First Arab contender in 20 years opens Berlin film fest race

 12 Feb 2016 - 18:10

First Arab contender in 20 years opens Berlin film fest race
Cast members Rym Ben Messaoud, Sabah Bouzouita (L) Majd Mastoura (2nd L) and director Mohamed Ben Attia (2nd R) attend a news conference to promote the movie 'Inhebbek Hedi' at the 66th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin February 12, 2016. REUTERS


Berlin: A love story set against the aftermath of Tunisia's watershed revolution kicked off the competition at the Berlin film festival Friday as the first Arab-produced contender in two decades.

Hailing from the North African country that triggered the Arab Spring, "Hedi" is the debut feature-length film of Tunisian filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia.

It is the first Arab production set in the Arab world since 1996 to vie for prizes at Europe's first major cinema showcase of the year, a festival spokeswoman said. 

"It's not that I'm not ambitious, but I never imagined going to Berlin! All of us are surprised," Ben Attia told AFP.

The only other debut feature in the race this year -- British theatre director Michael Grandage's "Genius" -- has an all-star cast including Colin Firth, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman.

"Hedi" was warmly received at a press preview ahead of its gala world premiere as one of 18 films from around the world vying for the festival's Golden Bear top prize, with three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep heading up the jury.

The film's tale of "emotional upheaval" echoes Tunisia's recent history, said Ben Attia, who turns 40 this year. But rather than impart a political "message", his movie describes a kind of personal revolution.

The movie is part of a special focus on Arab cinema at the festival, with keenly awaited features in its sidebar sections including a Saudi "romantic comedy". 

- Wake-up call -

The film's main character Hedi -- whose name means "serene" in Arabic -- "isn't unemployed, his family doesn't have any money problems... but he feels out of place in society", Ben Attia said.

When he meets a tour guide called Rim and love strikes, Hedi (played by Majd Mastoura) begins to ask serious questions about the man he wants to be.

Their passionate affair -- shown in frank sex scenes -- marks an unprecedented revolt by the timid Hedi, who is due to enter into a marriage arranged by his domineering mother. 

Ben Attia said he himself used to be a "conformist", selling cars for a living -- much like his lead character -- before launching into filmmaking.

The wake-up call came on January 14, 2011 standing in the crowd outside the interior ministry demanding the removal of longtime dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

It was the end of an era "under censorship that we thought was only political, but in fact was (also) sedating everybody", he said.

Protests swept Tunisia in late 2010 after the death of a street vendor who set himself on fire in protest at unemployment and police harassment, leading Ben Ali to flee the country.

In the tumult wrought by the revolution, Hedi "discovers himself through a love story" and "detaches himself from conventions".

He realises "he has another choice -- but then, after the euphoria, he discovers it's not all that easy", Ben Attia said in Tunis ahead of the festival.

Critics praised the film, with London-based Geoff Andrew tweeting: "Berlinale competition starts well... Strong portrait of young man torn between marriage and unpredictability."

New York-based film writer Aseem Chhabra called it on Twitter a "strong story about a man setting himself free from an overbearing mother, conventions!".

- 'Bit of a hangover' -

Tunisia is hailed as a rare success story of the Arab Spring, although authorities have failed to improve the economy and last month imposed a nationwide curfew to curb some of the worst social unrest since the revolution.

"It's true we have a bit of a hangover," Ben Attia said. "We thought he (Ben Ali) just needed to leave for it all to get better.

In the film, the lovers Hedi and Rim (played by Rim Ben Messaoud) start thinking about quitting the country.

But the director said he has never contemplated leaving, especially as Tunisian films make waves abroad.

"Tunisian cinema has been on the move. We've seen films that stand out, that are well received abroad and at home," he said.