An Encounter with the Doyenne of Tunisian Film, Selma Baccar
Selma Baccar was the first woman in Tunisia to make her own films. Part of a group inspired by the bohemian atmosphere of the southern suburb of Tunis, Hammam-Lif, she became interested in cinema at a very young age. After college, she studied psychology in Switzerland and had the chance to go to Paris for film studies. These influences remained vital throughout her life as a filmmaker and producer, as her approach to directing a film is very hands-on, probes into the psychological lives of her characters and her inspiration lies in a hybrid of Tunisian stories and French philosophy.
Tunisian cinema is known throughout the world for popular films like Férid Boughedir’s Halfaouine and Moufida Tlatli’s Silences of the Palace. As a consequence, it has become stereotyped as a cinema that deals with women’s sensuality and the magic and beauty of the old Tunis: palaces and labyrinthine medinas feature prominently as a setting that determines the plotlines. Tunisian filmmaking then has been identified as being a cinema of the mythical feminine.
Boughedir, a film scholar as well as a director, is one of the male theoreticians who have extensively commented on this. Nevertheless, there is a much more problematic spatiality going on in Tunisian cinema than the most well-known films dare to illustrate. The identity politics in the films foregrounds women as the bearer of the nation’s troubles, while Tunisia’s liberal and democratic status in the Arab world denies even the existence of any troubles.
Women’s rights in Tunisia are still a topic of hot debate, within the country and its women’s movements as well as abroad. As Tunisia’s role in the UN and in the Arab world is taken so seriously partly because of the country’s proliferation as a liberal and democratic country respecting women’s rights, one needs to question whether the theory matches reality. Fifty years ago, women received legal rights including the right to divorce and equality to men regarding citizenship. The president of the newly independent republic, Habib Bourguiba, also opposed the wearing of the hijab, polygamy and he set the legal age of marriage for a girl at 17. The pro-Western stance Bourguiba took during his presidency resulted in general modernization and the rejection of militant Islam. Yet at the same time, during those first years, Tunisia was a one-party state and the president had dictatorial powers. The cult surrounding his personality and charisma is directly related to his role in the fight for independence, and his powerful image as the father of the nation, especially of the women.1 In well-known speeches held by Bourguiba, he recalls his childhood as the youngest in a big family of women and particularly the position of his mother whom he adored. As he grew older, he said, he realized the unfair situations of women, and the gravity of the problem. His insight into the problem was great: as a statesman he could not change the situation easily as it was linked to history, tradition, religion and habit. He would have to change the mentality of a whole population in order to provide women with equal rights. The fact that so soon after independence he assured the Code of Personal Status for women (1957) still has an enormous influence on how Tunisians see the strengths of their country’s democracy. While pioneering filmmaker Selma Baccar acknowledges the power of Bourguiba on Tunisia, she also allocates some of the important modernising changes that have been made in the country to be the result of women’s activism in the past.
In the late 1960s, when protest marches and activism engulfed the world of politics as well as art, a crucial manifesto was inaugurated in the Arab film world, most directly as a protest against the domination of the film industry in the region by Egyptian melodramas and imported Hollywood films. After the defeat in the Six-Day War against Israel in 1967, a general malaise entered the political and public spheres in the Arab world. Nouri Bouzid refers to 1967 as the date of the “alarm bell that aroused the dormant Arab consciousness from its long slumber” of cultural degeneration.2 It is possible that this kind of traumatic experience was needed to put the potential of cinema truly in the public consciousness. The “defeat-conscious” cinema found its culmination in the 1968 New Arab Cinema Collective, and their manifesto. The new generation of young filmmakers adopted an organized, collective new outlook on realist cinema. The emphasis was on an artistic exploration of authenticity of form and content. As Bouzid points out, the individualistic, personal, and autobiographical were vehicles to question the person behind the camera and his or her identity, identified as a “step that must be taken before they may begin to question others”.3 The director was thus equal to the characters, processing an internal self-reflexivity that reflects the nation’s dynamic. By invoking a personal memory and challenging it to become a collective memory, viewers managed to find themselves and their contemporary reality in these new films. The 1967 defeat then was a wake-up call and a point at which the frustrations of young filmmakers who were limited in their artistic freedoms culminated. The power of the collective was necessary to find ways to overcome the strong censorship problems. It was at this precise time that Selma Baccar made her first short film – The Awakening – a film entirely produced by a team of women, which won a prize at the Kelibia amateur film festival, and that led to her own blossoming certainty that filmmaking was the direction in which her life was going to take her.
Férid Boughedir’s film Caméra arabe (1987) illustrates that New Arab Cinema thrives on a multiplicity of themes and that this results in each director having his or her own genre. The diversity was evident in the themes and content, but automatically also found its outlet in the vision of reality. Throughout the Arab world, filmmakers were working towards what was real and urgent for the people. Cinema was more than ever concerned with contemporary reality, which was – since 1967 – a different and more self-conscious reality. Emphasis was on a truthful representation of everyday life, and this came across in documentaries, which – due to this renewed interest in reality – were explored with more enthusiasm in the Arab world. Perhaps New Arab Cinema, like any other subversive collective in cinema history returned to the origins of cinema to explore the possibilities and opportunities within reality and its representation.
With the advent in the late 1960s of New Arab Cinema, women burst onto the film screen in North Africa and the Middle East. New Arab Cinema became more concerned with the position of women and the violence they still suffer in some Arab countries. “Many male directors expressed in their films the need for female emancipation but often simply as a means to achieve national goals, such as technical and cultural progress, or political independence”.4 This is an interesting trend, as female film directors still did not feel those films adequately represented women. More and more female directors found their topic of choice and their focus to be on “correcting” male representations of female issues. In Caméra arabe, Férid Boughedir’s argument centres on the fact that this New Arab Cinema provided a new space for women’s voices. In the film he interviews Néjia Ben Mabrouk, a Tunesian filmmaker living in Brussels, who problematises men’s representation of women’s psychology (the whore versus saint imagery) and assures us that women should be representing themselves. Boughedir has also written numerous articles on why he calls Tunisian cinema a female cinema. It is intriguing to read that for him, men as well as women in Tunisia seem to focus solely on the influence women have had on the content of the cinema, whereas the “feminine” style of films is left untouched. As the pioneer of female Tunisian filmmakers, Selma Baccar has first and foremost also answered back to men’s representations of women in her own films. From The Awakening (1966) to Fatma 75 (1975), The Dance of Fire (1995) to Flower of Oblivion (2006), the historical detail, contemporary relevance and concern with women in a much wider context have gained her the reputation of the “grande dame” of Tunisian cinema: a feminist activist. As a filmmaker she attaches a great deal of importance to the voice of her characters telling the stories she has written, but also to the representation of those voices on the two-dimensional screen. An eye for detail has always resulted in an extensive period of intense research preceding the filmmaking process, as outspoken subtlety, sartorial details and the intensity of the actors’ and actresses’ faces speak for themselves. She has strong and interesting viewpoints on women’s issues, and on other Tunisian filmmakers, and makes for a forthcoming, entertaining and intriguing interviewee.
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in central Tunis in early March 2010, I am meeting Selma Baccar at the shopping centre on Rue de la Liberté where she has parked her car. She has a busy agenda, so invites me to have lunch with her and her daughter and grandson. The conversation is very informal and entertaining. We talk all the way through lunch: Selma likes to chat, and speaks with conviction and authority.
Stefanie Van de Peer: How did you start out in filmmaking?
Selma Baccar: The first film I made was an independent production in collaboration with my female friends of the Hammam-Lif amateur film club. The Awakening is a silent short film in black and white, made in 1966 when I was 21. The film club was an amazing circle of friends; we did everything together and supported each other’s work. There was absolutely no funding available for us, so we did everything ourselves. In the 1960s, there were quite a few of these types of cinéclubs present all over Tunisia, but the one from Hammam-Lif was the most active and the best known one. It also proved to be the breeding ground of a lot of talent in production, people that are still working in the film industry today.
I was not born in Hammam-Lif, but my parents moved here when I was seven years old. Before that the family came on holiday here at every opportunity. I still live here today because it is conveniently located close to Tunis where I work. My house is at the top of one of the hills surrounding the town, and I feel like I am the queen of the village looking out over my kingdom. The people also know me and forgive me for being outrageously dressed because I am “the artiste” of the town... I love this town, it is always full of artists and initiatives. There is, for example, an old and now derelict cinema for sale, where I think we could set up great events. I think someone needs to buy or rent it and with some renovation it could become a really interesting and beautiful cultural centre. I used to and still do know all the cineastes that live here or in the surrounding areas, so maybe I can get their interest in this idea and get a project going.
My parents raised me in the Islamic faith and I have done the pilgrimage to Mecca twice, with them, but I am an agnostic person myself. I certainly believe in goodness and generosity, but not in a religious context. I would consider myself to be a spiritual person, it’s just that I believe faith is a very individual matter, and organized religion is not concerned with personalities. I worry about the increasing amount of young girls choosing to wear the hijab. I really feel powerfully about women’s freedom in Tunisia. From my very first film, The Awakening, I was concerned with these issues surrounding women’s personal status. The Awakening was a very early manifestation of my concerns and shows how important it is for me to include optimistic or at least ambiguous endings. The choice of a woman to lead her life as she wants to is of vital importance to my activist tendencies. I must say I have calmed down a bit over the years, but I am still as passionate as ever about the women in my films.
Does your audience relate to these passions?
I would say that, like most Tunisian and other African or Arab filmmakers, I choose to make films for my own people. So the Tunisian audience is most important to me. From my very first film, I chose to confront my people with a representation of their own society in a realistic way. As an activist for women’s rights, I have always felt that women are the cornerstone of society in general, and as a child of the age of protests in the 1960s I felt that I could be not only a spokesperson for the Tunisian woman but also an informer and critic of the contemporary atmosphere in Tunisia. In the past, we have been fairly lucky as filmmakers here in Tunis to reach the audience that we want, as filmmaking is still quite a popular art here. After independence we had the infrastructure available, and there were many cinemas in Tunis. Regrettably, in recent years many of the cinemas have been left to decay, and now I only know of eight functioning cinemas in the centre of Tunis. I always make sure that my films travel around Tunisia: we visit cinéclubs everywhere we can, where the films are usually accompanied by events and talks. Partly due to the bi-annual Carthage Film Festival the Tunisian audience is used to watching Tunisian films, and we have learned that films accompanied by events are usually more well-attended than films being screened on their own. This tells us that the Tunisian film-going public is quite critical and informed about its own cinema.
Do the films have the same success abroad?
They are not well distributed in the West or the Arab world, where the success of the Egyptian cinema prevents the distribution of any other kind of film. It is a great pity that Tunisian films like mine do not get properly distributed outside of the Arab world. I am not impressed with European and American distributors’ lack of vision and risk taking. While our films receive critical acclaim at festivals like Cannes and Venice, we do not get opportunities to show our films more widely in the cinemas. There is a real need to open up the horizons of European distributors, to make them appreciate the storytelling of other cultures without having to give it a niche space of the Third World. I detest that word; it is so irrelevant, especially in the film world. New stories need to be told, new spaces need to be opened up and I find that a cinema other than the Hollywood or European one is the best candidate to successfully achieve this. While outsiders get interested in Tunisia, it is usually still as a backdrop of exotic stories or European customs.
From The Awakening to Flower of Oblivion there is a preoccupation with Tunisian women living in the space between their own ambitions and passions on the one hand and the limitations of the surrounding society on the other hand. Yet there is always space for optimism in your films.
Thematically there is definitely a constant in my work. From The Awakening onwards I have clearly had an interest in representing women, and their (lack of ) options and choices. I suppose that the freedom I have experienced in my life as an artist, and as a student studying abroad, have taught me a lot about emancipation and women’s rights.
From 1966 onwards, my films have dealt in a social and cultural way with this choice that Tunisians struggle with. Emancipation is all good and well but if you cannot practice what is being preached I see no harm in reacting against oppressive traditionalisms. That is why in The Awakening I show an intelligent girl who graduates and wants to study.
Her father however protests against this option: she ends up compromising her ideals to find a job and independence as a secretary. Again it is a senior man who limits her future perspectives: her boss sees her as a sexual object and she is forced to leave. When she makes the decision to live independently in her own flat, and offer private lessons to students, the men in the street disapprove and sabotage her plans once more. The ending is ambiguous on purpose: I refuse to solve the problem for her. Instead I film her sitting on the beach contemplating her options and end with a focus on her face, expressing determination and resilience. I aim to incorporate a grain of hope and optimism at the end of all my films, indicating that even though it is difficult for women to fight an uphill battle, there are ways of coping with these: courage and strength is what I most admire in Tunisian women.
With Fatma 75 I continued along this path, but the film is more openly feminist. It is a docufiction film, a genre I love. It has also been called a didactic film. I made it during the UN International Year for Women, which in Tunisia was a very important event. President Bourguiba had contributed extensively to the rights of women in Tunisia, and his inspirational personality and speeches had changed traditional and conservative attitudes amongst the population. But with Fatma 75, I wanted to show that it was not only Bourguiba that had changed history. For him it was a matter of expressing these sentiments at the right time and the right place. Yet the historical context and women’s activism needed to be valued as well. Tunisia was ready for it at that moment in time due to historical evolutions explained in the film. Women’s organization had already been established in the 1930s. The three epochs discussed in the film are knitted together through the fictional story of a female student at university discussing the historical relevance of women’s movements throughout the 20th century. I believe this film was very educational for all youngsters in the 1970s in Tunisia.
The Dance of Fire is set in my favourite era: the 1920s and 1930s. She was a very popular Tunisian singer and dancer, constantly surrounded by men who adored her. The biopic includes the historical circumstances such as colonialism and fascism, again to portray the historical relevance of this strong independent woman’s story. Poetic, romantic and tragic, the story also incorporates the choices she is unable to make due to an increasingly suffocating atmosphere. Her powerful struggle to remain independent and successful culminates in a tragic dance spectacle, which she has chosen to express her anger. Once again I chose to discuss the difficulties for a woman to choose, to decide on her own destiny. The constant presence of adoring men first encourages her, later stifles her and eventually kills her. Legend has it that her lover murdered her, but I did not want to show this: in the film I decided to show that she made a conscious choice to “burn” like the butterfly, attracted by the hot light, knowing that reaching that goal will burn its wings. It is this insight into her own situation, this consciousness of her own self-destructive tendencies that reflect her testing nature when it comes to her own destiny.
In Flower of Oblivion this choice that women have is also the culmination of a lifetime of struggle and bitterness. The main character, Zakia, is a very sensual woman who becomes sexually frustrated because her husband does not desire her. She suffocates in her wish to be loved and becomes more and more determined to teach her daughter to be free to make her own choices. Her addiction to opium (khochkhach) how- ever turns her into a selfish creation unable to cope with life. Paradoxically, when she ends up in an insane asylum, she becomes truly free. In this irony lies the power of the film and of Zakia: she is finally free and able to make her own decisions within the confines of an asylum. Her choice to stay when she is declared healthy is of vital importance to her self-confidence. In the asylum, she is confined physically but not mentally.
So yes, my topics are usually concerned with women and their personal freedoms, choices and limitations, but as I said I always try to include a sparkle of hope towards the end. I believe a positive ending is not necessarily the same as the stereotypically Hollywood happy ending. I am convinced that the optimism linked to freedom of choice is the only way forward towards a future in which women will be able to make their own decisions.
What inspires you to keep including these optimistic but ambiguous endings to your films? You are pointing towards the ideals of women’s rights versus the reality in a conservative society – where does the inspiration to remain positive come from?
When I was still studying, I read a philosophical essay by Albert Camus, about Sisyphus. He adapted the ancient myth of the man defying the gods and being punished for it. It inspired Camus’ theatre and novels of the absurd. For me, life is like that as well. I engage with this philosophical worldview in a personal way. Sisyphus embodies the absurd hero facing eternal punishment from the gods who have condemned him to a hopeless struggle. As Sisyphus has defied death and has disrespected the gods, his punishment consists of pushing a rock up to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down every time he reaches the top. The gods believed that for a human being, there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour.
However, Sisyphus knows himself to be the master of his days. Camus concludes: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Camus is preoccupied with the absurdity of life. Living with the absurd and maintaining a constant awareness of it allows us to live life to its fullest. Only when a person can see and accept their lot in life for what it is, can they ever truly achieve happiness and fulfilment. The women in my films are all in a similar situation: they find themselves in circumstances that are absurd, and while they struggle in daily life, they also decide to get on with it and not despair. This optimism is necessary in any absurd situation. According to me it is what makes life bearable and worthwhile.
The subjects of your films are always women and their problems and choices. Would you agree with Férid Boughedir that Tunisian filmmaking is saturated with feminine themes?
Férid Boughedir posits Tunisia as part of the Mediterranean and of Africa. He writes about the absence of the father in the family and the dominance of the mother in Mediterranean culture. He points out Bourguiba’s influence on the nation with his speeches and his charismatic personality, the Code of Personal Status for women and the Ministry for the Family. He is right of course. My inspiration for stories always comes from myself as a woman and from my past amongst women. Women are the ones within the family that spend the most time with the children and impart stories. The children are determined in their imagination by these stories. The subjects of my films will always be women. I am most interested in the psychology of women within the structure of the family or the community. I get inspiration from everyday life: I see stories unfolding everywhere. I believe that the smallest and most insignificant events deserve my full attention: I like to talk and I like making stories out of everything that surrounds me.
The women that inspire me are moreover mostly members of my own family: my mother, aunts and grandmothers. I used to listen in on their storytelling and gossiping, and it made me a very curious child. I am still a curious person and create the women in my films from composites of the women that used to be in my life as a child. The stories they told about other women were always filled with intrigues and self-irony. They had an intelligence I did not always grasp when I was younger. Obviously there are amazing films being made by men, but I feel that men may not possess the power and the insight into the complex psyche of women. Certain Tunisian films that discuss the virginity of women without understanding anything about it, merely manage to reproduce ancient and irrelevant clichés. I understand their intrigue with the topic, but I see so many things they should do differently. A woman director could add an extra dimension to the psychology in the representation of women on the screen.
Would you call yourself a feminist?
I do not care all that much for the term “feminist”. I respect the movements of the 1960s, and I accept that I may be perceived as a feminist. I lived through the summer of 1968 in Paris so I appreciate the importance of the movement. Every woman really is a feminist and an activist deep down inside, but the word has become detested throughout the world. It is one of those words that gain a bad reputation through the ages. I myself am indifferent about the terminology. Things get labelled to make the world more comprehensible, but I do what I do because it is my passion, not because I follow an agenda. As I said, my films clearly deal with women, specifically female stories and cases representing women in every situation. As such, I am representing the different stages in my own life. From The Awakening to Flower of Oblivion my preoccupation is clear, but I also aim to represent more widely the nation, national concerns and national identity.
Is there a specifically Tunisian cinema aesthetic that could perpetuate this?
I do not believe in such a thing as a national Tunisian cinema. I prefer to speak of Tunisian films because there is such a wide variety of individual genres, themes, filmmakers, etc., it seems implausible to attribute a few overall aspects to the thematics and genre-choices of Tunisian filmmakers. Moreover, the government does not really support what could be named a “national cinema”. Getting funding is extremely difficult because by law 40% of the total budget for a film must come from the Tunisian Ministry of Culture. And it is hard to please them. I also think the problem lies with production. I have made four films that have received serious distribution over a period of more than 40 years. That shows that being prolific in Tunisia is relative. At most two films get made every year here.
I agree you can definitely speak of a national cinema in countries like Egypt, where production is so high that hundreds of films are made and distributed widely yearly and where the government actively supports a certain type of filmmaking, but not so in Tunisia. It used to be different, we used to make more films, and we were more successful internationally than we are now. It is reflected in the decline of the cinemas. This does not mean that the quality has dropped, but the quantity of films being made is at an all time low. The problem really is the financial situation. There are so many creative people in this country wanting to make films, so much talent, but there is simply not enough money to fund all of these initiatives. Making films is expensive and if our films are not distributed internationally we stand no chance at sustaining ourselves financially. Even if the Tunisian public and the critics like the films, there is still the problem of there being so few cinemas.
What do you think might be the solution?
Maybe the answer lies in international co-productions. My last film, Flower of Oblivion, was a Tunisian-Moroccan co-production. Twenty-five per cent of the costs of a production is usually spent on editing equipment and suites. The Moroccan co-producers of Flower of Oblivion, the Moroccan Film Centre, provided us with their infrastructure for the editing process. I am very proud to be able to say that this popular film was made entirely out of Maghrebian time and money. Nevertheless, the film did not receive a serious distribution in Morocco.
Does the state interfere too much in filmmaking in Tunisia then? Do you feel censored or controlled?
In my own experience, the Ministry is quite strict yes. Maybe the word censorship is wrong as we are usually allowed to show nudity or scenes of a sexual nature. That used to be more of a problem in the past. I do not feel censored as much as I feel controlled. Scripts have to be accepted by the ministry before the film is allowed to be made. The budget for Tunisian films is also dependent on the ministry: 40% has to be supplied by the government, before filmmakers are allowed to look elsewhere. It is very difficult to get through this, as there seems to be only money for a small amount of films a year in Tunisia. Even for established and famous filmmakers it is hard to get through this. It is time consuming, stifling and frustrating. Personally, I spend years researching a project because I attach so much importance to the correctness of the details in my films. If after several years of research and being immersed in a project, it is not accepted by the ministry and you do not receive the support you need to bring the project to a good ending, then that is devastating. Sometimes we also have to wait several years to hear back from the ministry.
What is your own experience with this ministerial control?
In my case Fatma 75 was censored and forbidden for 30 years. The authorities had seen the complete script and all the details about the production and given it their approval. I knew about the issues the ministry had with changes to scripts they had accepted, so I stuck to the script. Yet they were still surprised when they saw the final product, and forbade it to be screened. Officially, the film did not leave the country until 2006, but it is travelling widely now. Unofficially, two Dutch women who had read about the film in the French newspaper in the late 1960s, came to Tunis in the late 1970s to buy a copy for their film festival. They visited the ministry personally and convinced the bureaucrats to sell them the film for distribution and screenings in the Netherlands. The ministry accepted that the film could be screened outside of Tunisia. This is also why the original subtitles on Fatma 75 are Dutch. Luckily I can see the irony now: the controversy clearly proves to be beneficial for the popularity of the film all these years after it was first made. Since the film was made available for public screenings in Tunisia in 2006, it has become very popular. I travel around Tunisia with it, to screen it to illiterate and poor women in rural areas. I realise it is a very didactic film, but it is also a historical document, recording women’s strengths and power over the course of the last century. It is invaluable material to show women in rural areas the truth about their rights and struggles. The discussions that usually follow the screening of the film are inspirational.
Do you see this rural screening of Fatma 75 also as a storytelling event in itself ?
I really like being a storyteller. I love being the one that brings these forgotten truths and stories back to the women who were the actual source of the stories. Storytelling is a sort of teaching. I teach at a private university and a private school in the heart of Tunis. I teach young filmmakers the art of scriptwriting. I always draw parallels between La Fontaine’s stories, the stories in 1001 Nights and my own way of storytelling. Stories need to have a goal: they need to be clear and simple and straightforward. As a filmmaker you have to take elements from daily life and reality, but they are not enough: so you add imaginary aspects to give it a twist worthy of film. Films need to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible.
Scriptwriting as the first step towards a film seems very important in your experience as a filmmaker. Where and how do you find the inspiration for the stories you wish to bring to the screen?
For me, storytelling is a universally female occupation: women tell stories to each other, they gossip and they tell stories to the children. I myself love to talk and tell stories. Everything that happens to me is worthy of a story. Storytelling is also something that has always been of great importance in my family. Stories are ways to transmit memory and knowledge. As a young girl I was always around my mother and my aunts. I have based many of my films on stories I remember from that time when I used to sit and listen to them. My latest film for example, Flower of Oblivion, is based on a story that I heard many times when I was a little girl: a member of my mother’s family went through the same difficulties as Zakia, the main character. Her addiction was always talked about in a secretive manner so I became extra curious. I started asking questions about why someone would destroy themselves so completely but no one could really provide an answer. This incomplete story mystified me for years until I decided that the answer must lie within me, as a woman myself. I started to understand that in old times, when men had multiple women, women competed with each other, but they would not destroy themselves. Instead, they would strive to be the prettiest, smartest or funniest. But if a man is plainly not interested in you because you are a woman and not because there is competition from other women, it is insulting, frustrating and soul-destroying for a sensual woman like Zakia. Her frustration became so all-en- compassing that self-destruction seemed like the only way out of her life. So even though the story is very specific about one woman in my family, I tried to make it a universal story about a sensual but frustrated woman. Eventually the power to decide where she is going is what liberates her: freedom of choice is something that must interest everyone.
How is the power of the story and the manner of storytelling reflected in your relationship with your actors?
I would say that the voices I use come from my past, from the stories I heard before, and the voice in my films is most definitely my own. I bend and break the rules of storytelling, I add things to the reality in order to make films that are unusual. My films are my stories, and the stories are told through actresses that inspire me. They speak with my words. Film and storytelling is a transmission of knowledge. I have to completely trust my actresses to do so and they have to trust me to tell the right story. The relationship between us is crucial for the development of the work we do on set but also for the success of the film. I feel I have to get the best out of them, so I treat them really well. They are my creations. I am quite well known in film circles for this: I always retain strong bonds with my leading actresses long after a film has finished.
Just as the research I do before I start shooting the films, casting has become a long and painstaking process for me. It just has to be completely right. The relationship between the actors and myself is absolutely of primary importance. We could for example not find an actress that could carry off the charisma of the aunt in The Dance of Fire. We could not find what I had in mind, not even when we dressed the actresses up and did their make-up. So a friend of mine said that she thought she knew what I was looking for, and the next day she brought along a friend. This woman, who had never acted before and was actually quite shy, took me completely by surprise and I cast her immediately. She was due for shooting a few weeks later and came up to me to say she was too nervous, she was going to mess the film up. I insisted that she try and I said “no, it has to be you, and if you are not in the film I will not make the film”. So really I put a lot of pressure on the actress, but from the very first shoot it went wonderfully and our collaboration has become very important for me. I discovered her and she has become really well known in the Tunisian film industry. She is a very famous lady now.
This passion for detail and charisma, and the research you put into the preparations for your films suggest a preoccupation with the visual as well as the verbal. Do you like handling the camera yourself ?
I usually make use of a cameraman, but sometimes there are instances where I do the shooting myself. I find the visual extremely important. The charisma of this woman inspired me, and I focus often on the faces, the eyes and the mouth of my actresses. Looks can say even more than words do sometimes. The importance I attach to details like jewellery, make-up, costumes, props is well known among actors and actresses in Tunis. I love beauty and style, I love expressing things that maybe add something to the story I am transmitting. Their dress says so much about them, and it enables the actors to find the character more easily and to find the voice I have in mind. I suppose I guide them in the direction I want through these details.
Something interesting happened in this respect while we were shooting the last few scenes of Flower of Oblivion. This film is extremely personal and very important for me because of the family bonds with the characters. Another reason why it was so important for me was that I felt like it was an opportunity to get closure on some past things that had happened between my mother and me. That is why I wanted to shoot the last scene of the film myself, because it felt so personal and it had to be right from the very first attempt, otherwise it would have been too difficult for me. I took the viewfinder and focused in great detail on the faces of the actresses. Because I was behind the camera at that point they were also possibly under more pressure to get it right from the first time. And it worked. We were such a close community of friends at that point that I felt they were able to convey what I wanted them to, immediately. And I felt like I was the only one permitted to gaze so closely upon this moment at this crucial first take. It was perfect and so intense that I had to take some time to myself after we finished shooting this. I stayed in my office for a while, and thought about my past, my mother and my family: I was very emotional. Time went by so quickly that I did not realise that I had left the crew on their own without instructions, so they came to find me. We finished shooting that day and I knew the film would be exactly what I wanted it to be.
What are your hopes and wishes for the future of Tunisian filmmaking?
We must keep on taking initiative, more cinemas need to be brought back to life and I really hope some inspirational international distributors will mitigate the distribution problems. The new generations are always the hope of the future so I am pleased I get to teach them. We need to work on alleviating the intrusions of traditionalism that weigh heavily on Tunisia and on the rest of the Arab world. It would be such a shame to lose sight of the modernizations and positive changes Bourguiba’s generation brought to the country and of which all Tunisians are so proud.
- 1For more information on Habib Bourguiba: Derek Hopwood, Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia: The Tragedy of Longevity (Basingstoke: Macmillan and St. Antony’s College Oxford, 1992).
- 2Nouri Bouzid and Shereen El Ezabi, “New Realism in Arab Cinema: The Defeat-Conscious Cinema,” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 15, (1995), p. 242).
- 3Ibid., p. 248.
- 4Viola Shafik, Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2005), p. 201.
Published in The Journal of North African Studies, vol. 16, no° 3 (2011).