Last week I saw the Oscar-nominated Live Action Shorts, five films ranging from 15 to 30 minutes long, from Hungary, Denmark, Spain, France, and Switzerland. They were all very good, and here is the one I thought was the best.
WARNING: I hope I don't reveal any SPOILERS, but if you're concerned about that, read no further.
What I think is the best film is not likely to win, because it isn't a safe choice. The French film, "Internal Enemies," consists almost entirely of two characters: a 56-year-old man seeking citizenship, and a French official interrogating him over his application. Everything the applicant says is heard by the official as suspicious, and you, as the viewer, can see how even the most innocent answer can sound suspicious to someone whose job is to distrust everyone he questions.
The applicant was brought from Algeria in 1959, when he was 5, by his father. The official says, "You were born in Algeria?" The applicant says, "No." The official looks surprised; this is clearly the wrong answer. The applicant explains: "It was France when I was born. It did not become Algeria until after I left." The official is not satisfied. "Why did your father choose Algerian citizenship?" The applicant shrugs and tries to establish commonality with the official. "I never asked him. Did you ask your father why he did anything?" The official refuses to acknowledge any connection between himself and the applicant, and moves on to the next question.
Eventually, the official zeroes in on what really concerns him: the names of anyone the applicant met at "meetings" he attended. The official calls "meetings" any gathering that the applicant was part of. The applicant thinks a meeting is something formal, called for a purpose, and he was just sitting down with a group of men from the mosque to talk, be sociable, eat pastries and drink tea. Why shouldn't he say the names of these men? Because years ago, someone giving the police some names caused the applicant a huge amount of trouble, and he doesn't want to cause anyone else such trouble.
Watching the interrogation is excruciating. I felt most empathy for the applicant and had to force myself to get inside the official, whose facial expression and questions display so much arrogance and certainty that he is right, and by extension that the applicant is wrong. It's possible that the official's attitude is simply part of a technique, put on for his job and not representing his true person. The official's job is to protect France and the French people. The applicant believes himself part of "the French people" already, and wants to make that official, for his own safety. But the official's job is to force the applicant to prove that he has a right to become part of "the French people," and how is that to be done? I also felt that if the applicant was not already hostile to France, the official's treatment could well make him hostile. Does the official ever think of that, and does he care?
And what if someone at those gatherings the applicant went to was a recruiter for violent jihad? Could that be why he stopped going? Or was it something more subtle that made the applicant uneasy after a period of time, but nothing so clear-cut that he feels he can safely tell the official, "yes, this man could be dangerous"?
Throughout the film I kept thinking of Trump's executive order on immigration and how U.S. customs officials treat immigrants and refugees seeking visas or arriving in the United States. Visa applicants to the U.S. already go through a lengthy vetting process. Does Trump's "extreme vetting" envision something like the interrogation in this film? Of course, we want to be safe; we don't want men like those who flew the planes into the World Trade Center coming here. But do we gain safety by assuming that every Muslim -- men, women, children -- is a violent jihadi unless they can prove they aren't? Is this a test anyone can ever pass?