Films featuring strong women are what I crave. But I won’t buy that typical Hollywood fare, which sells the perfect package of a buff heroine dressed in a shiny costume doing stunts as the perfect woman’s film. Nope. I need a real-life wonder woman to fulfill my cravings.
In Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania’s latest ‘Beauty and the Dogs’, which world premiered at the Festival de Cannes in their Un Certain Regard section, I found her.
Within the role of Mariam (played to absolute perfection by first-time actress Mariam Al Ferjani), your typical run of the mill modern university girl wanting to have fun on a night out at a club event we learn she helped to organize, I discovered a heroine that transcends the Arab world — Mariam’s story takes place in Tunisia — and jumped off the screen straight into my subconscious. And remained there, juggling with my thoughts, until now.
I’ll admit I had to digest the film and yes, it took me this long to come to the full realization that what I witnessed, this story of a nightmare every woman could experience in her lifetime which made me feel lucky to have avoided it thus far, is a work of genius. Mariam’s disgrace, the shame and struggles she is put through by the corrupt police officers, the price she pays for her only crime — that of wanting to be a girl for one night, was so deeply powerful that I walked out of the Salle Debussy infuriated. Angry as hell.
But also absolutely unsure who that anger was directed towards. Could Ben Hania’s work have made me furious at all men? Or maybe at all power figures? Or was I angry at her for having told this story? I couldn’t put my finger on it. Or perhaps I didn’t want to deal with it.
On July 15th of 2017, the news broke of an Australian woman in her pajamas having been murdered in cold blood by a police officer in Minneapolis. And suddenly, Mariam’s ordeal became too close for comfort, unable to occupy the silent crevices of my thoughts any longer -- that's when I originally wrote this piece for the HuffPost. Ben Hania’s heroine jumped out of my subconscious and made herself present, in all her cinematic glory, wearing that yellow, borrowed veil which Mariam wraps around her shoulders and ties at her neck towards the end of the film like a superhero’s magic cape. Her ordeal even more glaringly universal now that we could no longer dismiss it as something that only happens, “over there”, in the Arab world.
I caught up briefly with Ben Hania in Cannes, interrupted often by another journalist who shared my interview time and who had her own political agenda to explore, which led to an unsatisfying conversation. I’m hoping there will be other chances (YES, Qumra in Doha gave me that precious chance so more to come on Ben Hania) to ask this insightful filmmaker about her latest oeuvre and her views on life, womanhood and super heroines. But for now, enjoy this interview.
And don't forget to catch the film in theaters, in the US, starting March 23rd.
What was your inspiration for making this brave film?
Kaouther Ben Hania: The story started from a real case that happened in 2012, after the revolution, and I was really very touched by the courage of this girl, and it was a very famous case. There were a lot of media talking about it. But the story goes beyond the Tunisian context, I think it’s a universal story which can happen everywhere and every woman can remember a moment in her life when she was annoyed with something brought on by a male “character”.
As a woman from Tunisia, do you ever feel like perhaps the rest of the world, which does not understand your global view on the subject, will look at this as a very typical Arab male mentality kind of thing?
Ben Hania: You know, when I write a story I’m not thinking about people who have cliches in their heads and are looking for that. I want to tell a story, freely. Because if I wasn’t from the Arab region, if I were American for example, I would have the right to talk about it.
For sure, we don’t ask these kinds of questions to an American filmmaker...
Ben Hania: Exactly. For me, I have a character, I have a situation and I want to tell a story. I don’t write my movies in terms of other people’s cliches.
Will the film be shown in Tunisia, uncensored?
Ben Hania: Why would it be censored? The Ministry of Culture in Tunisia is one of the financiers of this movie.
Did you watch ‘The Accused’ with Jodie Foster, was it inspiration?
Ben Hania: After making my movie, I wanted to watch all the films that deal with the subject of rape. That film gives a horrible view of men, but of course, no one will say, “this film portrays American men in a negative way.” Instead, I get asked these questions all the time. (She chuckles)
How did you find your actors?
Ben Hania: Mariam [Al Ferjani] I found on Facebook. She was posting her photos and I found her face amazing, the kind of face that I love, you know, very special. She’s not an actress but was in a school film years ago so I watched that, and asked her to send me an audition tape. I also contacted other actresses to be sure... Together we worked a lot, talked, talked, and talked. And Youssef is a famous actor in Tunisia — Ghanem Zrelli. I was thinking about him from the beginning for this role. All the other secondary characters are coming from theater, they are confirmed actors.
I find that Mariam turns into a superhero at the end. Her veil becomes her cape.
Ben Hania: If you want, yeah. It’s heroic to transform the veil into something you can fly with. Like Catwoman, she is veiled.