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A National Pride for Tunisia: An Interview with Dhafer L’Abidine

That Al Saytara (2015- )

That Al Saytara (2015- )

By Neila Driss.

During the 40th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), which took place from November 20 to 29, 2018, the Tunisian actor Dhafer L’Abidine was chosen as a member of the international competition jury, the most important competition of the festival. The Jury was presided by Danish director Bille August, one of the few people to have received the Palme d’Or twice (in 1988 for Pelle, The Conqueror and in 1992 for The Best Intentions). In addition to Dhafer L’Abidine, jury members included Kazakh actress Samal Yeslyamova (Ayka, 2018), Filipino director Brillante Mendoza (Ma ‘Rosa, 2016), Lebanese actress Diamand Bou Abboud (Insyriated, 2017; The Insult 2017), Argentinian screenwriter and producer Juan Viera, Belgian actress Natacha Régnier (Une part d’ombre, 2017), Egyptian director Hala Khalil (Nawara, 2015) and Italian director Francesco Munzi (Black Souls, 2014).

Born in Tunisia in 1972, Dhafer L’Abidine studied computer science before moving to the UK in order to study acting. He graduated from Birmingham University with a Professional Acting Diploma in 2002. He was honored by his alma mater on January 11th as ‘Excellence in The Arts’ Alumni of the Year 2019.

In 2003, Dhafer began his acting career in the popular British Dream Team TV show (1997-2007) playing the part of Marcel Sabatier in 60 episodes (seasons 6 & 7, 2002-2004). Dhafer L’Abidine enjoyed a successful career in several international film productions, such as Children of Men (2006), Sex and the City 2 (2010) and Kingdom of Dust (2011), before his breakthrough to stardom in the Arab world. Always keen on appearing in Arab TV dramas, Dhafer recently starred in the TV show Eugénie Nights (2018) as well as the two successful TV series: Caramel and Halawat Al Dounia (Life is Beautiful). He was awarded the Murex D’or for Best Arab Actor in a TV series in 2018 and the Best Actor award at the Arab Satellite Channels Festival for his roles in these TV series.

As for Arab films, L’Abidine has starred in several Tunisian films, including Raja Amari’s Buried Secrets (2009), which was selected for many international film festivals. He also appeared in End of December (2010) and Fausse Note (2012). Besides Tunisian cinema, he starred in the Egyptian action-comedy film Esmat Abu Shanab (2016) and the Lebanese comedy Habbet Caramel (2018). During the Cairo InternationaI Film Festival, I saw L’Abidine at all the screenings of the films in competition. He was very diligent and took his role very seriously, which is consistent with his reputation for conscientiousness and respect for his duty. I also had the pleasure of sitting down with Dhafer L’Abidine to discuss a wide range of topics, including fame, social justice causes close to his heart and his work in Arab cinema.

What do you think of the CIFF? Is this the first time you have participated?

I have a special relationship with Egypt and the CIFF. I really like this festival, it presents an interesting selection of films each year. Their high standard organization is also a crucial advantage.

This year, as a member of the jury, I had the chance to see all sixteen feature films of the international competition. I enjoyed watching these high-quality films with the public and discussing them with the other jury members.

Even though these films came from many different countries, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, France, Uruguay …, I realized that in fact, the cinema language remains the same. The great thing is that you learn a lot about other cultures. For example, I learned that problems in the Philippines are similar to those we have in the Arab world. It’s very interesting.

Thanks to these films, we also had the opportunity to see the work of other directors, the way they see things, the way they treat certain topics…. The jury I participated in was also diverse: there were producers, directors, screenwriter and actors. Sharing this experience with professionals from different backgrounds and countries was very rewarding.

In just a few years, you have become very famous. Your fame has far exceeded Tunisian and even Arab borders. Do you think that this celebrity carries a responsibility, even an obligation to put it to the service of certain causes?

Sex and the City 2 (2010)

Sex and the City 2 (2010)

No one has to engage in humanitarian or charity or other causes. It is a personal choice. It must not be used as a way to become more famous or to sell an image. Unfortunately, this is the case for many famous people who get involved in humanitarian projects for selfish reasons. I strongly believe that serving a political, social or humanitarian cause requires honesty. The person must be truly convinced himself, ready to do so in a voluntary, sustained and above all sincere manner. Commitment is a responsible act. A celebrity who is committed must be responsible because people will believe what they will say, or even follow their example and act like them.

Personally, I am a women’s rights ambassador. I think all women should have the opportunity to lead a free and dignified life, against violence and sexual harassment. I often collaborate with the UN and I participated in several actions in Lebanon, New York… A few days ago, in Cairo, I attended the opening ceremony of the sixteen days campaign of action against violence against women on the theme “Orange the world: #HearMeToo; Stop violence against women and girls” in the General Secretariat of the League of Arab States (*). Women’s cause is very very important to me, therefore I try through all the opportunities that are available to me, both in the media and by any other means, to convey the message I believe in to all those who will listen, and even to those who do not wish to hear it.

I guess you know that in Tunisia, the proposed law on equal inheritance between men and women has been accepted in the Council of Ministers and will be submitted shortly to the vote in the The Assembly of the Representatives of the People. What do you think of this equality?

I am 100% in favor of equality between men and women in all fields, including inheritance.

Why is that?

Because I think men and women are the same. They do the same studies, they both work, they take care of their families, they take on the same responsibilities… What are the differences between them? None. I only distinguish people by their actions, never by their sex. Men and women are both human beings, so they must be equal. It’s simple.

Even if, according to some, this is contrary to shariaa (Islamic law)?

I do not know what shariaa really says. Opinions diverge and Islamologists give a myriad of interpretations. I am not a specialist in deciding or issuing fatwas. But I know that the controversy exists. I also know that last week in Egypt a sheikh of Al Azhar [one of the oldest Islamic universities in the world] gave an explanation, whereas in Tunis, another sheikh gave a different one. Nothing is very clear or precise. So, let’s put the rule of equality first and then let people debate, give their opinion, share and listen to each other. Listening to each other is very important, it can only enrich us all.

Do you think that the Egyptian soap opera Halawet El Donia (Life is Beautiful) (2017), in which the Tunisian actress Hend Sabry and you had the main roles and which deals with cancer patients, is somewhat militant and could serve to give hope to the sick?

Of course! A sentence can give hope. A word can give hope. This soap opera embodies a message of hope. Sometimes a word or a book, can change the course of a life, so what about 30 episodes that speak of hope! After the broadcast of this series, Hend and I took part in several actions like meeting patients. Many of them told us that the soap opera had a positive effect on them and helped them. Before taking this role, I asked for the advice of my mother and my sister who had had cancer. And they said yes, they had no objection about this character. Then, when they saw it, they liked it a lot.

When one gets so seriously ill, what can be done? The choice is very clear: either give up or fight and move forward. This soap opera clearly says that one has to fight. It gives hope to continue. Its optimism is communicative.

What are your future plans? Filming in Tunisia in the near future? Nothing is planned in Tunisia soon. But I’ll start

shooting very very soon a TV show abroad. I cannot tell you more, the production has to announce everything! Many Arab countries collaborated for this project, it is a pan-Arab series. I would like to work more in Tunisia, but that requires some interesting projects. I must admit that sometimes it’s simply a matter of time: I am offered a project whereas I am already engaged elsewhere. Of course, any Tunisian project is dear to me because it is my country, therefore it is close to me. In addition, it reminds me of my beginnings. I really hope the opportunity will come soon. 

An Egyptian cinema critic said in 2017 that Tunisian cinema is the future of Arab cinema, what do you think?

Centurion (2010)

Centurion (2010)

I agree that Tunisian cinema has made huge steps. Each year, we have two or three Tunisian films selected in major festivals, such as those of Venice, Berlin or even Cannes. It makes me very happy and proud. But is Tunisian cinema in general at the top? I think we still have many difficulties. I agree we have talents, but the problem is that they cannot easily break through. Artists sometimes get lost because they cannot find their way. They sometimes have to wait ten years to make a film. In the meantime, they are doing something else. Some finally give up… Not to mention the lack of structures, movie theaters … The state should provide more support to filmmakers. The worst thing is that we’ve been talking about the same problems for more than 20 years, we’ve been saying for over 20 years that we do not have enough cinemas, it’s been over 20 years that we deplore that all cities do not have access to the cinema, it’s been more than 20 years that we’ve repeated the same thing, and it’s been more than 20 years since the Ministry of Cultural Affairs made promises, but still nothing. Nothing happens. It is heartbreaking. Especially when we see the way other countries are moving forward.Why, for example, don’t we have multiplexes everywhere like in Lebanon?Culture is very very important. Why don’t we require that in every mall there be movie theaters?

So according to you, culture has a very big role, especially with the youth. 

Of course, it’s very important. Just as we need food every day to feed our body, we also need culture to feed our minds. That might be through TV programs, books, a movie … It is very important of course. Especially for the young generations. Moreover, culture teaches us Life. It teaches us how to behave with each other, how to understand each other, how to see things differently….

Do you like reading? 

Yes, I love reading. I actually read everything: political essays, novels … I can read two books at the same time, leave one and go to the other, then come back. But of course, what I read the most are screenplays. Recently I read a philosophical book on the evolution of human beings. The author tries to explain to us how the brain evolved, how the human being was and behaved during prehistory and how that same human being has become today. This evolution took place through our DNA. This is very interesting because we believe that our DNA is hereditary, but we see that it changes and evolves: our memory, our way of thinking pass from one generation to another through our DNA.

What is your favorite movie?

Without really thinking, I would say Seven (1995), directed by David Fincher, with Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kevin Spacey. It’s a great story. The end is completely unpredictable. The actors’ performances are excellent. In addition, it is a film that has not aged a bit, more than twenty years after its release, it is still as beautiful.

In both Tunisia and Egypt, you have the reputation of being a very calm person, very wise, very respectful and very professional. No misconduct of any kind, no misbehavior, no scandals even minor… Is this in order to maintain your image?

I am myself. I do not know if I am wise or not. I live as I feel and as I am. How do people perceive me? I do not really know. I try to never pay attention to other persons’ judgments, whether good or bad. For years, people have identified me with Dali, my character in the Tunisian soap opera Maktoub (Destiny) (2008-2009-2011-2014) and it was hard to imagine otherwise. But I have nothing to do with Dali, who is an unfaithful man, a womanizer… Even though I’m famous, I want to live normally, like everyone else, without being apart. Like everyone, I have professional and personal obligations, I have to pay bills, fill out administrative forms, go shopping … And like everyone, I have a private life, a family, moments of joy and sadness…. The bottom line is to be myself and lead the life I want for myself.

You may not know how people perceive you, but I can personally testify that both in Tunisia and in Egypt, I have never heard anything negative about you, quite the contrary. Especially in Egypt, everyone praises your qualities, your professionalism, your discretion, and especially your respect for your work and your commitments. You make us very proud of you in Tunisia. Good luck in the future.

* The “16 days of action against violence against women” is an international campaign that takes place each year, from November 25th (International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) to December 10th (Human Rights Day). Since 2014, the official color of this campaign is orange, which symbolizes a better future and a fairer world, without violence against women and girls.

Neila Driss is a Tunisian lawyer, journalist, blogger and cinéphile. In 2006, she won the Most Promising Blog Prize at the Tunisia Blog Awards and in the following year, she won the first place jury prize. In more recent years, she has been writing about cinema, in particular Arab cinema, and she has published on the subject in Tunisian and Egyptian newspapers (Tunis Hebdo, Al Akhbar and Al Ahram) and in online magazines and websites, including Webdo.tn, Tourismag.com, Za2ed18.com and Film International. She has covered various film festivals, particularly Cannes Film Festival (since 2013) and Carthage Film Festival (since 2010).

Read also:

Beauty and the Dogs: Women’s Revolution in Tunisian Cinema

Robert Lang’s New Tunisian Cinema: Allegories of Resistance

Knowing Our Past: An Interview with Legendary Tunisian Actor Fatma Ben Saidane

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