SAN SEBASTIAN — Hinde Boujemaa might have started her filmmaking career later than others, but she hasn’t lost any time in the subsequent years. The Tunisian director’s 2012 documentary “It Was Better Tomorrow” premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and she now returns with her feature-length fiction debut, “Noura’s Dream,” which follows a working-class woman seeking a divorce from her hoodlum husband while trying to build something new with another partner.
The film premiered in Toronto earlier this month, is currently playing San Sebastian as part of the festival’s New Directors program, and will head to the BFI London Film Festival in October.
Variety sat down with the director in San Sebastian.
You came to filmmaking later in life, and your story is rather unique. Could you tell us how you got started?
I began in the least sexy period of a woman’s life. When you’re in your forties, the world sees you as mother, someone who’s done her duties for her family. And I did all that, I had my kids, and then I decided to follow this path to filmmaking, which had been my passion since youth. I did more pragmatic studies, I got a degree in marketing and later worked in make-up and special effects, but I had wanted to pursue filmmaking for twenty years.
I started during the Tunisian Revolution [in 2011]. I made my own personal revolution during the larger countrywide revolution was taking place. I said, ‘Let’s go.’ When your country is going through that kind of change, it has an effect on the collective unconscious. You realize that everything is possible, up to an including things you want for yourself. At that point everyone wanted something different, and for me, that meant becoming a filmmaker.
The film deals with the subject of adultery in a way that is somewhat uncommon in Tunisian cinema…
I think it’s uncommon across the world. There have been films about adultery, but very few of them have been wholly empathetic to the woman. There’s often a kind of moral judgment attached. I wanted to make a film without any hint of moralizing, and I think that changes things up and gives the film its interest. There’s no moral judgment. That’s not just limited to Tunisia, which is already more modern than most of the other countries in the Arab world.
I wanted to sketch out the three main characters in a manner that opened itself to conversation. None of them are perfect, and if no one is perfect, [Noura, the female protagonist] is no more imperfect than either of the men. That’s the fine balance I tried to strike. Should a man tell me she only had to stay loyal to her husband, I would reply, “Look who her husband is.” She doesn’t love him anymore and she’s not happy, which she has the right to be. She has the right to feel love. A forty-year-old woman has the right to a more profound emotional life than just being a mother – and that’s the image we’re sold all over the world.
How would you describe Noura’s relationship with the two men in the film?
The two men are very important characters. Without them, she wouldn’t have much of a story. They’re very different from one another, but they both love her. [Because of Tunisia’s law against adultery], the husband could have her thrown in prison at any point. But he doesn’t, he pursues a different path. That’s his own extreme and sordid way of displaying his love. The lover has an adolescent quality. We don’t even know if the relationship could work under the terms he proposes. He has a childlike aspect, and maybe that’s what Noura likes about him. Maybe his childlike nature takes the weight of the world off her shoulders for a bit.
You close the film on a note of ambiguity, when Noura receives a phone call, but we don’t know who’s on the other end of the line. Could you talk about that choice?
I tried every possibility [as to who could be calling], and each time that I gave a clear answer, I felt like I was closing a door. All of sudden you weren’t wondering what might happen next. This kind of story is not some isolated incident; it’s something people live with their entire lives. Life is one problem after another, so it was important for me to leave the ending open, because otherwise it ties everything up too neatly, and life is not like that. Things always arise.
The film brings star Hend Sabri back to her native country, because she’s built her career abroad. Was that one of the appeals of casting her?
It was a big risk. Hend is based in Egypt, and hadn’t really shot in Tunisia for some time. Comparing those two countries is like comparing Sweden to France. Even if people don’t differentiate between the various countries, the Arab world is very diverse. So when she arrived in Tunisia, she needed to re-learn the language of the film, which is the language of the streets. This is a film shot in slang, so she needed to study that, and she needed to embody this character who has a very physical job. That took work, because it was important to understand the contradictions in this character in order to make the character more real.
Recently, a number of screenings of Mounia Meddour’s “Papicha” have been cancelled in its native Algeria. Your film is also critical of its country of origin; are you concerned about such repercussions?
Tunisia is somewhat apart in the freedom of expression it offers, while other Arab countries don’t have it to the same degree. In Tunisia, any film can come out. Nabil Ayouch’s “Much Loved” was released in our country, which was not the case in its native Morocco. I have yet to see “Papicha,” but I’m certain it will get a Tunisian release. We have the luck to avoid censorship. Unfortunately, other countries do have some constraints. I have yet to show my film in other Arab countries, so I’m waiting to see what might happen. But I know that I’ll have no problem in Tunisia.
Here’s where it helps to have a known actress. Hend is well known in the Arab world, though she’s almost never played a part like this, where she touches a very delicate subject. She might have put herself in danger playing this role, and that’s important. She’s very iconic, and now she’s coming out with a challenging film, so I’m very curious to see how people react.
Recently, you became one of the faces of the Toronto Film Festival’s “Share Her Journey” spotlight. Why are such initiatives important?
30 years ago, most directors were men. Of course there have always been female filmmakers, but percentage-wise, it was a world dominated by men. In the past decade, there has been this political will to develop a new generation of female directors, and to promote female voices. In an ideal world, festivals wouldn’t have to actively spotlight female filmmakers. Ideally, women would rise up in the industry on par with their male colleagues so festivals would naturally showcase as many films directed by women as by men.
At this moment, where we recognize women’s rising profile the film world – I say profile not presence, because women have always been present – it’s important for festivals to balance the scales. That’s how we can arrive at a more natural division.
We hear you’re already at work on your next project. Care to share any details?
I will deal with siblinghood, specifically the relationship between a brother and a sister, and the jealousy that develops when it comes to inheritance.