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“Cinema is a vehicle for emotions”: An interview with Mehdi M. Barsaoui, Sami Bouajila and Najla Ben Abdallah about ‘A Son’ in Venice

If you believe, as I do, that cinema is one of the most powerful means to change the world around us, then Tunisian filmmaker Mehdi M. Barsaoui has proven himself one of the medium's most important up-and-coming voices. With 'A Son' which premiered at this year's Venice Film Festival, Barsaoui and his perfect actors revolutionize the concept of family and, in the process, provide an insight into modern Tunisian society.

Sami Bouajila and Najla Ben Abdallah in a still from 'A Son'
Sami Bouajila and Najla Ben Abdallah in a still from 'A Son'

A happy family, a couple who love each other and a weekend trip together to the desert town of Tataouine. Idyllic enough. And yet this is Tunisia in September of 2011, just post its Arab Spring, going through a transition which would take years to settle. Things are volatile and Fares (played by the inimitable Sami Bouajila) and Meriem (played as a beautiful force of nature by Najla Ben Abdallah) find themselves in the midst of a family tragedy.

Without giving anything away, this catastrophe involves their son, Aziz and while they race against time to save him, the couple are faced with a series of trials and tribulations which will change their lives forever. Nothing is, it seems, what it appeared to be before this moment.

‘A Son’ (‘Bik Eneich’ – ‘Un Fils’) marks filmmaker Mehdi M. Barsaoui’s feature film debut. It’s almost unbelievable watching this perfectly crafted and sensibly told story on the big screen to think that Barsaoui has only made three shorts before ‘A Son’. And yet, it is also the freshness of his craft that appeals immediately to viewers. While yes, in Venice people do give standing ovations that last quite a bit of time, I have to admit that at the Orizzonti premiere for ‘A Son’ I witnessed the entire audience jump to their feet and clap enthusiastically for nearly a quarter of an hour. It was a touching tribute to a story of humanity, told with care and class by a filmmaker who needs to be on everyone’s radar.

While at the Venice Film Festival, I caught up with Barsaoui and his stars, Bouajila and Ben Abdallah for a conversation that only adds to my enjoyment of the film.

‘A Son’ travels to Carthage Film Festival next before being distributed in cinemas throughout Tunisia in January. And around the world as soon as possible, we can only hope!

Where did the spark of the idea for this film come from and was it born before or after the Arab Spring?

Mehdi M. Barsaoui: The initial idea comes from autobiographical elements, as is the case for me most of the time. I tend to dive into my own background or my own personal experience or the experiences of people who are close to me, so it started from my personal life. I have hardly ever known my father because he left when I was very little and I grew up in a new family with my mother’s new partner. So I’ve questioned myself a lot about what it means to have a child in a couple, or in a split couple or to have a brother who has got a different mother or a different father — what it means to be half brothers and so on and so forth. 

It came about before and after the revolution, because this idea I’ve had it for a long, long time in my mind but lets say that the revolution somehow prompted the project to develop. 

Najla, I heard in the Q & A that when you heard about this role you immediately knew you wanted to play Meriem. What was it specifically that made you feel that way?

Najla Ben Abdallah: I immediately loved the role — what’s not to love! There are so many things, she is a mother, she is a very sensitive woman and I immediately felt in tune with the subject. I am myself a mother, I’m divorced and I know what it means to suffer somehow the gaze of society because in my country it’s not so easy to be an actress and I don’t make any effort to please other people. If I need to shout I shout, and if I need to say bad words I say bad words. I’m not just here to please other people and I don’t think that a woman has to prove herself. I can prove myself but for other reasons than because people expect me to do so. The script really touched me because it’s got all those things, all the sensitive things that echo in myself. Motherhood, womanhood and the fact that the mother is willing to take on the responsibility no matter what. The strength of the mother, she’s almost like a god willing to sacrifice herself to deal with her mistakes. 

It is indeed a universal story, because I don’t believe in the cliche of the Eastern women that are different from other women. It’s just women that are willing and able to find solutions and don’t need to be victims. 

And for you Sami, what drew you to this role as a man?

Sami Bouajila: I was immediately seduced by the screenplay. The writing and the ideas and the tone, the very subtle tone in which this family drama is portrayed. I immediately thought about a Chekhov play in the way the characters are hosting very contradictory feelings and they are sometimes aware in the choices that they make and sometimes unaware when they drift apart. They are really very full sized characters.

Filmmaker Mehdi M. Barsaoui

You tackle quite a lot of taboo subjects Mehdi, while also telling this very human story. Were you ever afraid and how do you think the film will be received in Tunisia?

Barsaoui: I was never scared but the main challenge for me was to root my film in modernity, in our present time. And my intention was also to shake a bit Tunisians in general because Tunisia is still a very patriarchal society and a very macho society and is more prone to condemn women and it happens more frequently and that is why the portrait of my protagonist is that of a woman who refuses and rejects the model of Tunisian woman. But it’s not so much a film about Tunisian women’s liberation as it is about Tunisian men’s emancipation and liberation because yes women are used to being judged and condemned but in my film I show that also men can be condemned and judged in a way. But men do not expect to be judged and condemned and that’s the modernity that I wanted in my film. It’s summarized in the scene where she signed the authorization form. Because it’s true that women in Tunisia have a lot of rights compared to other countries in the Arab world but there is still a long way to go.

Sami, do you think that cinema has the ability to reach out and make us understand that we are all basically the same as human beings?

Bouajila: It’s not only cinema, it’s also literature and music and theater because if you think that politics in the noble meaning of the word is only to promote laws, to rule societies and human beings and religion is also to rule us in a way — but to make works of art is to talk about all issues concerned. Cinema has a responsibility of making us have fun while watching a film, of making us more self conscious of certain problems and issues that exist in life and to make us realize that we are just one people — the human race. 

Najla, how was it for you to work with this actor who comes from your own background and yet was born and grew up in France?

Ben Abdallah: It’s true that his background is French but the complicity, the sensitivity and the human qualities are something that you find in all human beings regardless of their nationalities and where they were born and raised. In the case of Sami, he’s a very sensitive man and an extraordinary human being and that really helps a lot. It helps the fact that while he was born in France and speaks French his ancestry is Tunisian and therefore that helps. But this is not why we got on and why we managed to build the chemistry. It’s simply the human quality.

Mehdi, there are such universal themes explored in your film. So I wonder if you think cinema is a passport between cultures?

Barsaoui: Absolutely, I totally agree. I am flattered that you noticed the universality of the ideas, from a local reality to a universal one the film could have been made in Bangladesh, Denmark, South Africa or Korea. Cinema is a vehicle for emotions and I do hope this is able to connect with the audience in an emotional way. 

And finally, what would you say was the most difficult scene between you two?

Bouajila: There was not one difficult scene, all the scenes were difficult, in the sense that there was such a vast gallery of feelings and emotions that most of it was tough, during the six weeks shoot — four on a sound stage and two on location. We were keen on showing honest feelings and reactions and we were very focused in trying to respect that and give the authenticity of the tragedy that these two characters find themselves in. 

Ben Abdallah: The whole film was a bit difficult. Because of the high voltage of emotions, to the point that you hardly have the time to play at the end of the day, staying with what you have experienced on set. 

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