For Tunisian director Mohamed Ben Attia, whose first feature “Hedi” screened in the Berlin competition on opening day, having Belgium’s Dardenne brothers as co-producers truly turned out to be the stuff that young Arab auteurs’ dreams are made of.
His film, a love story set against Tunisia’s post-revolutionary backdrop, had been languishing in development hell for two years when news arrived that the venerable directorial duo who’ve won the Palm d’Or twice (“Rosetta” and “L’Enfant”) and produced plenty of prized pics by other directors wanted to get involved.
“I could hardly believe it when my producer Dora Bouchoucha gave me the news,” he recounts. “When we Skyped the first time, I didn’t want to look too delighted or enthusiastic; I was trying to play it cool.”
Attia had previously shot some shorts including “Selma” about a female taxi driver in Tunis which Bouchoucha had sent to Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne along with his first draft of the script for “Hedi.” The script was “very realistic,” a type of narrative, incidentally, known to be a Dardennes’ directorial trademark.
“We were immediately fascinated,” says Jean-Pierre Dardenne. “We liked the writing style and therefore decided to come on board.”
Though for Arab filmmakers local funding opportunities are growing, European coin in most cases remains crucial.
“Tunisian filmmakers today need to find a European producer in order to be able to access funding which they would be otherwise denied,” Jean-Pierre Dardenne notes. Their monetary contribution to “Hedi” amounted to one-third of the pic’s undisclosed total budget.
But having the Dardennes championing your movie means a lot more than mere moolah.
“Jean Pierre helped me during the writing stage,” says Attia. “He started asking me questions.”
What interested both of them most was “this young man [Hedi] who little by little distances himself from the tradition of his family background and ends up being somehow excluded from his community.”
They prompted him to ask himself more questions about the character and to “get more and more to the core of what I wanted him to do and what I wanted to say.”
Then when Attia went into the editing room the Dardennes started shooting their new film, “The Unknown Girl,” so their contacts became very limited.
“But they managed to find a time to see a first edit and once again they gave me precious suggestions,” he says. They shepherded the film through post-production.
“Hedi,” which is co-produced by Bouchoucha’s Nomadis Images with the Dardennes’ Les Films du Flueve is being sold at EFM by emerging French sales company Luxbox, launched last year by Fiorella Moretti and Hedi Zardi.