The "Acknowledgements" section of the credits for "Cœurs noirs" sets the tone: Armed Forces Staff, Special Operations Command, 13e While the French army did not finance or control the production of this series directed by Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri ("L'Insulte", "Baron noir"), it did support its creators (via the Ministry of Defence's Mission Cinéma et Industries Créatives - MCIC) when they sought its expertise, with a view to rendering the film as realistically as possible.
Broadcast a year ago on Amazon Prime, "Cœurs noirs" has just arrived on France 2, with excellent ratings in both cases. Critics are highlighting the quality of the production and the 'mainstream' appeal of a series tackling a subject never before explored in France, since special forces are known for their discretion. Purists will have their doubts about some of the details: you can't call a female officer "my" commander (the "my" in rank addresses is an ellipsis of "sir"); a warrant officer will never override an order from his colonel, and so on.
But for the general public, the immersion effect is there: they are plunged into the day-to-day life of a unit tracking down French-speaking terrorists in Iraq, at the time of the Mosul offensive at the end of 2016. A former chief sergeant in the special forces, Rédouane Louaazizi carried out missions comparable to those of the character played by Nicolas Duvauchelle in the series. He became a consultant on the filming, and here he untangles fact from fiction.
WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND IN THE SPECIAL FORCES? WHAT WAS YOUR CONTRIBUTION TO THIS SERIES?
I served in the army from 1998 to 2019, including sixteen years in the special forces, at 13e Régiment de dragons parachutistes, in the 'mountain and extreme cold' squadron. It all started in 2003 with an initial 14-month training course. At the start there were 45 of us, but by the end there were only 5, as the other candidates were transferred to 'conventional' regiments. We were given a huge number of exercises to test our hardiness, our physical condition, our confidence and the quality of our rendition. Because after 2 or 3 days without sleeping with 60 or 70 kilos on your back, whatever the weather conditions, you have to be able to return everything without any procedural errors.
The first day is devoted to intellectual and physical preparation: we study infiltration, the terrain and procedure. Then we arrive at the "back of the plane", as we say in our jargon; and in the early evening, we're dropped into the "enemy zone" for 5 or 6 days, in weather conditions that aren't always very clement. These are our first 24 or 36 hours without sleep. In addition to the mission objectives, you have to pay close attention to your clothing, your computer and transmission equipment, and your diet. You don't wash, you're on the ground in a puddle, in the snow... you learn to ignore all that.
"THE GREATEST QUALITY OF A SPECIAL FORCES SOLDIER: ADAPTABILITY".
The greatest quality of a special forces soldier is adaptability. The mindset of these forces is based on trust: trust in oneself, in one's team-mates and in one's superiors. In total, I've carried out around fifteen missions abroad, particularly in airborne search and human intelligence. For my last mission, in 2017, I was unit warrant officer, in charge of preparing my colleagues' missions: logistics, planning, security, etc.
Shortly before I left the army in November 2019, I was contacted by Gilles de Verdière, the producer of 'Cœurs noirs'. I started working as a technical adviser on the direction, writing and directing. I re-read the whole script and suggested a few changes so as not to undermine the military institution and the special forces. The producer's aim was to be as credible as possible, to show the state of mind of the special forces. So I shared my experience of group life, mission preparation and relationships. The ingredients of this state of mind, in short.
From start to finish, I was present for around forty days out of a total of four months' shooting. I helped them choreograph the action scenes, and corrected mistakes in dress and language.
YOU WERE SERVING IN IRAQ IN 2016, THE TIME AND PLACE OF THE ACTION IN THIS SERIES, IS THAT RIGHT? DID YOU SEE THE CONDITIONS OF YOUR MISSIONS THERE ON FILM?
I obviously can't tell you the dates and places of operations where I was sent, or what I did there. All I can tell you is that in January 2017, the then President of the Republic officially declared that French special forces were present in the Syrian-Iraqi theatre. We also know that at the end of October 2016, the Iraqi army launched an offensive on Mosul, the stronghold of Daech, which lasted until late November or early December.
The series' scriptwriters have researched Iraq and the geopolitical aspects of the conflict extensively. To do this, they simply made OSINTopen source intelligence. The series team, including the actors, benefited from the expertise of soldiers from the Commando parachutiste de l'air n°10 d'Orléans, the 1er Régiment parachutiste d'infanterie de marine de Bayonne, and the 13e Régiment de dragons parachutistes de Martignas. This helped them to produce this first season, which tells the story of an operation lasting around six weeks.
As for whether French special forces have really captured French jihadists, as shown in the series... Whether in the Middle East, Afghanistan, the Sahel or elsewhere, the work of special forces is carried out at the political and strategic level. As a result, counter-terrorism is one of their missions. At the time of the series' action, we know that there are French-speaking people on the ground, and the script makes references to the attacks on the Bataclan and the Christmas market in Strasbourg that were prepared there. As for the rest, the press has extensively documented how the allies neutralised French-speaking jihadists during the conflict.
YOU ARE NOW WORKING ON THE SHOOTING OF SEASON 2, WHICH STARTS SOON. THIS TIME THE TEAM IS PREPARING WITH THE MARINE COMMANDOS. WHAT OTHER ASPECTS OF SPECIAL FORCES MISSIONS WILL BE COVERED?
Yes, filming starts in April in Morocco. The whole team (actors, production, direction) will first spend a week immersed in the naval commandos at Lanester, near Lorient, hosted by Rear Admiral Pierre de Briançon, commander of the Force maritime des fusiliers marins et commandos (FORFUSCO). This will get all the actors back into the swing of things for this new season, which will show a different aspect of the special forces mindset, because the DNA of the marine commandos is different. They will be able to immerse themselves in another culture, absorbing its language and gestures, working in tandem with soldiers from these forces.
Their speciality is of course the sea, as we saw with the Commando Hubert during the Ponant affair, the sailing boat seized by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden in 2008. But like all special forces units, naval commandos are multi-skilled: they are also proficient in the air, in intelligence and in all areas of operation. I myself have worked with them in the field.
The "Group 45" in the series does not in reality belong to any Special Forces entity: in fact, it represents all the skills that can be found, in the broadest sense, within the Special Operations Command. This series is aimed at the general public, so it shouldn't be viewed with a military expert's eye. It's the first time in France that we've had a series about the military, dedicated to the Special Forces, and that's something to celebrate. When it was broadcast on Amazon, it surpassed the ratings of other big successes on that platform, such as The Last of Us.
For season 2, the production hopes that the partnership with the French Ministry of Defence will be even stronger, in order to obtain airborne resources for example. Because special forces without air support, as in season 1, are not very realistic.