Mehdi Hmili • Director of Streams
“This proletarian type of character, struggling with reality, is my modern hero”
- We chatted to the director about his award-winning tale of a female victim of police injustice, who goes to prison for adultery
After having its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival, Streams [+see also:
interview: Mehdi Hmili
film profile] by Mehdi Hmili has just been shown in the Horizons of Arab Cinema Competition at the Cairo International Film Festival and scooped the Best Acting Performance Award there for Afef Ben Mahmoud’s exceptional turn in the main role (see the news). It tells the story of a female victim of police injustice, who goes to prison for adultery. This, of course, destroys her reputation and pushes her son towards a world of delinquency, depicted by Hmili with an intuitive sense of authenticity.
Cineuropa: Your film is the third I have watched at this festival made by a man from the Arab world who is criticising men in that very same world. There is apparently a tendency in that direction – what prompted you to raise your voice on this subject, too?
Mehdi Hmili: I had my own personal reasons to make Streams. As you can see at the end, the film is dedicated to my mother. The Arab world is difficult for women, and despite the impact of the #MeToo movement, women are not treated equally, especially the poor ones. Even though Tunisia is among the most tolerant and open-minded countries in the region, its society is still very judgemental, and the system is generally harsher on women. For a man to go to a prostitute is not an issue; however, a minor mistake could destroy a woman’s life, as I show here. My protagonist has been sexually harassed and raped, but she was held responsible for it just because she did the wrong thing by getting into the car of a stranger. I have made a film about personal choices, but also about a society that is falling apart and falling victim to self-destruction. I consciously chose to tell the story from the mother’s and son’s points of view, since it is based on my personal family experience.
So Streams is an autobiographical film, in a way?
Yes, and for this reason, I struggled for many years to complete it. It was expensive, and I insisted on producing it myself together with my partner, Moufida Fedhila, in order to keep control over the content and the overall process. We managed to attract co-producers from France [MPM Film] and Luxemburg [Tarantula]. I owed this film to my mother, since she really saved me from the madness you can see on screen by teaching me not to give up and to always fight back. The plot deals with many subjects from the contemporary Tunisian reality, but the most important thing for me was to show a woman who gets a second chance later in life. Her proletarian type of character, struggling with reality, is my modern hero.
What’s particularly interesting in Streams is the way you depict this double-layered society where, at first glance, everything looks like it’s controlled according to traditional values. However, under the surface, there is this violent underworld that you describe in all its murky detail. In this regard, did you have any issues securing local funding?
My goal was to make an honest movie and to show this harsh world of aggression, dealers and corruption on many levels. I lived through this myself, and despite the brutality, I experienced beautiful moments, too, so I hope this shines through as well. As for the production process, I wrote the script and participated with it in many local and international workshops. That is how I met Donato Rotunno from Tarantula Luxembourg, and we pushed the story further. Locally, I did not have any problems with censorship, as this is not an issue any more after the Revolution. I believe there will be no formal obstacles either with the release next month; however, I do expect negative reactions from different sides. Even bearing this in mind, I am glad that I expressed everything that I wanted to. I was a bit concerned about the reaction here in Egypt because of the nudity and drug scenes, but the reaction at the screening yesterday was very positive.
You studied in France, which has obviously influenced your style. Did you have role models to follow?
I am a fan of cinema vérité and John Cassavetes, as well as Maurice Pialat and the freedom of the French Nouvelle Vague. I made my first short films in black and white, imitating Philippe Garrel. In Streams, I looked for a way to truthfully show the pain of the characters, to express intimacy, so that the audience could believe us. With the main actress, Afef Ben Mahmoud, for example, we did not rehearse, since it was too painful for me, so I trusted her improvisational skills, and she managed to create a realistic character. The other actress, Zaza, who is a big music star in Tunisia, basically plays herself, as she is very much part of the cabaret world. I also worked with Ghalya Lacroix, who edits Abdellatif Kechiche’s films – his cinema has had an impact on my cinematic view a lot, too.
What about the explicit gay scene in the film? Did you have any obstacles when it came to that?
European audiences were more shocked by the drug use we see on screen, I think. The gay scene was tougher for the actors. I’ve always liked to push the limits and show things that people do not talk about but which they enjoy watching secretly.
Could this ambivalent attitude be the reason why Tunisian society has reached this point of self-destruction, as you put it?
Absolutely. Our society is ill, and religion plays a big part in it. The police are being used to protect this rotten system. After the Revolution, we truly hoped to build a new society. Before that, the police were corrupt, but afterwards, with all of the political instability and constantly changing governments, they spiralled out of control by pairing up with drug gangs and the criminal underworld. Streams could be attacked on those grounds, for telling the truth about this police corruption. But I am not concerned about this; I will just move on. This is also a lesson I learned from my mother.
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