By Matthew Fullerton.
A Son deals with a family, and it’s through this lens that I speak out about the society in which I live.”
Without a doubt, Tunisia has witnessed a resurgence in filmmaking since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution. Whether it be from the new freedoms of opinion, thought and expression guaranteed in the 2014 Constitution or from continued international interest in stories of the human condition in the country or both, Tunisian filmmakers continue to impress international artists and critics with hard-hitting films capturing the post-revolution zeitgeist. And the future for filmmaking in the country looks very hopeful as young directors are emerging onto the scene in inspiring numbers and proving themselves creative and prolific forces. Leyla Bouzid (À peine j’ouvre les yeux (2015)), Kaouther Ben Hania (Beauty and the Dogs (2017)), Meryam Joobeur (Brotherhood (2018)), Abdelhamid Bouchnak (Dachra (2019)) to name just a few.
A recent arrival in this group of young directors charting bold, new courses for filmmaking in Tunisia is Mehdi M. Barsaoui, whose debut feature-length, A Son (Un fils) (2019), premiered at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. Starring multiple award-winning actor Sami Bouajila (Days of Glory (2006)) and renowned Tunisian actress Najla Ben Abdallah, A Son is a powerful, well-crafted film tackling a range of issues, from the patriarchy and masculine pride, to modernity, to what it means to be wife, husband and parent in a society experiencing so many changes and upheavals.
The following interview with Mehdi M. Barsaoui about A Son was conducted via email on December 7th, 2021. (The interview was translated from the French by Matthew Fullerton.)
Initially, one has the impression that A Son will be a family melodrama. But, the film is much more than that. How did you put together this perfect mix of drama and sociopolitical commentary?
MMB: The original idea was a family finding itself at a critical moment in its existence and also how morality embeds itself in family life. A Son deals with a family, and it’s through this lens that I speak out about the society in which I live.
A Son confronts what it means to be a father, a mother, family. Where did you find inspiration for this element of the script?
MMB: Since childhood, I have always questioned familial bonds. What makes us a father, a mother, a child? Is it a simple genetic sequence, or does it go beyond biology? And what does it mean to be an Arab man in a changing society? These are all questions that came to mind and fed my desire to make the film.
The movie also deals with the subject of female adultery, a subject rarely touched upon in Tunisian cinema. Why did you choose to address it in your script?
MMB: Simply because our societies do not tolerate female adultery like they tolerate it in men. There is always this accusatory look towards women who have been accused of all kinds of terrible things when they are tolerated in men. It needs to stop. Judgments need to cease.
Why did you decide to situate the story in 2011, so soon after the Tunisian Revolution?
MMB: 2011 was a pivotal year for Tunisia and the Arab world. An entire region changing. This parallels the family, who, as a result of the secret revealed in the film, also goes through changes. I found this parallel an interesting one to harness. And that also shows the effect of policy on a family that we thought was normal…
On the surface, Fares is a modern, successful man with a « western » outlook. But, the crises provoke in him dark shadows of the male ego, male pride and the patriarchy. Where did you find inspiration for this character?
MMB: First off, Fares is a character that I wanted to contrast. Having the ideal man at the right place and at the right time did not interest me. What did interest me were the flaws of this character, where I could insert myself to explore different pallets of feelings. What does it mean to be a man in Tunisia nowadays and what does it mean to be modern in a society that is increasingly patriarchal? It was through these questions that I found inspiration.
The ordeals facing the couple lead them to their own identity crises. Can we say that Fares and Meriem’s existential crises mirror those of Tunisia of today, that both of them are allegories of the situation in their country?
MMB: Absolutely. Fares and Meriem are a bit like Tunisia – wounded, humiliated – but who end up bouncing back.
Is it important to know about the future? I don’t think so. This couple goes through a great ordeal and its consequences will be heavy. It is the realization of that ordeal that interests me, not its repercussion.”
Sami Bouajila (Fares) and Najla Ben Abdallah (Meriem) give us masterful performances. Please explain how you found yourself working with these two actors.
MMB: We rehearsed a lot in advance because it was important for me to arrive on set with the right tone for each scene. We didn’t have the time to explore avenues during shooting. So, it was necessary to explore everything during rehearsals to find the right balance. It must be said that Sami and Najla are real pros. They trusted in me even though A Son was my first feature film. I am very lucky to have worked with them.
Why did you opt for an open ending?
MMB: Because for me it was the logical end to the film. Is it important to know about the future? I don’t think so. This couple goes through a great ordeal and its consequences will be heavy. It is the realization of that ordeal that interests me, not its repercussion. That would result in another film. That gaze between the two of them, these two people who, during the entire film, no longer knew how to communicate, to look at each other.
The film premieres in the US on Friday, December 10th at New York’s Film Forum (209 West Houston Street).
Matthew Fullerton is an educator and part-time academic (Dalhousie University) in Atlantic Canada. He researches and writes about the cinemas of Japan and Tunisia, two countries in which he used to live, work and study.