Beauty and the dogs: the battle of a woman against the institutions
The Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania is the director of Beauty and the Dogs, her second fiction, co-produced with France. As in Le Challat de Tunis, her previous film, the issue raised in this film is a very feminine one, since it talks about a young woman who has been raped by policemen, and who tries to file a complaint to obtain compensation.
EWA blogger Véronique Le Bris met the young director, who started her cinema studies in Tunis before attending a scriptwriter’s workshop at the Fémis and graduating with a master’s degree in cinematographic research at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris.
Your film is inspired by an incident which happened in 2012, and which turned out to be highly publicized in Tunisia. What attracted you about this story?
What happened back then had captivated me: I followed the interviews of the victim on Tunisian television, in the press ... That’s what made me want to make a movie. After writing the first version of the script, I found out about the book* where the victim described the whole story. I read it, and my production company bought the rights so that I could work without worry. But I did not make an adaptation
What did you do with it?
I used the rape as a trigger for my story and I changed just about everything else. I focused on the night after the rape, but not on the trial for example. I even changed the outcome.
Have you taken liberties with the heroine herself?
Yes, her character is very different from reality: she neither has the same personality nor the same origins. I have weakened and characterized her differently. I also changed the chronology of her wandering.
What interested you in this story?
Reading between the lines, it depicts a heroine with her fragilities, who confronts a whole bunch of obstacles to achieve her objective: to file a complaint. It is a kind of realistic epic saga of a young single woman facing the institutions that embody the power. Her courage, her inner conflicts interested me, as well as how she would manage to succeed.
And in reality, how did this story end?
Meriem has managed to file a complaint. She has even benefited from the support of civil society. The case took a long time to be tried but in the end, the policemen were sentenced to 15 years of prison. She won the case.
Why did you choose to not show the trial in your film?
What interested me the most was the post-trauma moment. I found this to be much stronger.
It’s not the first time that you question a feminine issue through your films. Are you a militant?
Not at all, but being a woman is enough for me. Beauty and the Dogs is more a film about the notion of justice than about the place of women in society. The film talks about a young woman who claims a right, a trial in a society that does not work. It is a civic approach above all.
So the fact that your heroine is a woman does not change anything?
It does actually, it has an impact on many things. Her fragility is different. The dress she wears, for example, is the main piece of her accusation. She knows it and does not stop pulling on it as if the cloth could grow to exonerate her a little. But her social or geographical origins, her naivety, her relationship with her father... these are all handicaps, which turn out to be at least as important. The police use all of them against her. They know the codes and they try to protect their colleagues. What scandalizes them above everything else is that she dares to file a complaint.
Beauty and the Dogs is a realistic fiction. After the false documentary, Le Challat de Tunis, is this, in your opinion, a logical evolution of your work?
Each story suggests a different format. This time I chose to treat this tragic and decisive night in nine fragments, nine long shots that give the illusion of real time and generate tension. A real constraint for directing!
How did you put this in place?
By working on many rehearsals with the actors beforehand. The tension of the film is built on an upside-down countdown that ends not in the explosion but in the construction of the character.
Your film takes place in Tunis. Was this essential?
No, it could have happened anywhere in the world, there are similar stories everywhere, even in Sweden or in France. However, Tunisia is interesting because it is a rarely filmed country and it undergoes a phase of transition. My next film will be largely shot in France.
And what will your next film be about?
L’homme qui avait vendu sa peau will be the story of an encounter between a Syrian refugee and an American artist who is highly praised in the art market. They make a deal that will turn their lives upside down. For now, I’m still looking for funding.
Beauty and the Dogs (La Belle et la Meute), by Kaouther Ben Hania with Mariam Al Ferjani, Ghanem Zrelli,
Production: Tunisia, France, Sweden, Norway, Lebanon, Qatar, Switzerland
French release: October 18, 2017.
The film was selected in the Official Selection Un Certain Regard - Cannes 2017 and received the Student Jury Prize at the Francophone Film Festival in Angoulême 2017
* Coupable d’avoir été violée, by Meriem ben Mohamed with the collaboration of Ava Djamshidi. Editions Michel Lafon.