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People in Film: Kaouther Ben Hania

Sep 06, 2011

Kaouther Ben Hania studied cinema in both Tunisia and France, and recently started working on world class films, both in fiction and documentary. She made several short films including ‘Me, My Sister and The “Thing”’ (2006), which had a long and successful run on the international festival circuit. Her last documentary film ‘Imams Go to School’ premiered at International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) 2010 and was selected for several other international film festivals, including the Dubai International Film Festival in December 2010. She also worked as a screener in Aljazeera Documentary Channel in Doha for one year (2006-2007).

Kaouther is currently finishing work Directing 120 episodes of a 3D animated series called ‘Borj Elouloum’ (tour of science) for the Aljazeera Children’s Channel. She is also developing her second feature documentary ‘Zaineb Hates the Snow’, with CINETELEFILMS.

‘Imams Go to School’ – Trailer

DFI: Your documentary ‘Imams go to school’ found a unique angle into the subject of the modernization of Islam in France: a program in Paris, where the city’s Catholic Institute teaches aspiring Imams about secularism and the strict division between church and state. What inspired you to choose this topic, and what did you learn from this experience?
Kaouther: When I heard about this program, I found it surprising and unique. So I met the students, visited the Catholic Institute, and then filmed for two years all the visual elements that allowed me to tell this story. To film a group of individuals during such a singular apprenticeship, gave me the opportunity to seize the precious intellectual exchange between teachers and students around the issue of the possible secularisation of Islam. Showing Imams learning secularity from Catholics’ is the “eccentric” side of the movie that allows the expression of several contradictions; telling paradoxes of French society today and also of the world in which we live. It was also an opportunity to show this small group of student Imams dealing with these important issues.

DFI: Congratulations on your DFI grant for your feature film‘ Challat of Tunis’. Can you tell us more about it?
Kaouther: Challat of Tunis is a film inspired by a case in Tunisian news. Several years ago a man on a moped, razor blade in hand, was slashing the women strolling down the city’s sidewalks. The specter of Challatt temporarily changed the dress code of Tunisian women. Challatt became a mysterious figure fueling both passions and tensions; a myth that evoked fascination, fantasy and terror. My film begins many years later, after the Tunisian revolution. Challatt has supposedly been freed from jail, and I set out to find him. Investigating this living legend from the inside, I want to reveal what an urban myth can tell us about our society, our culture and our identity. I want to take the viewer on an insightful and entertaining voyage into a society where information is strictly controlled, where a woman’s body remains a subject of political debate.

DFI: What brought you into filmmaking?
Kaouther: I grew up in Sidi Bouzid (a small town in the center of Tunisia, well known since the revolution) there were no movie theatres. I grow up with Egyptian and Mexican soaps on television, so I spent all my time reading novels. Good literature was more available than good film. My passion for storytelling was alimented by great writers, and I discovered Dostoïevski before discovering Tarkovski and Cervantes before Buñuel!

Then when I was student in Tunis, I joined the Tunisian Federation of Amateur Filmmakers, where I learned a lot about making amateur films, trying to tell stories with low budgets, and no production facilities. It was a great experience. So I decided to become a filmmaker. I followed directing trainings in a private cinema school in Tunisia to know more about the technical side. Then I was admitted to a prestigious French school (La Fémis) for script writing training. Then I earned a Master’s degree in cinema at La Sorbonne.

DFI: Did your cinema education bring you the knowledge you expected?
Kaouther: All this cinema education refined my inner motivation to tell stories. It gave me references; let me know a lot about other cinematographic experiences. But can art be learned? No. Yes. A little bit, who knows? Personally I’ve always felt that there’s something fundamentally disingenuous about learning how to create.

DFI: How do you define the role of cinema in societies?
Kaouther: Cinema makes us live our emotions through characters, through stories. It is a visible catharsis, giving us emotional and passionate support. International film industries have always exerted considerable influence on audience’s psyche. Film has a tremendous influence on the masses, and filmmakers have a great responsibility.

In the Arab world we don’t have a film industry, only some films here and there, brought to life in very difficult conditions (lack of budget, censorship, absence of real distribution…) When I make a comparison between the huge number of television stations and the number of movie theaters in our countries, it makes me sad.

Our contemporary Arab society is overflowing with information and audiovisual material, but we are in need of deeper reflections. Cinema at least gives us the space and time to understand and to “experience”. Television is the consumerism of the “current images”, of what we forget. It institutionalizes for amnesia. Cinema is our contemporary memory.

DFI: How did the uprisings in Tunisia affect you as a filmmaker?
Kaouther: I am very much indebted to all young Tunisians who made this peaceful revolution. Indebted because they gave us back our freedom of speech. Before January 14th 2011, the police automatically suspected filming the streets with a camera. The streets belonged to the police and the reality was almost only shaped by the official propaganda of Ben Ali’s regime.
During the revolution, it seems every Tunisian became a filmmaker with his mobile phone. Images of people killed in Sidi Bouzid, Gasserine and Tella were shared on the Internet. The official propaganda was absurd, so the Tunisians made their own images, their own realities. It was a very “visual” revolution and I think it’s a premiere in the history of revolutions around the world.

DFI: You are developing your second feature documentary ‘Zaineb Hates the Snow’, what is it about?
Kaouther: It is a love story, narrated from the point of view of Zaineb, a child of nine years. Zaineb lost her father in a car accident. Her mother has fallen in love again, and is about to rebuild her life with a man in Canada. The film is about this journey from Tunisia to Canada, highlighting important notions, like: family, appurtenance, memories, childhood and coming out of age. It is an intimate documentary narrated with a lot of creative tools like animation for example.

DFI: What stories you want to tell?
Kaouther: I love documentaries and to think that our reality is so rich, but I want also to make fiction, historical dramas and thrillers. In fact I want to tell so many stories, but what is problematic with cinema is that making films takes a lot of time (2 years minimum). I think if I manage to make a film every 2 years, I will never be able to tell all the stories I want!

DFI: What film/filmmaker inspired you and why?
Kaouther: When I was working on ‘Imams go to school’ I watched films like ‘Nanook of the North’ by Robert J. Flaherty, ‘High School’ by Frederick Wiseman, ‘A Flood in Baath Country’ by Omar Amiralay. It was important for me to see how these brilliant filmmakers film reality without commentary, without criticism and in which way.

When I wrote the script for ‘Challat of Tunis’, I watched films like ‘Punishment Park’ of Peter Watkins, ‘Zelig’ by Woodie Allen, ‘Dr. Strangelove’ or ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ by Stanley Kubrick. It was very interesting to see through these films the use of the documentary aesthetics in telling an important topic in an absurd and funny way.

Many other filmmakers inspire me like Gus Van Sant, Lars von Trier, Kim Ki-duk, Tsai Ming-liang. These directors (and probably some others) have a unique way to tell wonderful stories with a strong vision in an innovative inimitable way.

DFI: What is your message to filmmakers in the beginning of their career?
Kaouther: To be humble, to avoid certitudes. Only doubt can make us better, better filmmakers, better people.

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