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The heroic women who fought alongside the men in the French Resistance during World War II risked as much if not more than the men – but were quickly overlooked, until now, as filmmaker Jean-Paul Salomé tells one of their stories in Female Agents and here explains why he did it.

Q: Your starting point was one woman's true story, but you chose to recount the adventures of a fictional group of women. Why?
A: Filming the portrait of a single woman with supporting roles gravitating around her didn't interest me because, beyond dealing with women's heroism, I wanted to show the mutual support between women that existed in this violent context. A group of characters enabled me to show different facets of the war, different reactions to a single situation. That's why Laurent Vachaud, my co-writer, and I created a group of women. But there was an inherent risk since this is an action movie in which the story has to keep moving along. I often wondered if the pace of the action would allow us to develop strong relationships between all the characters. I think we succeeded thanks to the actresses and their strong personalities. They were able to bring their characters to life within the group.

Q:There have been a lot of films set in the Second World War. What were you aiming for?
A: My main idea was to structure it as a thriller, during the Occupation, with women as the main characters. I wanted their personalities to emerge in action. Moreover, the genre allowed me to develop more ambiguous characters, on the German side as well as on the Resistance side. Nothing is ever black and white in life. Nobody was a Resistance fighter every second of every day, nor a Nazi and torturer from morning till night. There were always moments when these characters had different lives. Today, movies can show the depth of these characters because time has moved on, but this was a period when that ambiguity reached a highpoint. Also, I really wanted to pay tribute to the women of the Resistance because those who were lucky enough to survive didn't have easy lives after the Liberation. A lot of them found it hard to find their place in society because, in men's eyes, they were strange women, who were clearly very independent and adventurous. People wondered just how far they had gone. Their heroism didn't help them in later life.

Q: What was your approach to historical veracity?
A: During the writing of the script and preparation of the film, we worked under the keen eye of historian Olivier Wieviorka. That was important because I believe that we have a duty to the memory of those who took a stand during the war. Of course, this is a movie, entertainment, but we didn't want to play fast and loose with history. I tried to be very scrupulous about what really happened or what might have happened.

Q: What's your view of films that have dealt with this period?
A: While writing and preparing, you feed off cinematic references. World War II is a very fertile period for filmmakers. I saw a lot of movies from the period and realized that the ones that stood the test of time were those in which great attention was paid to the costumes, sets and, above all, hairstyles. It got to the point where hairstyles became a full-on obsession for me during the shoot.

Q: Why did you choose to shoot on location rather than in a studio?

A: We didn't want to go and shoot the movie in Romania or Hungary. We had a duty to the truth and the audience's pleasure in trying to recreate the Paris of that period. When Spielberg reconstitutes 1970s Paris in Budapest for Munich, nobody really notices, but we French do. I think people forgive Spielberg, but they wouldn't forgive me. Eric Névé, my producer, and I chose to find the original locations. We needed to rearrange them, but the prisons or cellars that Resistance fighters used are imbued with an emotion that is difficult to recreate in studio. There were times, of course, when it wasn't possible because some people didn't want us filming in their houses or businesses, because the scars hadn't yet healed perhaps, or because they didn't want their establishment to be associated with what happened back then.

Q: Has this film changed your outlook on the war?
A: Young people displayed an extraordinary sense of sacrifice, duty and bravery. While we were shooting certain scenes, such as the torture scenes, I was overwhelmed, thinking of the courage they must have had to keep on fighting in those circumstances. This was a moment in history when people truly had to come face to face with what they believed in.

Q: Did it seem more powerful to show these notions of sacrifice and courage using female characters?

A: We step up a level when it is women who put themselves at physical risk, for the future. With the torture they were subjected to, their ability to bear children was seriously compromised. Their identity as women and their most intimate feelings were targeted. That, to me, was a very powerful part of this story. It changes the way we see each of their actions. The emotional dimension is greater.

Published August 7, 2008

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Jean-Paul Salomé


Notes on female agents in WW II by historian Olivier Wieviorka:

In 1944, there were two main Resistance structures: the BCRA and the SOE. The BCRA (Central Intelligence and Action Bureau) was a French structure run by Captain André Dewavrin, better known as Colonel Passy, who set up and ran a certain number of networks in France, working essentially for General De Gaulle. At that time, De Gaulle had nothing to contribute to the Allied war effort - no navy, no army, no airforce - so he decided to supply intelligence.

De Gaulle and Passy made great efforts to take control of the whole intelligence operation, which included rescue routes for escaped prisoners, espionage and sabotage. The British government, however, refused to give General de Gaulle exclusive control over French intelligence. They founded their own structure, the SOE (Special Operations Executive). This organization, which features greatly in the film, was created to "set Europe ablaze", in Churchill's words, particularly by sending saboteurs on very special missions. Operations in France were directed by two sections within the SOE, one which worked with the BCRA (and is featured in the film) and the other which didn't.

When the war was over, General de Gaulle accorded little importance to the role women played. Out of more than one thousand Liberation Crosses that were awarded, only six went to women. It is this slightly macho view of the Resistance that excluded women. With his film, Jean-Paul Salomé restores them to their rightful place.

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