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“I love characters who are left with no choices”

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Kaouther Ben Hania • Director

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- CANNES 2017: Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania talks about Beauty and the Dogs, revealed in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes

Kaouther Ben Hania • Director
(© P. Le Segretain / Getty Images / Festival de Cannes)

In Beauty and the Dogs [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Kaouther Ben Hania
film profile
]
, screening in the Un Certain Regard section of the 70th Cannes Film Festival, Kaouther Ben Hania uses nine sequence shots to portray the ordeal of a young woman determined to bring her rapists to justice.

Cineuropa: Beauty and the Dogs is based on an incident that took place in Tunisia in 2012. Why did you want to make it into a film?
Kaouther Ben Hania: I like real-life events a great deal; I think they are an incredible source of inspiration. The incident in question was a case that moved the entire country and attracted a lot of media coverage. When I hear stories, they can get lodged in my head and grow, the way the cells of seeds develop and multiply before taking on their final form. Eventually, they turn into something I can talk about, and that’s when I start writing. It was like that with this story: I followed it a bit in the media, and it affected me; I admired the victim’s courage. Little by little, it turned into a film.

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Why did you decide to tell the story through nine sequence shots?
The idea arose from the story itself. I very quickly realised that the film had to be shot in this way, because it needed to follow the lead character. I think that the combination of real time and sequence shots is an extremely powerful one in film; it immerses us in the moment and we live and breathe with the camera and the character — there’s an immediacy to everything. For example, the sets are really not attractive at all: the examinations, the colours... It suddenly occurred to me that I had to make use of this ugliness to recreate a feeling of counting down the minutes in these oppressive places, and the sequence shots worked very well in this respect. 

The protagonist goes through a Kafkaesque night when everyone colludes to prevent her from reporting the rape perpetrated by police officers.
I did a lot of research to make sure that the story felt real. For example, in Tunisia, when you are the victim of a physical assault, the police have to open an investigation before the medical examiner can step in. The role of the medical examiner is to look for evidence of the assault, but the police have to be involved first. However, the main character, Mariam, says that the police won’t listen to her because they say she has to have evidence first. So, she is trying to fight the system, but it isn’t working. Every sequence shot sees her sent right back to square one: “No dear, you can’t do that.” This sense of injustice and frustration was what I wanted to capture in the film. 

The activist Youssef, who has his own, more political, motives, at first pushes Mariam into filing charges.
I needed the character to be totally naive, a babe in the woods who discovers a strength she didn’t know she had when she finds herself in a struggle for survival. At the beginning, because of the shock, there needed to be someone in the story to support her, whatever that character’s motives may be — as the police suggest, it could be that Youssef is trying to use her to get revenge; we learn that he has a certain history with the police. But when he disappears, Mariam is left alone and with no choice but to fight. I love characters in films who are left with no choices, and just have to find some way through.

Is it a feminist film?
One thing’s for sure: it’s a film about injustice, about power and about human rights. It could be called a feminist film, but it’s also a political film, without being an ideological tract. What I wanted to do was to express the emotion, the rage, the agony — even the horror. 

It verges on being a genre film, with its unrelenting suspense. Was that a territory you wanted to venture into?
I wanted to give a nod to genre cinema, which I adore, but without making a genre film. I could have centred the film on the police investigation, on the evidence, but in this case the evidence is completely useless. I love the absurdity of the situation. For example, Youssef tries to get hold of the video surveillance images as evidence, but the rapists have a much more damning piece of evidence in their possession: the video they recorded themselves on a mobile phone. This will never be used, however, because the police as an institution needs to protect itself. That’s why I wanted to play with the conventions of crime cinema, of film noir and even horror; because the situation is a terrible one and there are some really harrowing aspects. In the psychological state that she’s in, she’s like David up against Goliath.

You alternate between documentaries and fiction films. Are you interested in making documentaries out of fiction and vice versa?
My goal is to tell stories. Every story is unique and practically a world unto itself. In real life, there are some stories that are incredible as they are and I don’t feel the need to fictionalise them; they are best left alone, and then I choose to make a documentary. Some stories can be hybrids, like my last film, Challat of Tunis [+see also:
trailer
interview: Kaouther Ben Hania
film profile
]
, which was a kind of faux-documentary. With Beauty and the Dogs, although the story is based on real events, I didn’t want to make a documentary about something that happened in the past, and so I chose to make a fiction film — although in this case the real story interests me a great deal.

(Translated from French)

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