Dubai: Arab World Women Directors – Claire Belhassine, ‘The Man Behind the Microphone’

Variety profiles five women directors with features in main competition at Dubai

After a well-received world premiere at IDFA, UK-based Claire Belhassine brings her first documentary feature “The Man Behind The Microphone,” the story of Hedi Jouini (1909-1990), known as “Tunisia’s Frank Sinatra” – and her paternal grandfather – to DIFF’s Muhr competition. Her film is more than a music biopic, as it keeps in its purview a complicated family history and the many societal changes taking place in Tunisia during the performer’s popularity.

The process of making the film proved a journey of discovery for Belhassine. She says, “My father moved to the U.K. in the 1960s and I was born and raised there not knowing or having any other connection to my huge family in Tunisia other than summer visits.” Her main memories of her grandfather, who was often away from home, were of his warmth and kindness and the beautiful way he dressed.

Her father Ferid, meanwhile, had his reasons for closing the door on his past and the family he considered dysfunctional. Belhassine notes, “He was the eldest of Hedi’s six children and took on the role of the surrogate father to his siblings. His mother was 16 when she had him so struggled with six children and Hedi’s absences.”

The documentary took 10 years to complete. Belhassine says, “The archive was like a huge puzzle, I’d find a piece that would fill in the blanks of one part of the story. The photos were mostly family owned but gaining the trust of my uncles and aunts and explaining how I was going to use them was the first hurdle…there was a lot of mistrust due to the fallouts they’d experienced with the music rights and plagiarism in general.”

And what does her extended family think of the film?  Belhassine says, “My father saw it the day we finished post and loved it. I think he found it quite overwhelming; the content is dense, we pack a lot in from Hedi’s early childhood in the 1920s to the present day. His first reaction was how much he loved the music, he had never seen or heard most of it.” The rest of her clan will see it in Dubai.

What’s next for Belhassine? She says, “I’m taking some time out to be with my kids and research potential projects and collaborators. I want to continue working in the region and exploring some of the themes touched on in this film, cultural identity, gender roles, emerging music hybrids. The next project won’t take 10 years for sure!”

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