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RED SEA 2023

Mohamed Ben Attia • Director of Behind the Mountains

“What was on my mind was the anger and rage of someone who wants to explode”

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- The Tunisian director delves into his mysterious fantasy-drama, first shown in Venice’s Orizzonti, but without unveiling all its secrets

Mohamed Ben Attia  • Director of Behind the Mountains

Mohamed Ben Attia’s Behind the Mountains [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Mohamed Ben Attia
film profile
]
first premiered to a strong response in Venice’s Orizzonti section; last week, it showed in the Red Sea International Film Festival's main competition, with it also having been supported by the Red Sea Fund. The Tunisian director’s most mythic-feeling film to date, it challenges our sense of an objective point of view, as it follows an ex-convict who kidnaps his estranged young son, whereupon the former displays the magical ability of flight.

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Cineuropa: What was the initial inspiration for Behind the Mountains?
Mohamed Ben Attia:
Many years ago, I had a dream. I don't remember the exact details, but I was dreaming about flying. It’s obviously something that’s not technically possible, and the imagery in the dream wasn’t like being a superhero. But it started from that point. And little by little, when I started writing, what was on my mind was the anger and the rage of someone who wants to explode.

Obviously, the flying sequences are very bold; was it important for you to create this sense of awe, but not have it feel too ridiculous? Some people in my audience were laughing, but I think that was because they found it so unexpected. Did you do storyboards, camera tests and experiments?
Yes, we worked on storyboards. But I was very afraid of these technical aspects because I’ve previously been very far from this style of filmmaking. Luckily, I was surrounded by people who knew full well what they wanted to do. We tried to make it so that Rafik [played by Majd Mastoura] would be embarking on his first steps, and would initially not be so good at flying – he’s trying it out and is uncertain.

Would it be fair to say that Behind the Mountains has the most interest in ambiguity, out of all your films so far? What appealed to you about creating this more unknowable narrative? It has the feeling of a modern myth, where the surrounding characters are enraptured by Rafik’s gifts.
I understand what you’re saying, and that's why it was very hard to find financing, because at that stage, it was very difficult to explain the tone and the intention precisely to anyone. I want to give the audience an opportunity to ask themselves questions about what they are watching. As you suggest, it's more about an instinct, something very visceral inside of him. It was important for me to convey the reality of this guy as closely as possible, even if we are talking about delusion.

Is this film also an attempt to cross-examine contemporary Tunisia? Like producing a kind of national portraiture but in an offhand, subtle way?
It's not only Tunisia; it's more about modern life in the whole world. Something is broken, especially now. In our film, we didn’t want to provide any solution or any optimistic way to change things, but just to break our bonds and say, “That’s enough. I'm done.” I'm hoping we can do something to live in another way.

Your words of dedication to your son at the Saudi premiere were very moving. With the troubled father-son bond at its centre, was Behind the Mountains an opportunity to closely reflect on fatherhood?
It was, and I also began reflecting on this with my second movie, Dear Son [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Mohamed Ben Attia
film profile
]
. I am a father, and has it changed me, yes. It gives me another perception of the world. So that's why I keep on asking the same question, but more deeply and in another way.

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