TUNIS, Feb 12, (Agencies): A love story set against the aftermath of Tunisia’s watershed revolution kicked off the competition at the Berlin film festival Friday as the first Arab contender in two decades. Hailing from the North African country that triggered the Arab Spring, “Hedi” is the debut feature-length film of Tunisian filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia.
It is the first film in Arabic and set in the Arab world since 1996 to vie for prizes at Europe’s first major cinema showcase of the year.
“It’s not that I’m not ambitious, but I never imagined going to Berlin! All of us are surprised,” Ben Attia told AFP.
It is a rare achievement for any first-time filmmaker to be invited to the Berlinale competition.
The only other debut feature in the race this year — British theatre director Michael Grandage’s “Genius” — has an all-star cast including Colin Firth, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman.
“Hedi” will have its world premiere as one of 18 films from around the world vying for the festival’s Golden Bear top prize, with three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep heading up the jury.
Its tale of “emotional upheaval” echoes Tunisia’s recent history, said Ben Attia, who turns 40 this year. But rather than impart a political “message”, his movie describes a kind of personal revolution.
The film’s main character Hedi — whose name means “serene” in Arabic — “isn’t unemployed, his family doesn’t have any money problems … but he feels out of place in society”, Ben Attia said.
When he meets a tour guide called Rim and love strikes, Hedi (played by Majd Mastoura) begins to ask serious questions about the man he wants to be and his role in society.
Ben Attia said he himself used to be a “conformist”, selling cars for a living before launching into filmmaking.
The wake-up call came on Jan 14, 2011 standing in the crowd outside the interior ministry demanding the removal of longtime dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
It was the end of an era “under censorship that we thought was only political, but in fact was (also) sedating everybody”, he said.
Protests swept Tunisia in late 2010 after the death of a street vendor who set himself on fire in protest at unemployment and police harassment, leading Ben Ali to flee the country.
In his own “emotional upheaval” alongside the tumult wrought by the revolution, Hedi “discovers himself through a love story” and “detaches himself from conventions”.
He realises “he has another choice — but then, after the euphoria, he discovers it’s not all that easy”, Ben Attia said.
Tunisia is hailed as a rare success story of the Arab Spring, although authorities have failed to improve the economy or do much to ease social exclusion.
Authorities last month imposed a nationwide curfew to curb some of the worst social unrest since the revolution.
“It’s true we have a bit of a hangover,” Ben Attia said. “We thought he (Ben Ali) just needed to leave for it all to get better.
“We truly believed in this radical change, just as Hedi wants to believe in his love story.”
Political instability and jihadist attacks have taken their toll on Tunisia’s vital tourism sector.
In the film, after Rim (played by Rim Ben Messaoud) loses her job, the lovers start thinking about quitting the country.
But the director said he has never contemplated leaving, especially as Tunisian films make waves abroad.
“Tunisian cinema has been on the move. We’ve seen films that stand out, that are well received abroad and at home,” he said.
Tunisian director Leyla Bouzid’s film “As I Open My Eyes” won the top award for fiction feature at the Dubai Film Festival in December.
Attia had previously shot some shorts including “Selma” about a female taxi driver in Tunis which Bouchoucha had sent to Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne along with his first draft of the script for “Hedi.” The script was “very realistic,” a type of narrative, incidentally, known to be a Dardennes’ directorial trademark.
“We were immediately fascinated,” says Jean-Pierre Dardenne. “We liked the writing style and therefore decided to come on board.”
Though for Arab filmmakers local funding opportunities are growing, European coin in most cases remains crucial.
“Tunisian filmmakers today need to find a European producer in order to be able to access funding which they would be otherwise denied,” Jean-Pierre Dardenne notes. Their monetary contribution to “Hedi” amounted to one-third of the pic’s undisclosed total budget.
But having the Dardennes championing your movie means a lot more than mere moolah.
“Jean Pierre helped me during the writing stage,” says Attia. “He started asking me questions.”
Meanwhile, veteran Japanese theater company Village Inc. is in Berlin to make its first move into the international movie business. With 14 feature films under the belt of its Geki Cine subsidiary, however, Village is hardly a newcomer to filmmaking.
Village and Geki Cine are seeking to introduce European audiences to their particular brand of stage (“geki”) film.
Berlin buyers get a chance to see for themselves Feb. 13 with the EFM screening of “Legacy of Soma-Aonoran,” a romance-action-drama about a female former warrior and a bungling, but well-intentioned samurai.
For over 35 years, the company’s core business has been the production of elaborate stage plays that use the Village stable of artists and tour big city venues in Japan for limited runs that each earn tens of millions of dollars.
In order to take the shows to audiences further afield, the company started filming the plays. After roughly a decade, Geki Cine has come up with a particular formula, which ensures that the resulting movies are cinematic.
Performances are filmed twice over with 20 HD cameras, giving footage from 40 camera positions and plenty of visual and editing options. A high-quality sound mix, post-production and visual effects are largely sourced in Hollywood. Many are co-produced with Japanese movie major Shochiku.
And while most of the cast is made up of Village artists, the filmed performances are spiced up with established movie stars. “Soma” stars Kenichi Matsuyama (“Death Note,” “Gantz”) and Taichi Satome (“Zatoichi”) and like all of Geki Cine’s movies, is directed by company founder Hidenori Inoue.
“What we want to do now is to engage with international audiences, connect with fans and maybe complete some rights deals,” says Hiroyuki Hata, a former London resident who heads the company’s international operations.
“Right now buyers and festival programmers may not know how to classify our movies. So what we really need to do is to get people to experience for themselves, and for them to spread the word.”
The company produced one other movie last year, “Asura.” And it is close to touring the sumptuous “Midare Uguisu,” before reinterpreting that for the big screen later in the year.