I'm sitting in Beth Barrett's office at the SIFF Film Center in Seattle Center. The office has an ordinary desk, a few casual chairs, and a wide window with a view of the popular International Fountain, whose jets of water dance to the sound of music. Because it is one of the hottest days of the year, the fountain is packed with people. Because the windows are open to keep the room cool, the voices of children in the bowl of the fountain can be heard. I'm in the office to talk with its occupant, Beth Barrett, SIFF's director of programming, about what I rate as one of the city's best festivals, French Cinema Now.
Barrett selects the films for this event, which is in its fifth year and runs from September 29 through October 6. She does this job with the view that the festival's content should not be so touristic (though there is some of that—it's hard to avoid), but more importantly, should provide the audience in Seattle and other cities it visits with a sense of the current spiritual, cultural, intellectual, and political state of the francophone world. And though the festival involves 20 or so films, there has generally been one movie around which all of the others orbit. Sometimes, this core movie is well known and has made a big splash at an elite festival, such as 2014's Two Days, One Night, which is directed by the famous Dardenne brothers and stars the great Marion Cotillard as an ordinary mother struggling to survive in the age of German-imposed austerity. (Cotillard was nominated for an Oscar for this performance.) Other times, it is not a flashy film, but an obscure one, like Mahamat Saleh Haroun's Grigris, which screened in 2013 and concerns a Chadian handicapped man who can dance with like Michael Jackson with his "broken legs."
This year's central film will certainly be Made in France. Why? Because it is about something that is very much on the minds of many French speakers: acts of terrorism planned and committed by Islamic fundamentalists. "The film was actually completed two years ago," explains Barrett, "but just as they were about to release it, the Charlie Hebdo shooting happened, and so the release was postponed because a distributor pulled out... Another distributor got the film, but when it tried to release it late last year, the Paris attack in November  happened. And again it was decided to postpone the film." Eventually, it was released on a video-on-demand platform.
Made in France is about a man, Hassan (Dimitri Storoge), who returns from Pakistan, where he has been trained by Al Qaeda, connects with a dingy mosque led by an imam who is super-critical of Western values (the utter horribleness of women's rights, the dangers of easy access to pornography, the spiritual waste that is consumerism, and so on), and assembles a cell of four young men who are impressed by his adventures in the distant country and are ready for jihad—holy war with the evil West. Once Hassan is certain that the men understand what they are getting into, he tells them the rule of taqiya must be implemented. What this rule entails is the removal of all visible signs and also habits of Islamic fundamentalism. They must become and act like their enemies, Westerners. Beards must be shaved, booze must be consumed, and visits to the mosques must stop. This is taqiya—the art of pretending. And it is this pretending that makes the members of a cell very dangerous. They become invisible except to each other.
Though the film at first appears to be a realistic (even procedural) account of how the cell comes together, receives orders, and plans an act of terror, it gradually loses its authentic feel and becomes more and more abstract, with each actor finally representing not a living and breathing person but a theoretical position in a discourse about Islam as a whole. What exactly is this religion? What is it its followers believe? Why would they want to kill innocent people to get their point across? Is that a part of their belief?
By the second half of the film, these questions fill the foreground. The background is composed of the terrorist plot (getting weapons, preparing bombs, determining a target) and the police officers and government agents trying to foil this plot (video surveillance, gathering intelligence from the mosques, planting informers in cells). As for the colonial history of France's violent oppression of Muslims in Algeria and Tunisia, this is barely mentioned. What the director wants us to see instead are the main parts of a discourse on the substance, the meaning, the composition of Islam. The film ends with an important revelation.
Where is France now? A few days after I visited Barret's office, it was announced on the news that a top court in France overturned a decree by the mayor of Cannes that banned the burkini on beaches. Despite all of the Islamic-related terrorist attacks—the most recent of which involved a truck plowing down people on a Nice street—the ban did violate basic freedoms. You have a right to sing the blues, to watch porn, and to wear a burkini on a beach. This is what it means to be French.