Manèle Labidi is a French-Tunisian writer-director who has written and directed different projects for the theater, radio, and television. Her first short film, “A Room of My Own,” is a tragicomic variation on Virginia Woolf’s famous essay.
Tara Karajica caught up with Manèle Labidi at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where her first feature, “Arab Blues,” screened after premiering in the Venice Days section of the Venice Film Festival.
How did the film come about?
Manèle Labidi: A few years ago, I told my mother I was seeing a shrink. My mother comes from a really traditional Tunisian family and is not really familiar with this psychoanalysis thing, so I explained to her exactly what it was and, for me, it was like announcing I was doing porn or something like that. It was something that was very shocking to her because it was about destroying my education by someone she didn’t know. It was about talking about her, about my father and paying this man in cash, so she even suggested I hire her because she knows me and maybe she would do a better job. So I felt there was something I really wanted to explore about my culture and this expertise, this knowledge.
And, a few years later, we had the revolution in Tunis, and it happened basically overnight. We had a dictatorship for decades and, all of a sudden, the country was free and free to talk because, before, people used to talk a lot about ordinary stuff, but not about politics or serious stuff. All of a sudden, the country became chatty, people were talking about how they could reconstruct the country – everyone was a politician, basically. When I was there, there was something I needed to capture in terms of energy, in terms of vitality and I also saw that we were having this collective revolution going on, but I could also see that individually, people were making their own revolutions and I wanted to connect this big historical moment to the stories of individuals trying to go through this moment in history, even if it was full of hope at the beginning. A few months ago, we talked about terrorism, threats, Islamists coming to power, which happened, of course, and the melancholia, the fear, the paranoia, and all the troubles like depression really increased in the country and when I asked some people: “OK, what about seeing someone?” I didn’t get an “Are you crazy?” answer. Not at all! People were really open to that. The only thing is that the offer in terms of psychoanalysis is pretty slim in Tunisia. We don’t have a lot of shrinks in Tunisia; we don’t have a lot of psychoanalysts, so I said: “OK, what about making a film that would not be a documentary and not a dramatic fiction, but something more distanced through comedy, that would tell the story of someone who could have an external vision on the society, but at the same time, an internal one, too?”
And, for me, the figure of the shrink is not part of your family, of course. He’s completely external, but at the same time, he knows you better than anyone else and this duality, I think, was interesting to create with this character who is French, has this neutrality, this distance, but is also Tunisian because she also knows where she’s ending up. I guess, it was a way of making all these individual stories talk because what I’ve also noticed when it comes to Arab Cinema is that you don’t let the characters talk – you talk for them, you give them an ideology to defend, a message to convey, and I didn’t want to do that because I feel that it’s not part of my job of filmmaker to do propaganda. I am not saying that psychoanalysis is the solution for the Arab world, not at all, nor am I trying to say that religion is bad, that faith is bad. I am just talking about people who have contradictions, who have different ways of expressing their femininity, their masculinity… I try to show that the Arab world is not a block, that it’s not about a toxic man vs. women who are forced to wear a veil – it’s more complicated than that. You have a great feminist man, you have great religious people that are very peaceful and not only obsessed with the fact that they need to kill the Western world. It’s just trying to give a fair view of a society that is very, very complex and diverse and putting their issues to the front so you or any culture can relate to them. When you look at the film, you say: “OK, in the end, they’re just struggling to raise their kids, despite the economic crisis, the uncertainly. They’re struggling to fight addiction. They’re struggling to consider their gender, their sexuality, their intimacy… The teenage girl wants to break free”. I guess, people could relate to all this. And for once, I said: “OK, I want a film where you leave the theater and people say: ‘Arabs are not so far away from us’ or ‘poor people, they’re plagued by terrorism.’” I just want people to say: “OK, they are like us to a certain extent” and that’s why I chose to use pop music with Italian music because it is also a way for me to bring this culture back to the Western culture and say: “These guys actually listen to the same music,” which is true in a way because the Italian culture is very, very present in Tunisia as well as the French one, but we tend to forget it because of the news, because of all the drama that we make around this region of the world. And choosing the tone of the comedy was, for me, the best way to create a distance and to be free in what I was going to tell and to open people’s hearts to these emotions and this reflection.
How much of you is there in Selma?
M.L.: I guess, there is a little bit of me because I was told that for your first film, there is usually a lot of yourself in it and then, you do something else, but I guess the thing where I can relate to Selma is the fact that she is clearly looking for her identity, the fact that she was raised in a Western culture, and that she also comes from an oriental culture makes her feel a bit torn between the two. When you live in France – I don’t know how it is in other Western countries – you are reminded very often that you are not really French because your name and your face are not French, obviously. So you are not really French, and you are not Tunisian because you left; because you don’t live there and you have a French passport. So, who are you? This is the question. Am I both? Am I none of them? It’s a question that when you’re younger, I guess, is something pretty hard to deal with and then, when you get older, you say: “OK, I haven’t solved it, but I can live with it.” I guess, this is how I can relate to Selma.
Also, when Selma wants to set up her practice in Tunisia after the revolution, she wants to give back, in a way, what her parents gave her. Immigrants from this region, when they left Tunisia to go to France, to Italy, to Germany, they didn’t leave because of job opportunities; they left because they had no choice. My parents left because of economic reasons and they left because they couldn’t work, because they couldn’t make a decent living. So when you decide to set up a practice or you decide to make a film in your country of origin, in a way, you are trying to take revenge, you’re trying to prove: “OK, you guys had to leave because you didn’t have opportunities, but I am coming back to give opportunities to people. I am hiring people. I am creating small economies. I’m trying to re-appropriate my history, my culture because you had no choice. You didn’t have the degrees, the connections that could have helped you stay here.” Actually, when I was making this film, I was trying to repair something, to repair a suffering, a kind of humiliation and so, I guess, Selma is too. It’s a personal journey when you need to know who you are and also a kind of revenge, like a superhero who is here to show that they didn’t leave for nothing and this is how I can relate to her – in these two aspects.
A lot of people have been asking me about the character of Selma: “Why doesn’t she smile more?” or: “Why doesn’t she kiss the cop at the end?” I don’t know if you’ve noticed that, but in comedies, especially, you see characters who usually smile a lot, who are full of energy, who want to find love, which is nice, and I can appreciate this kind of comedies, but for once, I also wanted to create a character that had male attributes. She looks like a cowboy, in a way. She smokes and she’s silent. Usually, we love when a man is silent, when he smokes, when he’s mysterious, but when it comes to women, it’s like: “Oh, wow! She’s not smiling, she’s not nice, she’s unlikeable…” It’s unfair! She can not wear make-up! She loves her loneliness, she doesn’t want to be in love, because life is not all about finding a man, but sometimes fiction makes you think it’s the ultimate goal in life, and I wanted her to be pretty different from the representation of femininity we see in comedy. And it was actually a big challenge to convince the people who were on board the project and say: “This woman character, I want her to be like a cowboy who arrives in a village and everyone is looking at her like the outsider and I want her to be silent, but very charismatic, very present.” Because around her, the characters of Baya, for instance, are explosive, so you need someone to offset this energy and make this contrast work better.
But she is also funny in her own way. She made me laugh a lot.
M.L.: Yes, there is this auto-derision. But it’s another type of humor.
What I like is that it’s a commentary on the state of the nation, but from the female perspective. It’s very interesting. Can you talk about that?
M.L.: It was funny for me to write all these women because, once again, it was also about giving justice to the fact that there is not one Arab woman that wears the veil and is like: “My man is torturing me!” It’s about strong women who have difficulties, but are not victims, who are all, in a certain way, trying to struggle for a better life. You have the young teenager who is completely obsessed with the fact that she has to leave and she is using the oppression codes in her favor. She is using the veil, which is usually a tool for making women quiet, to hide something that she wants to hide. She is organizing a fake wedding so that she can leave. Usually, when you think about the Arab world, you think that women are forced to marry guys for their reputation, but this time she is doing it just for her own purposes. Her mother wears the veil as a religious person, but she is also very feminine, very seductive. She has fantasies, she has desires, she has obviously a sexuality, and you see that with her man, there’s something that is not completely here and, at the end, we understand that they are also trying to reconnect. Baya is another kind of femininity. She’s outspoken; she doesn’t give a sh*t about anyone, she is very free, independent, and has her own salon, but she is also struggling with her own intimate issues. And you have the girl from the administration; you have the first patient who is here for the certificate, and they all have different ways of showing how they are women. I really wanted to show that especially in Tunisia, women are strong despite the crisis, despite their origins – because I am not talking at all about the upper class; I am talking about the middle class, the popular class and, sometimes, you can’t even think that women have their own freedom in these areas, but in Tunisia, they do.
It’s interesting because they are concerned by what happens everyday, but not by what happens on a macro level…
M.L.: Yes, because this is our lives. Because when we watch the news, we think that these guys must talk about the revolution everyday, but life comes back and you need to think about what you are going to eat, what you are going to do for your children, for their studies, etc. It’s concrete day-to-day issues like for everyone in the world, but we think that because when we open the news, we see these countries going through war, through terrorism and we think they don’t talk about anything else. But this is life, life goes on despite the bombs, despite the terrorist threats, despite everything; life goes on and, for me, this film is about people just living a life that you, me and anyone can relate to, can have.
There has been a lot of talk about women in film in the past two years. What is your opinion on the matter? How is it in France? In Tunisia?
M.L.: You’d be surprised, but I think it’s much more interesting to make film in Tunisia than it is in France. There is parity there, there are so many women directors who are coming up right now and, as a woman, when I was in Tunisia for my film, I was never annoyed by anything; I was never disrespected. It was not an issue to be there and to be a woman. In France, you still have a lot of things to do. There are things like the 50/50 by 2020 committee and I think it’s necessary because the day when women will see more and more women making films, they will also decide to go for it and make films and then, statistically, the number of women making films will increase and then, there will be no excuses. There’s something going on and I am sure there won’t be any going back. It’s impossible.
How was it to work with Golshifteh Farahani? How did she come on board?
M.L.: Well, she is the only actress I sent the script to. For me, it was an obvious choice and it was a blessing for me to work with her because, as everybody knows, she’s very talented, but also so generous because you see how many actors from different backgrounds were around her and she was never the diva, never the famous one. She was always generous, leaving the space for all the comedians to have their own space in the scene and she was an amazing partner, really. I was so privileged to have an actress like that for a first film.
Can you talk about the title? Is it a nod to Chantal Akerman?
M.L.: It’s funny, it is a reference. I needed to find a French title and I love Chantal Akerman even if my cinema is very different from hers.
What are your next projects:
M.L.: It will be a comedy, not in Tunisia this time, but it will also include some identity issues.
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
Photo credit: LA Times.