Review and round table interview with director Mohammed Ben Attia by Miranda Schiller @mirandadadada
Hedi is 25 and about to get married. He works as a travelling car salesman, driving around his homeland Tunisia trying to get companies to buy Peugeots – in vain, the economy isn’t good, but Hedi also isn’t a good salesman. He shows no interest in his job, or his marriage, or anything for that matter. His mother arranges his life for him: Not only did she choose his wife, she chooses everything down to the furniture arrangement in his future marital home. Hedi, while not seeming happy, endures everything without complaint, as if it had never occurred to him that life could be different.
Until he is sent on a work trip to Mahdia at the coast and falls in love with Rim, who works at his hotel as a dancer, entertaining the few tourists who still come. They spend a few carefree happy days together, and Hedi finally starts taking his life into his own hands. But he is not equipped to deal with his newly found freedom, and the choices he has to make are hard.
Director Mohammed Ben Attia uses the character Hedi as a metaphor for the state of Tunisia after the Revolution: “Just like Hedi, since the revolution we are all trying to find out who we are. We have certainly gained a great freedom of expression, but we are still trying out how to use it.”
Insecurity is certainly Hedi’s most visible character trait. It is difficult to relate to a character so restrained, so closed in on himself, but artist-turned-actor Majd Mastoura lends his character such sensitivity and sincerity that he invites affection despite his distance.
Mohammed Ben Attia partly modeled the character on himself: “For twelve years I have done all these things. Selling door to door, driving, wearing ties, it was easy to re-translate all that and film it. But I didn’t meet a dancer however, and I did get married. But that part of the story, which isn’t autobiographical, telling it was very important to me. It’s the story of a simple guy, a seemingly simple guy, who doesn’t have any visible problem, like unemployment, but through his simple story we find out with him this sensibility he has, that he has to reveal to himself and to us.”
The Tunisia Ben Attia shows us is calm. Some chaos and uncertainty is hinted at, but visually, there is no trace of a revolution. The beaches of Mehdia are bare, the tourist hotel is almost deserted – acquiring the ominous atmosphere of an in-between world, almost a non-place. Here Hedi and Rim can feel free, but it is inevitably a place of transition. The dynamic between actors Majd Mastoura and Rym Ben Messaoud as Rim is convincing enough to overcome their extreme differences. Rim is a free spirit, but no air-head: She clearly knows the difference between a dream and a project. She represents another aspect of Tunisia: Strong young women taking their lives into their own hands, full of determination and responsibility, but still searching for a new security, after having left the old ties of family and tradition behind.
While Hedi’s self-discovery is the film’s main focus, the lighthearted scenes between him and Rim seem like a strong symbol for hope, a way out of the general gloom that seems to reign over much of the rest of the film. Ben Attia: “I like a lot of [Tunisian] films, but in general, every time they show a couple, violence isn’t far. And especially since the revolution, we have been lacking love. The naivety of this character and the fact he just lets himself get carried away into this love story, the lightness of being able to kiss and make love, that was very important.”