Ennemis Intérieurs (which means “internal enemies” in French) is a short film of about a half hour. It takes place entirely in an office, or interrogation room, in a French police station.
A man is at the station in connection with his application for French citizenship. Evidently there is some requirement that applicants be interviewed by the police, who then give a recommendation as to whether the application should be accepted, with a negative recommendation pretty much guaranteeing one’s application will be denied.
Early on the questioning by the police officer is businesslike and no-nonsense, but not hostile, and the applicant is unfailingly polite and eager to provide the “right” answers. The applicant is an Arab, born in Algeria, who has lived almost all his life in France, though as he points out, Algeria was a French possession when he was born, so in that sense he has actually lived not most but all of his life in France.
Why he is seeking French citizenship after all these years is not specified (beyond abstract reasons like that he loves France and such).
Over time the interview becomes increasingly antagonistic. The police officer pushes and probes and cajoles the applicant into admitting various “suspicious” facts, including that his father sympathized with Algeria over France in the bitter Algerian war for independence, that he (the applicant) attended a mosque for a time, and that he met several times with various other people from the mosque at one of their apartments.
The police officer especially wants to know the details about these meetings. The applicant, looking increasingly uncomfortable, tries to deflect the questions, insisting there were very few meetings, they were very informal, they were just innocuous discussions, he doesn’t remember the details, he doesn’t remember—if he ever even knew—the other attendees’ names or anything else about them, etc.
The interrogator is having none of this. He wants the names, and he’ll use whatever carrots and sticks he has at his disposal to get them. Presumably this citizenship means a great deal to the applicant—is he perhaps at some risk of being booted from the country if he remains a non-citizen?—but if granting or denying that is not enough to get him to talk, the interrogator makes clear that they are not above coming after his family.
There is such an intensity to this film, such tension in that room, that I’d say it was my favorite of the five 2016 short films nominated for the Academy Award, though multiple of them I liked very much.
The applicant, we learn, had already been imprisoned earlier in his life for a year for some minor crime for which he would have done little or no time if he had agreed to rat on others. So he’s not going to be easy to crack. But evidently the cops will up the stakes however they need to until they reach his breaking point and they get what they want from him.
Think about that. These are people who will do such things as kidnap and confine a person in a tiny space for a year, threaten his family, and more, in order to achieve their ends. They will use fear, intimidation, and brute force to make you bend to their will. Who does that sound like? The Mafia? The secret police in a totalitarian state? Terrorists? Because that’s the sort of folks we’re talking about, that’s the level upon which conventional law enforcement sometimes operates.
Many people would object that to equate the police in a western democracy to evil entities like these is grossly unfair, because the tactics the police use are for hugely different ends, and there’s a big difference between playing hardball to “keep us safe,” and doing so for the nefarious reasons that criminal gangs, the KGB, al Qaeda, etc. do.
Maybe. But it seems to me this is one of those cases where people routinely insist “the end doesn’t justify the means” when it comes to the misdeeds of those they oppose, but refrain from applying that same rule to those they sympathize with.
That is, I think the overwhelming majority of people who—rightly—condemn the Iranians taking the Americans in their embassy hostage in 1979; Iron Curtain governments using show trials, torture, and ubiquitous informants; terrorists flying planes into the Twin Towers; etc. don’t first seek to understand the ends these people were pursuing and then judge their behavior in light of those ends. I mean, if they did, they may well still condemn it, but I think they typically don’t bother, because such behavior in and of itself, regardless of its purpose, is so horrific.
I tend to react the same way to things like the cop behavior depicted in this film. Yes, the ends being sought are relevant, but I’m so appalled and overwhelmed by the behavior itself—the willingness to destroy a man’s life and potentially the lives of members of his family in order to get what you want from him—that I typically don’t give much weight to the ends in deciding whether to condemn their behavior.
But I certainly understand why many people would disagree. There is, after all, some nonzero chance that these “meetings” really are sinister, and that learning more about them and the attendees might prevent a terrorist attack. Given that, many would contend, if this guy—who may or may not be as innocent as he purports—has to be sacrificed, then so be it: squeeze him and find out what you can find out.
I just don’t ever want to be the kind of person who looks at the world that way.
Ennemis Intérieurs is a powerful, grim, thought-provoking, excellent film.