The Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania is widely considered one of the most prominent filmmakers now working in the Arab world. Her films, many of which are controversial, have gained international acclaim and made her among the most respected cinematic figures on the global scene.
Ben Hania took part in the last round of the Red Sea International Film Festival RSIFF as a member of the Feature Narrative Competition jury, headed by the legendary director Oliver Stone. While there, she told me about her perception of Saudi cinema, the Arab film scene, her latest film projects, and her sense of her place as an Arab filmmaker.
Ben Hania says the cinematic developments taking place in Saudi Arabia are great news for all Arab directors as they struggle to produce their films. She believes that part of the importance of the RSIFF lies in having a support fund and a film market, which are very important for any festival: “There are film projects that will start from here, and new films will see the light.”
She thinks films made by Saudi filmmakers have changed many preconceptions about the film industry in Saudi Arabia. There had been an idea that those would be unprofessional and mostly amateurish films but experience has proven this to be incorrect. “I imagine that Saudis, like all of us, love watching movies and have a considerable cinematic background. Now with a cultural policy that is supportive of filmmaking, it feels like that potential has come out. We always have to tell our story from our point of view, otherwise others will do it for us, not necessarily in a way that represents us.”
In her opinion, first and foremost, every filmmaker should work to refine their projects, by writing and rewriting whatever production capabilities are available as there is a need for constant self-criticism. “There is an exhausting path that we in countries with limited production capabilities have to walk in order to be able to get support for our films, which requires writing and rewriting. It is a tiring path, but it makes you reconsider your project several times and think about it from several angles. This dilemma not only faces Saudi directors but also, for example, Netflix, which provides support more easily to filmmakers, so their films end up being of lower quality because they do not spend enough time to develop their films.”
For Ben Hania, abundance may be a trap that otherwise great directors fall into. “Focus a lot on refining your film projects,” she says, “even if you have enough money to shoot tomorrow.”
Among the most prominent recent Tunisian films, some of which participated in prestigious regional and international film festivals, there is Ashkal by Youssef Chebbi, Harka by Lotfy Nathan, Ghodwa, the first film to be directed by Tunisian actor Dhafer L’Abidine, and A Second Life by director Anis Laasoue. They are long feature films that deal with concerns and frustrations related to public, political and economic affairs, much more than social and personal issues.
Ben Hania explains the focus on this kind of subject in Tunisia as an expression of common concerns among Tunisian filmmakers, especially since Tunisia enjoys a special position where there is no censorship of films. “Perhaps this allows Tunisian filmmakers to delve into topics that may seem sensitive in other countries. But in any case, it should be clear that filmmaking does not follow a trend or a fashion. To make a film you spend at least three or four years, and it’s a long and arduous journey, but there is a common reality and collective concerns that filmmakers may have to question through their films.”
Ben Hania herself does not deviate much from public affairs in her latest film, Olaf’s Daughters, which she recently completed filming. She says that it is on the border between a narrative and a documentary film. When she started filming in 2016, her goal was to make a documentary based on a true story that preoccupied Tunisian public opinion and media at the time, about a woman named Olfa, two of whose four daughters, aged 15 and 16, joined ISIS in Libya. But after a while and for several reasons the film took a new course.
“I decided to turn the whole story into a workshop in one location with one set, combining professional actors with the real characters.” Hend Sabry was cast in the role of Olfa and other actresses as her absent and present daughters. In the film the real Olfa and her daughters are instructing the actresses to re-enact their memories. However, according to Bem Hania, the film is not a re-enactment of reality, but rather it revolves around this dialogue that takes place between a group of women from different backgrounds. Real characters guide the actresses in a mirror-like game of remembering and rethinking the past. “It is a film that combines narrative and documentary techniques. It combines our questions about what happened and what is happening, with a therapy-like attempt for Olfa and her daughters to heal from the painful experience.”
Ben Hania says the film was a risk and an adventure for a movie and TV star like Hend Sabry. There is no written script, and she appears in the film as her real character, an actress who will play the role of Olfa the mother, receiving directions from the real Olfa. Ben Hania added that it is definitely a complicated relationship because, as an actress, Sabry is used to playing characters written on paper, but in this film, she faces the real character who does not hesitate to criticise her if she does not feel that her performance truly represents her. “For sure there is a kind of grit. But it’s also a good experience for the actors to get out of their comfort zone, which is what I as a director always try to do. Getting out of your comfort zone is very important. There were definitely a lot of concerns but there was also a lot of confidence that we all got from each other.”
After a remarkable cinematic career full of participations in important international festivals, and many awards, Ben Hania’s 2020 The Man Who Sold His Skin was nominated for the Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards. However, this does not seem to have affected her clarity of vision regarding what she wants to do. She says that after reaching the Oscar, a director is given many offers to direct ready-made film projects. For a director who is used to writing most of her films and taking her time to fully immerse herself in each film’s journey, this wasn’t hard to resist. “It’s a matter of choice. You ask yourself, ‘Would you rather put off work on stories you love to tell in order to respond to all sorts of offers with which you have no real, emotional, sensual relationship?’ My answer was, ‘Why should I waste my time?’”
Ben Hania has already started working on her new feature film, entitled M, which she describes as an ambitious project. “I’m done writing already. It’s an expensive movie in terms of our Tunisian production capabilities. That’s why the journey to obtain funds may take time. The story of the movie takes place between the 1990s and the 1940s. It may be difficult to tell the story of the film, but I can say that it is somewhat similar, to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 The Name of the Rose but set in the Islamic world.”
Ben Hania does not consider herself an adventurer, despite her constant movement between different types of films, from fiction to documentary, and from feature to short. Rather, she believes that it fulfils her needs as a filmmaker. “When you make a narrative film, the space for experimentation is limited. Everything is written in advance, there is a specific budget and a team agrees on all the details. My need for experimentation is met through documentaries because they are less expensive and allow for change and alteration on set and during work on the project. Documentary films are the laboratory in which I experiment freely, then I apply my successful experiences in my narrative films.” As for her movements between long and short films, she says that some stories are simply short: “I like to make films in all formats, and when there is a short tale for a short film, I cannot twist it into a long film.”
Ben Hania seems optimistic about the future of Arab cinema. “There is a promising movement on the Arab film scene, from Iraq and Kuwait to the Maghreb. Arab cinema has gained a respectable reputation globally, and the world is looking forward to it because there are always beautiful surprises,” says Ben Hania. “I imagine that the future of European cinema will be Arab. There are dozens of Arab films with European co-productions, so our films are also European in terms of production. Our films are screened in European festivals and cinemas. There is also great anticipation of our stories by European audiences.”
At the same time,she objects to the claim that many Arab films, for this reason, might be influenced by the expectations of European audiences. “The filmmaking process is much more complicated than this superficial view. For example, most of my films are co-productions, but my French producer is Tunisian, my Belgian producer is from Morocco, and my German producer is from Greece. We must believe that our story is important, our point of view is important, and our relationship with the other is also important without fear, scepticism or disloyalty, and without a complex of inferiority or of superiority. I do not underestimate the presence of the political factor, but I also affirm that a good film and a good and bold script finds its way to production. My film The Man Who Sold His Skin does not present Europe in a positive way, but it is an Arab-European co-production. Things are not that simple.”
Ben Hania celebrates the presence of women in Arab cinema, noting that there is what she describes as an abundance of Arab women filmmakers, compared to the situation in Europe or the United States. “There is a strong desire among Arab women to tell their stories through cinema.” she says.
As one of the prominent Arab female filmmakers, Ben Hania says she believes in the German philosopher Nietzsche’s phrase Amor Fati or ‘love of one’s fate’. “I am happy with what I have made, even though I did not imagine at the beginning that I would one day reach this place. However, there is an obsession that always makes me continue making films. Cinema, art and literature are the dream of humanity. It is the poetic world of peoples, and it is their collective sensory memory. The peoples of our region must find their place in this collective memory, otherwise we will be forgotten. I always want to contribute to making this happen. There are peoples whose existence overwhelms this collective memory, which creates lies and clichés. Our task is to tell our story in the face of lies.”
But she also stresses that there is a need for filmmakers to realise the change in times and tools. “In the past, cinema was the queen of the arts, but now there is a great competition with the internet and other media. The throne of cinema has deteriorated, the viewer’s patience has shrunk, and the task has become more difficult. Expecting the viewer to allocate two hours of their life to watching your film requires a lot of effort, work and thinking.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 5 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly