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Kaouther Ben Hania, the director who dreamed of studying all her life

For Kaouther Ben Hania, “each film is a new apprenticeship”: the Franco-Tunisian director, whose last feature film opened Friday evening at the Mediterranean Cinema Festival in Montpellier (Cinemed), has daringly traveled through the universes and very diverse cinematographic forms.

“My dream was to remain a student all my life but cinema allows me to continue to learn and it’s enjoyable”, confides the 43-year-old screenwriter and director to AFP.

Born on August 27, 1977 in Sidi Bouzid (central Tunisia), where there was no cinema, Kaouther Ben Hania belongs to “the VHS generation” which “grew up with Indian Bollywood films”.

Arriving in Tunis for business studies, the young woman admits that she wants to make cinema thanks to the Tunisian federation of amateur filmmakers.

Installed in Paris, where she followed in particular a one-year writing workshop at Femis before a research master, the brunette forty-something with a voluntary face found “peace” there. She writes on her own and embarks on each new film “as in a love story”.

In 2010, after several short films, Kaouther Ben Hania chose the documentary form for “The imams go to school” then in 2014, the fake satirical documentary for “Le Challat de Tunis”, a real or fantasized scarring of female buttocks. Two years later, in “Zaineb does not like snow”, she delivers a sensitive chronicle of the heroine’s passage into adolescence, filmed between 9 and 15 years old, between Tunisia and Quebec.

In 2017, she took a decisive step with “La Belle et le Meute”, which received an ovation at Cannes in the “Un certain regard” selection. Made up of nine sequence shots, the feature film closely follows Mariam, who struggles during one night to file a complaint after being raped by the police.

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Claiming a universalist message, Kaouther Ben Hania is part of the young generation of Tunisian filmmakers who have put on the screen societal and political issues long banned under the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. She says she is “very excited by what is happening in Tunisia” since the popular revolution of 2011.

“Under the dictatorship, I would never have been able to make the films I make today and which are supported by Tunisia,” she underlines.

“Tunisia is still under construction, of course it’s chaos, it anguishes the bourgeoisie that the plebs are manifesting themselves, but these upheavals are the most interesting moments in history”, she judges.

With “The Man Who Sold His Skin”, which will be released in theaters on December 16, Kaouther Ben Hania moves away from his native country but strikes people again by brilliantly filming the violent encounter between two worlds – that of the contemporary art and refugees, two subjects that fascinate her.

Sam Ali, played by the Tunisian actor Yahya Mahayni (male actor prize at the Venice Film Festival) is not “born on the good side of the world”. After an arbitrary arrest, he must flee Syria which is sinking into war and abandon the one he loves to take refuge in Lebanon.

In order to be able to join his love in Belgium, he accepts a Faustian pact with a sulphurous artist very popular on the art market: to have his back tattooed and to be exhibited then sold at auction. At the risk of losing his soul and his freedom.

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With great formal beauty, Kaouther Ben Hamia, who was inspired by the tattoo of a man by Belgian plastic artist Wim Delvoye, scrutinizes the cynicism of the world. And recalls forcefully “that the goods can circulate there freely but not the men”, even when they undergo the worst persecutions.

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