Your film is never demonstrative. Several inspirational details give the overall film a touch of lightness, for example the horse that accompanies Omrane’s flight through the middle of the town. How do you conceive of these moments of respite in the montage?
I remain convinced that contrary to what the Americans say when they joke that a film is « first of all a story, secondly a story, and thirdly a story » that film is first and foremost about form, even if the storyline is important. If there’s no formal structure, no cinematographic discourse, it’s not cinema. That’s the difference between a filmmaker who conveys something and a filmmaker who tells a story. I need that. I can’t explain all the shots. If I can explain them, I cut them! I need these breathing spaces, Omrane’s cry and the horse. There are horses in several of my films. I can’t explain why. The things I can explain involve the dramatic development. The falling house that comes to a halt at the slide, or the little girl who covers herself in clay, these characters who are thirsty for air and movement rediscover childhood. Even Riva, who is a budding pimp, has a childlike side to him. I still feel close to Pasolini who loved to give his characters a childlike dimension.
The same themes can be found as in Man of Ashes. Exploiting children as slaves is a recurrent theme, without the film becoming a tract.
All of my films are about how people are humiliated and broken. The characters are always wounded. I didn’t want to be demonstrative. I wanted to remain at the level of emotions, to penetrate the characters’ depth and solitude, without offering any explications. I cut the overly demonstrative scenes. I prefer the spectator to work things out for him or herself. In Man of Ashes there are real flashbacks to their childhoods. Here, the child character is the adult character’s flashback and vice-versa. It’s a dramatic device that helps us understand what the little girl is going through.
This clay that helps the little girl get back in touch with herself brings to mind the grandmother in Nejeb El Mabrouk’s La Trace, who gives a little stone to help the child rediscover her force.
Yes, the virginity stone. The clay is organic, and that relates back to my first film (dough, fire, wood, clay). The little girl smears herself with clay, taking herself for her dolls. She becomes clay.
Both the little boy in Man of Ashes and this little girl are extremely beautiful. Isn’t there a risk of appealing to paedophiles, to put it a bit exaggeratedly?
Child rape victims are not ugly. I wanted to show that childhood remains beautiful. Being hurt does not stop you from being beautiful.
This film also makes it clear that people need an imaginary world to survive.
Yes, but through an emotional discourse rather than an ideological one. Coming back to where I first started out is like a second childhood. I too am out in the streets, like my characters, and the streets are not just pavements and strangers, but freedom and conquest. We don’t own the streets where I live.
It is this little girl’s gaze that gives the settings, the towns their form.
First of all comes the aggressive onslaught of the cars, and then the incredible freedom of sitting and writing, which becomes a marker for her. It’s almost a message she leaves. The vision of the little girl writing in the street gives the impression that its sole function isn’t just to let cars pass by. The street also belongs to this little girl, who remains beautiful.
The little girl makes her dolls, but then always crushes them. Is there a way to reconstruct the world?
There is no aim to this, and construction is not an objective in itself. I never try to give the spectators a solution. They must be considered adult. The Americans know how to offer their solutions to serve their world hegemony. I personally want the spectator to think of his or her own solutions. In The Golden Horseshoes, the character, the film are destroyed as they are constructed. The catharsis has to happen for the spectator after the film. Our cinema is a cinema of intervention, a cinema that poses questions.
Omrane’s ambivalence and rupture occupy a very important place in your film. How do you think Tunisian audiences are likely to react to him?
Ever since Man of Ashes, I have been pursuing the idea that the Arab man’s strength is a myth. These two women force Omrane to wake up and change. He expresses his suffering in his cries and his silences, his outbursts and his drunken sprees. My male characters are never clear-cut. They are doubt-ridden, torn, and have a feminine and childlike side to them. The power of film or literature is to propose different characters, but characters who are connected to reality. The film is both neo-realist, evoking reality, and very personal. I would like spectators to be tricked into identifying with unflattering characters. That was the case in Bezness. They saw themselves in an image that was not at all flattering, but which they were forced to like because it was touching. They caught themselves liking a character they would despise in real life. Man of Ashes gave hero status to characters who were capable of becoming heroes. That’s not so here. These characters are at the bottom of the heap, have been forgotten. They are victims of the diffuse feudalism that characterises the social relationships of capitalism. They are despised and necessary at the same time. It is important to improve their image and that necessarily unsettles the Tunisian public who would prefer more flattering heroes.
You give your secondary characters great depth too, for example the man in the bar.
This role is in homage to the great dancer, Hamadi Laghbabi, who is now 75 years old and who plays the role. He was one of Tunisia’s greatest dancers. He was socially rejected because of his homosexuality, which is considered an insurmountable defect in a Muslim society whose dance is nonetheless very feminine. He had the strength and courage to dance again for me. He is part of Tunisia’s memory. I wanted to pay homage to him in the same way that I did with the elderly Jew in Man of Ashes who introduced Tunisian music, and the elderly prostitute who was a singer, and who really existed but is dead now, and here the concierge the others try to use to marry These characters are like that in real life and give the film its sincerity and authenticity. It’s this forgotten Tunisia that I’m interested in. We don’t have the right to forget these people!
As you said referring to your own film, modern cinema increasingly tries to destabilise spectators by making them relate to characters who, rather than being the kind of role models they would like to aspire to, are their shadows and failings. Isn’t that incompatible with creating the distance you mentioned?
That is indeed what is truly difficult and remains an unknown quantity. When you start shooting, the screenplay is perfect and the characters well defined. What’s difficult, however, is finding a character’s trajectory. You know that a film is shot in complete disorder, so how do you go about maintaining the force of the cinematographic discourse without slipping into a moralising discourse? I don’t have any ready-made answers, but there is vigilance, a conscience and constant attention. Good films need a production team who understand that the crew should be there to assist the director so that he or she can concentrate and not lose sight of those things. The slightest thing can set you off track. Poupées d’argile was completely serene and the actors were able to give that back to me. Otherwise, you betray the original ideas because you don’t have the material, because you didn’t have the time to take care.
Tunisian films offer the image of torn men, who flee their responsibilities. How do Tunisian audiences react to that?
I’ve never carried out a questionnaire, but I would like to pay homage to the Tunisian public. It has loved and made powerful films whose characters are at times negative and unflattering. Even if they criticise us, they come back and are there waiting for the next film. This public wants us to speak about its realities, and film helps them to advance. It’s a mature public. If you treat it like a child, it strikes back by not coming to see the film. One film that portrayed a perfect, trouble-free Tunisia only lasted one week.
(question to Daldoul Hassen, the film’s co-producer)
The film is a Moroccan-Tunisian co-production, backed by Canal Horizon too. How are relations between these two North African countries?
This film came at just the right time. Films always come about with the help of different people. We are lucky enough to have Nourredine Saïl now, who used to work for Canal Horizons and who is now head of Tunisia’s second television channel. We have the same philosophy about what our cinema should be and how it should be screened. He is currently opening up production across the whole of North Africa, and we also previously made the effort to co-produce Moroccan films. This is also an opportunity to open Tunisian television up to Moroccan films. We don’t believe in politics anymore culture is the only cement that can unite these peoples around a common project. These experiences tend to bring these people together, if only by getting them used to other people’s languages.
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