Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania is one of the two Arab auteurs who made the cut for the Cannes official selection this year. Her first full-fledged feature, “Beauty and the Dogs,” which screens in Un Certain Regard, is centered around the rape of a young woman by policemen outside a beachfront nightclub in Tunisia, based on a true case that sparked plenty of outrage. Ben Hania spoke to Variety about the challenges of bringing to the screen a story that is symbolic of Tunisia after the Arab Spring.
“Beauty and the Dogs” seems a natural transition from your previous works, “Imams Go to School,” “Challat of Tunis” and “Zaineb Hates the Snow,” which, simply put, are about social issues. What drew you to this subject?
The real rape case that happened in 2012 in Tunis made a big impression on me. I was struck by the courage of this girl who persisted in suing the policemen [who raped her] and I thought it would make a really good story for a movie.
What about the choice of dividing it into nine chapters, and the thriller element you chose to insert?
I wanted to shoot in long takes, so every chapter is one take. That’s because I think real time immerses the audience into something like real life, very strong emotionally. I was interested in telling the story of one night, and in what to show and what not to show — you don’t see the rape, for example. I also wanted this movie to be like tunnel: a long night, until the morning light. The thriller, and even horror, aspects are because of the tension and type of feeling you would experience in this situation. It’s both horrible and real. For me it was an element that could help strengthen the empathic connection with the protagonist.
How does the film reflect Tunisia’s ongoing transition?
The policemen are trying to find a way to make the protagonist stop persisting in her accusations. They want to shut her up. But there is no longer a dictatorship [in Tunisia]. Under the dictatorship, police were more violent and were more free to do whatever they wanted. Now it’s the same policemen, but they know they can’t behave the same way as before. Also, this film could not have been made before the 2011 revolution.