French Action Drama ’15 Minutes of War’ Hooks Audience but Leaves Moral Dilemmas Behind

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Fred Grivois’ 15 Minutes of War is set in Djibouti, 1976 – the last French colony. Based on true events, 15 Minutes tells the story of a hijacked school bus, the French government’s response and the determined American teacher on board (Olga Kurlenko).

The action begins immediately. We have no time to fear for the children’s safety when they set off to school as the bus is hijacked within minutes of the film’s start. The tension then is not from the potentiality of kidnap, but rather the fallout from its happening. The hijackers make it to the Somalian border (hoping to cross over and away from French occupation) however they find the border is closed by the French Legion. It is this creation of a standoff where the majority of the film takes place.

Early on, we are introduced to the French Special Unit who are flown over immediately to deal with the crisis. These forgettable but enjoyable characters are who we place our hope in. They exchange the kind of ‘witty’ banter that boils down to calling each other out for their more effeminate qualities such as having a hairdryer amongst their possessions. Like I said, very witty. On the other hand, perhaps this is an unfair judgement because in spite of this they are a familiar set of stock characters that audiences won’t mind spending an hour and a half with. Their leader is Andre Gerval (Alban Lenoir). He quietly but aggressively ensures they make it to Djibouti. Simultaneously, Jane Andersen, the children’s teacher, inexplicably makes it onto the bus in order to protect her students. Andersen appears immune to the danger of the situation and her would-be murderers consider her as a neutral due to her American nationality.

The continuous back and forth between these two camps heightens the tension with no easy resolution in sight. The waiting, anticipating, negotiating, and contemplating lead towards the inevitable climactic shoot out; violence was always going to play an important role, yet it isn’t without emotion. Death is felt.

I don’t think it would be entirely unfair to compare 15 Minutes to other action films such as Taken. Whilst the latter is somewhat more sensational based in its grounding in fiction, 15 Minutes also creates high stakes against an almost anonymous villain where characters need little development in order to showcase the more violent scenes. This is intended as a positive comparison. We are able to act out our own anxieties by witnessing an undoubtedly traumatic event retold in the guise of an action-packed drama. The problem here is that 15 Minutes positions itself as based on true events. It is not a detachment from society but rather it should have acted as a comment on it.

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At just over 90 minutes, the film maintains tension and high stakes throughout. However, I can’t help but feel it’s out of sync with modern cinema. It’s period setting could have brought to the forefront debates on colonialism, remnants of Empire and indeed even modern day terrorism. The potential ambiguity between the “goodies” and “baddies” is barely touched upon. Indeed, more attention is paid to comedy (quite successfully) than morality.

There are moments where the crisis of identity is touched upon more than the immediate crisis of the hijacking. A very short but scene-stealing performance by Josiana Bolasko, who plays Gerval’s superior, indicates the fragility of nationalism. She reminds Gerval that they exist in a dichotomy of ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ Bolasko’s parting words to Gerval before he embarks on his mission are “the Republic is us.” This gesture towards nuance is left in this scene alone.

I wish we could understand the more in-depth motivations of hijackers. Whilst subtlety is an important facet of filmmaking, this is a moment in recent history that is largely ignored by the so-called West. Colonialism is often thought of as a 19th-century ideology that was broken apart by the First World War. However, imperialism has endured far longer than that. Indeed, Djibouti only achieved independence a year after this film was set. Director, Grivois, had an opportunity to address this to a wider audience. Yet, the tone of the film can’t help but suggest a “white saviour” approach to proceedings.

Whilst not questioning its context enough, 15 Minutes is not an unenjoyable film – it’s simply just an action film to be taken at face value despite its setting.

15 Minutes of War is out on DVD and Digital on June 17th

 

by Catherine McNaughton

Catherine McNaughton is currently studying at the University of Manchester. Inspired by feminism and Debbie Harry. Her favourite films include AmelieBefore Sunset and Moonlight. You can find her on twitter: @__CatherineMac

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