Why did you choose this subject for your first feature film?
What interested me most was examining the power of information and television. It is not meant to be didactic and I started out with quite dream-like images of someone with magical powers that were impossible to attain! I had the idea of a computer hacker for speaking out. I wanted to say that you find free spirits South of the Mediterranean. Our images aren’t distributed in the North, which has caused the terrible misunderstanding that makes people believe that we are backward and that we aren’t living in the year 2002.
So, it can be seen as an attempt to reverse North-South relationships?
Definitely, via what speaks to people most today the television using purely Western images.
You also show that immigrants can wield power in society too.
I wish I had had more funding to shoot in Paris. North African history is completely related to France and our culture is extremely Francophone, whether we like it or not. This is not reciprocated in France, as if we were not needed, despite the fact that North Africa makes a vital contribution to labour, tourism, and culture. Our contribution is never acknowledged.
The film’s love story echoes this relationship.
Yes, Kalt represents freedom. She has the choice of « becoming someone » in this French society but chooses a society where she is not free. That is the ultimate freedom. Julia is the one who tries to curtail other people’s freedom. Like most people, Chems thinks he is free, but is kidding himself.
Your female characters are very free.
My female characters have always been more than free ever since my first short film. To my mind, making women’s freedom a commonplace is the best way to get it into people’s heads in North Africa. I don’t want to depict failures. I can truthfully say, having lived in Tunisia until now just as I am, that I have lived. Freedom is a struggle. We are very free in Tunisia, compared to other Arab countries, even if things remain unspoken, in the closet. I know a lot of women who live in very unconventionally, having children without being married, for example.
Your film seems to be an answer to the way in which some films from the South accommodate the Western gaze.
People expect us to make certain kinds of films. No one in Tunisia has ever told me that Kalt is not a typical Tunisian woman, but it was often said so in the European funding commissions. People didn’t always put it so openly, but it was implied and people have said it outright to me in public debates. I wear pretty hard-core leather trousers in Tunis just as often as I do here. We are not « Tunisia », we are part of it. There is no one Tunisia and I don’t see why our films should necessarily represent the majority of Tunisians. Music, dance, couscous, the Medina I wanted to explore these themes but in a less conventional way. You see women in the Medina, but they get together there to get drunk and to eat chickpea soup in the middle of the night. Kalt sets up a modern antenna in the middle of the desert, the father drinks with the women at the party, etc. My aim was to subvert some of the clichés by showing that such things are also possible and present in our culture. Refusing our culture its modernity is a form of reverse racism.
Commissions in the North are made up of film industry professionals. Have they got these clichés on the brain?
I think that such things are part of a given country’s policies. My film immediately got backing from the Hubert Bals Fund, won a prize from the Agence Intergouvernementale de la Francophonie when it was still in script form, was chosen by a big festival in New York to help find it a distributor, etc. But in France, which is my country because my mother is French, I got no backing from the Centre National de le Cinématographie or the Fonds Sud, even though I was unanimously granted the Agence Intergouvernementale de la Francophonie’s script, production and post-production grants. I didn’t bribe the people in the commission and I’m not one of those people who telephone all the time I thought my project was so original that everyone would be totally behind it! I realised that I was upsetting certain habits. As a result, France didn’t give the film a penny and I am proud that the film is entirely Tunisian!
The film’s thriller side meets a need not to cut oneself off from a certain kind of audience.
I wanted to address young people first and foremost, but all kinds of audiences have liked it a bit. I wanted it to be accessible to North African audiences. But I above all wanted a North African heroine who would win. It’s not a pure thriller given that the rhythm is regularly interrupted, my aim being to show Tunisia. It’s an x-ray of the fringes of Tunisian society. But people like this side of the film in Tunisia. I was surprised in the past to see that people liked my short-films because of their freeness. Tunisians have great sense of humour and appreciate freedom. I never go out of the way to upset taboos. It’s never the subject of the film; it’s part of the everyday and goes down very well as a result!
Tunisian films, and perhaps North African films in general, strive to show the beauty of the country, in the sense of an attachment.
I think I would find it very attaching even if I weren’t Tunisian. We feel at one here, thanks to the beauty of the country. It may not be grandiose, but there is a certain quality of life that is very much in contact with people. We are deeply attached to our country. This attachment to the earth is typically Mediterranean. I noticed the same thing in Palestine and Andalusia.
You make this very clear in your film.
Once again, I didn’t have the means I had hoped for to do so, but I was determined to set the action both in the beauty of the desert and in secular sites such as the Roman coliseum. This ancient past is not visible enough in our cinema given that it is such an integral part of us. It inhabits us more than we think, more so than our Muslim markers. The hand of Fatima is pre-Islamic, for example, and numerous rituals go back to Carthaginian times
Did you find the settings when out scouting for locations?
No, I wrote the screenplay to fit these places. I often go down South. Midès, the village I shot in, is deserted and has been badly eroded, so we had to rebuild some of the settings, such as the house.
Are the actors Tunisian?
There wasn’t a lot of choice. There are so few films made that there aren’t many actors. Sonia Hamza, who played the leading role, had never made a film before, but as I met her two years before the shoot, we had time to work together. The French actors were found at auditions in France. But I went more for actors without much experience so that there wouldn’t be too much of a difference. They all got on really well, which gave the whole thing a certain naturalness. I was able to do a lot of takes as I shot with a digital camera, which would have been a handicap for seasoned actors, but which was good with actors who loosened up little by little.
Was the digital format a hindrance for the landscape shots?
On the contrary. It was a great experience in terms of the images. If I had had have more money for the post-production work, I would have been even happier to shoot on digital. It was a choice. The theme is digital, the music is electronic, the image a challenge! As the camera belonged to the first generation of digital cameras the same as the one Barbet Schroeder shot « Our Lady of the Assassins » with it posed great problems in France where no one works with 30 images a second! I really put up with the teething problems, but I found the suppliers needed and can advise anyone who wants advice!
Electronic music is also an uncharacteristic choice in Tunisian film.
It’s my culture and it is representative of what people are doing at the moment, especially in Algeria. I love this blend. Amina sings in the film, which makes a great track. I also chose to work with a French musician who sampled some Arabic music, rather than using rock-influenced Oriental music. I wanted the music to be up beat, in order to correspond with Kalt’s character.
Did you carry out the post-production work in France?
Yes. It wasn’t what we initially intended and it was very expensive given that I only had a 4 million-Franc budget! We had to juggle incredibly to pay for the electronic equipment, the 35 film sets, the constant ferrying backwards and forwards, the Paris shoots, the desert shoots, etc. I didn’t pay myself, of course, and a lot of people worked for free, or practically. People’s enthusiasm was great. Accidents, sandstorms, etc., we encountered all the problems, but it was a very powerful experience. It was the post-production that was the hardest bit.
///Article N° : 5624