Documentary filmmakers aren’t generally known for directing big screen war thrillers, but French director Stéphane Rybojad is breaking the mold with his first feature film, “Special Forces.”
Rybojad, who is best known for creating hundreds of war documentaries for French television, spent 12 years studying and traveling with special force units in France before deciding to turn their stories into a movie.
His ultimate goal in creating “Special Forces,” which is now available in limited theatrical release and with XFINITY On Demand, was to shed light on France’s decade-long military involvement in the War in Afghanistan, which was launched in 2001 following the September 11 attacks on the United States.
“Special Forces” tells the story of Elsa Casanova (Diane Kruger), a French journalist who is kidnapped by the Taliban. In response, the French government sends in a group of highly trained soldiers (Djimon Hounsou, Benoît Magimel, and Denis Ménochet) to bring her home alive.
I recently caught up Rybojad to discuss the inspiration behind “Special Forces,” working with Diane Kruger, and shooting a movie just steps away from where Bin Laden was captured.
Laura Hibbs: What real-life war events inspired “Special Forces”?
Stéphane Rybojad: Special forces operations are not public knowledge. This story is a mix of several operations, in order to respect the anonymity of the people involved.
Hibbs: What message about war did you want “Special Forces” to send?
Rybojad: The French were at war with Afghanistan for 12 years. The French public, and the media especially, ignored the matter. Many soldiers came back in caskets. Soldiers don’t do politics. They fight.
Hibbs: Why was it important for you to make a movie that focuses on French presence in Afghanistan?
Rybojad: During those 12 years, I was very sad to see French soldiers die in Afghanistan in ignorance. There is a tremendous gap between our responsibility as citizens of a democracy and our lack of acknowledgement and thankfulness for these men. “Special Forces” is the first French movie in 40 years to address a contemporary French war. And the fact that I was accused of doing propaganda leads me to wonder whether our freedom to address these matters is as real as yours.
Hibbs: Scenic shots of Pakistan and Afghanistan are frequent in the film. What role did the landscapes of these countries play in “Special Forces”?
Rybojad: We shot on over three continents, from 122 degrees in the desert to minus 82 degrees in a full snow storm. After a three-month shoot in these conditions, both man and material had suffered a lot. The goal was that our adventure showed itself on the screen.
Hibbs: The Pakistani tribal areas specifically played a large role in the film. How did you make these scenes appear realistic?
Rybojad: We shot about 150 kilometers from where Bin Laden was captured. We only shot on location. We did not cheat. We shot in real villages with the real local populations. All the costumes were bought in Kabul out of care for realism and authenticity.
Hibbs: Elsa Casanova is one of the few female characters in the film. How did Diane Kruger fare against a mostly male cast?
Rybojad: Diane Kruger is a tough guy. She’s never cold, never tired, never complaining. And the shooting conditions were as extreme as can be. Like all the other tough guys, she never used a stand-in. When you see her shiver in the snow storm, she’s not pretending. It was really cold. In another life she would have made a great international reporter.
Hibbs: Why did you choose to tell story from Casanova’s point of view, as well as the special forces unit?
Rybojad: International reporter and soldier are two jobs I know really well. They are very similar in terms of risk taking and they meet on the same war grounds. I wanted the audience to feel as though they were brought in the reality of the action.
Hibbs: Brotherhood and camaraderie among the special forces unit plays a huge role in the movie. Did the cast of the film have the same type of connection?
Rybojad: Yes, absolutely. Three months before shooting, they had eight days of training in the special forces. They had extreme conditions day and night, becoming intimate quite fast. After eight days, they could recognize one another by smell. Today, they still form a group with strong ties. After everything they have been through, they will always have a very strong bond, beyond the world of movies.
Hibbs: Several comedic moments between the guys in the unit break up serious war scenes in the movie. Can you explain your decision to include these?
Rybojad: These guys can crack a joke literally in the middle of a fight. Humor is a resource. It is a great means to decompress and take the drama out of certain situations.
Hibbs: Do you believe that the real men and women of France’s special forces brigade would find the movie realistic?
Rybojad: In the absolute. Special forces’ goal is to be as silent, discreet and effective as possible without using a single bullet. They are not fight seekers, they are mission achievers. I believe they would find it a success. Sacrifice is a part of their job, just like firemen when they go rescue someone. They’ll do anything… even if it should cost them their life.
Hibbs: There are a lot of war movies out there. Why should audiences choose this one?
Rybojad: The journey we embarked on is reflected on the screen. It was extreme and intense, and this amazing cast met the challenge with strength and grace. We made the movie in a spirit of sincerity and authenticity. It will leave you with an eagerness to live.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.