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Mehdi M Barsaoui and Sami Bouajila • Director of and actor in A Son

"We’re dealing with a real filmmaker here"


- We met up with director Mehdi M Barsaoui and actor Sami Bouajila on the occasion of their film A Son scooping the Cineuropa Prize during Brussels Mediterranean Film Festival

Mehdi M Barsaoui and Sami Bouajila • Director of and actor in A Son
Director Mehdi M Barsaoui and actor Sami Bouajila (© Vincent Alsteens/Cinémamed)

We met up with director Mehdi M Barsaoui and actor Sami Bouajila on the occasion of their film A Son [+see also:
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winning the Cineuropa Prize, during the 19th Brussels Mediterranean Film Festival, which came to an end on 7 December (read our article). This first feature film, a work full of tension and focused on a marriage in a country in crisis, had its world premiere in the Orizzonti section of the most recent Venice Film Festival.

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Cineuropa: The film is set in 2011, the year of the Tunisian revolution. How does this film fit into Tunisia’s current political situation?
Mehdi M Barsaoui:
I would say that the family portrayed in this film is the mirror image of those you’d find in Tunisia during Ben Ali’s era. The parents are young, rich and good-looking. Their child is well educated. But behind this image of the perfect family there lie unspeakable secrets. I tried to describe the mutilation of the country, and the cultural impact that religion can have on our daily life and on the situation of women. Obviously, I wanted to make a film about the emancipation of women, but I also wanted to explore the emancipation of men. The key message that I wanted to put across is both simple and complicated: as soon as the film’s characters, Fares and Meriem, decide to free themselves from the burden of the past, they are finally able to see one another for who they really are, to talk to one another and to communicate.

It’s an incredibly progressive and courageous film which touches upon taboo subjects, such as adultery.
These are questions that are very close to my heart. I yearn for a modern society where men and women are perfectly free and equal, and not just on paper. Whether we want it in Tunisia or not, equality between men and women is yet to become a reality.

Tunisia was the first Arab country to abolish slavery, to give women the right to vote, to have organised free elections, not to mention the rights accorded to women by Bourguiba. But Tunisian society can be very reactionary, with laws which obliterate freedom, such as the law on adultery. Adulterous couples are jailed for 5 years once the adultery has been confirmed. It’s not even possible for them to appeal their sentence.

We’re working from within a wholly patriarchal society, where fathers are automatically named the legal guardians of their children.

The film also explores the topic of organ donation, a controversial subject...
Organ donations do take place in Tunisia, but it’s still a culturally taboo subject for religious reasons: for Muslims, the integrity of the body is essential.

Sami Bouajila, you were rewarded with the Best Actor trophy in the Orizzonti section of the Venice Film Festival. How did you make this character your own?
Sami Bouajila:
Firstly, it has to be said that this was a wonderfully stripped back script, authentically written. It’s a psychological thriller which sees the characters trapped in a situation which will surprise them; an unexpected situation suspected by none. The characters live with unrelenting tension. We had a month to work on this tension and we rehearsed a lot to make sure the dialogue was right, and our expression correct.

I was totally swept away by Mehdi’s writing, I think that we’re dealing with a real filmmaker here, with a sharp sense of scriptwriting, pace and the making of the film itself.

I was thrilled with the award from the Venice Film Festival, but I must insist that it’s an award I share with my partner Najla Ben Abdallah. My character can only work when seen through the eyes of my partner and vice-versa. It takes two to make this process work.

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(Translated from French)

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