Far from home
Writers Thibault Valetoux and Frédéric Krivine join director Jean-Philippe Amar to tell DQ about seven-part drama Sentinelles (Soldiers), a series tackling moral and political themes among a group of young French soldiers in Mali.
For almost a decade, French troops have been on the ground in the West African nation of Mali, where they have been battling against Islamic militants. But as the threat level has increased and the military intervention has become more unpopular in both Mali and France, French president Emmanuel Macron last month announced that soldiers deployed as part of Opération Barkhane will be withdrawn over the next six months.
These real-world events have somewhat overtaken the launch of seven-part French drama Sentinelles (Soldiers), which focuses on a group of officers serving in Mali. But instead of overshadowing their series, co-creators Thibault Valetoux and Frédéric Krivine believe news of the troop withdrawal will only make Sentinelles more relevant when it launches locally on OCS on April 5.
Set in the Mopti region of Mali, the series centres on the 22nd Infantry led by Lieutenant Anaïs Collet, which is dedicated to tracking down terrorists. Against the backdrop of a deadly ambush that rekindles tensions between the military and the Malian population, it follows these young soldiers living and working together far from home and explores their commitment to their mission and each other.
The series is based on an original idea by Valetoux (Paris Police 1900). It was the theme of commitment that proved to be the starting point, with the writer looking for a way to create a story that would resonate with young French viewers.
“The army seemed to be a good place to explore those kinds of questions,” he says. “With Frédéric, we decided to make it around the war in Mali. That gave it higher stakes and it was a way to speak about some real-life issues. That was really important for us because the shows we like try to say something about the world we live in. It was really important to try to stay as close to possible to what takes place in Mali, but the most important thing for us was always the characters.”
Krivine was asked to join the team – “Thibault was the team” – to lend his experience to the project and to help write the seven-part series in quick time. Sentinelles is produced by Tetra Media and Orange Studio, with Jean-Baptiste Vandroy also on the writing team.
“This was before Covid, so we didn’t know there would be 18 months of delays,” Krivine says. “We should have been on air one year ago. It was a matter of experience. Thibault is very gifted and talented, but it was his first show [he created]. I’m used to working with [producer] Emmanuel Daucé because we did Un Village Français together, among other things.
“I was very interested in the political aspect, the post-colonialism of French politics and the conflict between goodwill – trying to do some good – and the impossibility of achieving that. We love drama about impossible loves or impossible tasks. The most interesting thing is to show how these soldiers and officers can’t succeed and how they can’t do any good.”
Building the world of the series, Valetoux uncovered a soldiers’ code of conduct that stipulated they must not openly discuss matters concerning philosophy or religion. Naturally, he then created a group of characters who share different opinions on those subjects and are forced to work together in a hostile environment.
“We say, ‘We know you come from different backgrounds, we know you don’t agree with each other, but you have to forget about what makes you different to become a group,’” he says. “It was good fuel for our drama. They can’t speak up themselves and it creates conflict – and we love conflict.”
Through the series, the story closely follows a trio of main characters – Anaïs Collet (played by Pauline Parigot), Julien Ravalet (Louis Peres) and Martial Mendy (Birane Ba) – but these are no superheroes or super soldiers. Instead, each faces their own challenges within the army: Julien lives in the shadow of his father, a brilliant general; Martial is dealing with conflict between his religion and his nationality; and Anaïs is a woman fighting in a man’s world. Each of those struggles will be explored more deeply through the story.
Director Jean-Philippe Amar was similarly attracted to the idea of a series about young people set against the backdrop of war. “They come from far from Mali, they don’t know anything about Mali, so what was really interesting was to confront these young people with the conflict between the political aspects of the mission and what they see in the field,” he says. “They always say that they have success and kill terrorists, but when they’re in the field, they see the problems remain. You can kill 10 terrorists; the problem is still there.”
Having previously worked together on Un Village Français, Krivine and Amar brought the same working relationship to this project. Amar would offer notes on the script and highlight what he liked, didn’t like and didn’t understand.
“My policy is, if the director doesn’t understand a sequence, you try to argue it. And if he still doesn’t understand, he will be the guy in the field with the actors, so you have to do something one way or another,” Krivine explains. “Jean-Philippe is used to this, so it was no problem at all before the production. The production was quite tough in Morocco, so sometimes he had to make changes to the text where it was not possible to do something else.”
“As a viewer, one of the most important things in a TV show is the actors and their performances, and Jean-Philippe is an amazing actor’s director,” says Valetoux. “I love what he gets from actors, and that was perfect for the show because we wanted it to be about the characters. It’s not so much an action show. Of course, it’s a war show, but it’s focused on the characters. I know Jean-Philippe can shoot some really tense sequences with not a huge amount of money – the high stakes are with the characters – so it was a really good fit.”
Youth series are more commonly set in high school corridors or university campuses than war zones. But following the old adage of ‘write what you know,’ Valetoux used his own fear of commitment to write a show about people his own age who have made one of the biggest commitments someone can make.
“I wanted to explore that theme,” he says. “Something has changed with military institutions where there are more and more short-term contracts, so that’s something important, as the idea of what it means to be in the military evolves. We know a lot of young people who spend three, four or five years in the army and then become something else. I thought it would be a good lens to explore the youth through the army.”
Military experts and advisors were key contributors to the series, though the writers always sought ways to stop the uniforms overshadowing the character development. “We have to be as authentic as possible, so we had a military advisor during the writing process and then Jean-Philippe had another one who helped him more in the way the characters have to move and take orders,” Valetoux says.
Amar adds: “Like in a cop show, even when you want to be realistic like in NYPD Blue or that kind of show, you have to find the balance. It’s a tricky aspect of the job because if it’s too unrealistic, you can see it; but if it’s too realistic, it’s boring.”
Political advisors also supported the writers in their exploration of the motives behind the real conflict in Mali to ensure the characters could air their own views. At one stage, Anaïs openly questions why the military is there at all.
“It was quite a long job. We watched a lot of documentaries, most of them from the army, to see missions and what soldiers really do. Then we interviewed several people to understand what they do there,” Krivine notes.
“The French army leaving Mali [in real-life] was excellent marketing for the show because we are completely connected to what is happening there. This show is a war show done in a time of peace, until three weeks ago [following the invasion of Ukraine]. Now it’s interesting to have a military show. This first season, at least, is about what you do when you can’t do what you want to do. The Mali departure was very relevant for us. Maybe if there’s a second season, we will look at the return of the Cold War, which is what we are living in now.”
After several delays owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, the production spent three weeks filming in France before completing an eight-week schedule in Morocco. “The heat was a nightmare – the postponements meant the team had to shoot in the hottest months,” says Amar. “We were supposed to shoot in spring and we had to shoot in the summer. Many sandstorms forced the shoot to stop for several hours, but these conditions had a good impact in terms of the artistic point of view. Some sandstorms were very useful visually. You can’t recreate that unless you are from Hollywood.”
Distributed by Federation Entertainment, Sentinelles enjoyed its world premiere at French television festival Series Mania on Monday. Krivine jokes that “it’s a very good show, which isn’t always the case for shows you work on,” and says it stands out because of its army setting, which rarely features in French drama.
“French shows, thanks to Engrenages [gritty cop show Spiral] and Un Village Français, have gone worldwide and we have a chance to make an impact with this show,” he says. “Besides this, this one is about a war I don’t think people know about. But we have enough universal topics and relatable characters to explore it very well. It’s easy to identify with these people. You don’t need to know anything about Mali to understand it and to be involved because you are suddenly in a hostile place in which you are supposed to do good and you can’t. It’s a way of talking about life in general.”