is kidnapped by the Taliban in the movie