Director Mohamed Ben Attia on How His ‘Hedi’ Reflects Post-Revolution Tunisia

Inhebbek Hedi

Coming into Dubai’s Muhr feature competition boasting kudos for best first feature and best actor from the Berlinale, “Hedi” is an engrossing, realist drama about an inhibited young man whose mother basically runs his life, and how, in the week leading up to his wedding, he meets a free-spirited woman who opens a whole new world of possibilities for him.

Writer-director Mohamed Ben Attia sees his film as a metaphor for Tunisia after the Jasmine revolution. “I wanted to tell this story of Hedi, a young man who doesn’t know where he’s going or what he likes to do, until he meets Rim,” he says.

This love story upsets all of his points of reference and allows him to know himself better and to discover himself. What he can do and what he can’t do. Learn a bit more about the type of person he’s going to be. “It’s in that concept that I find the interesting parallel. Six years after the revolution, we’re still at this stage of the learning process and of trial and error,” the director notes. “Just like Hedi, the day after the revolution, we thought that everything would be possible, and quickly. We were immersed in a sort of naiveté. Just like lovers, we believed that we were strong and invulnerable. Today we’ve learned a bit more about ourselves, and we continue to learn.”

From the frightening, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed mother to the lovely, free-spirited Rim, the film’s female characters are stronger and more interesting than the lethargic Hedi.

“I think the obstacles to a woman flourishing paradoxically allow her to surpass herself,” Ben Attia notes. “It is through certain social difficulties that a woman is able to impose herself by overcoming them.

“For the man, on the other hand, his privileged position does not help him in anything. Today we don’t expect much of a man other than that he succeeds in his studies, find a job and establish a family. A model of success that is beginning to suffocate, and thus weaken, him.”

In a character-driven film such as “Hedi,” the right cast is essential. Majd Mastoura, who plays the title role (and took the Berlinale best actor prize) came to the casting call because of a Facebook announcement.  “His sensitivity and his intelligence immediately impressed me,” Ben Attia notes.

“In his life, he is very different from Hedi. He is exuberant, he loves street poetry, dance… Our challenge was therefore multi-fold. He had to succeed in personifying Hedi in his approach, his look, his voice.”

Nomadis Images producers Dora Bouchoucha Fourati and Lina Chaabane Menzli recommended Rym Ben Messaoud for the part of Rim. “When we put the two face to face, we knew that we had our couple,” Ben Attia says.

Ben Attia, who studied finance before going into filmmaking, had worked with Nomadis Images on several short films before “Hedi.”

“Hedi” also benefitted from a pair of illustrious co-producers, the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

“We did many meetings by Skype,” Ben Attia recounts. “They always asked for details related to the intention and to the truth of Hedi. They helped me a lot by doing this.” “They were delicate and very curious, which of course motivated me a lot,” he adds.

What impact have the Berlinale awards had so far? Aside from the visibility, “what touches me every time is the testimony of certain viewers who, despite everything, find similarities with their own lives.

“The universality of the subject is an important point for me, and to succeed in arousing this emotion remains overall the true essence of this profession.”

He has already started working on his next feature script. “It is again a simple story about ordinary people who show us something that is bigger and stronger than anything we can imagine.”