Baya Medhaffar is one of the rising stars of Tunisia’s emergent new wave of young filmmakers whose work goes towards exposing the insghts of the country’s society, both before and after the Arab Spring. A petite young girl with a strong inner moral compass who is currently studying Documentary Filmmaking in Paris, Baya ended up playing the main role of Farah in Leyla Bouzid’s hit movie As I Open My Eyes even though she had no prior experience in acting.
After winning a series of important prizes and being screened at some of Europe’s most important festivals, the film was launched at the same day in all 24 regions of Tunisia – a breakthrough achievement for a country which at the moment did not have any film distribution networks and only had cinemas in its capital city of Tunis. The parallels between what is happening in their industry and the history of our own industry are indeed uncanny.
Being in the Jury Emile Cantillon at FIFF whose main prize went to As I Open My Eyes in a unanimous decision, it was easy for me to approach Baya at TIFF. We talked about her participation in the film, about her views on Tunisian society and her own career choices, as well as her particular tastes in poetry.
So, how do you like it at TIFF? Did you see any films, what events did you go to?
I didn’t have the time, I was stuck in my hotel room working on my projects! But I like the festival a lot, I like that there are a lot of people from all over the world. I didn’t get the chance to see a lot of things, I saw the Jeanne D’Arc cine-concert and I think it was enough, I got energy for a whole month from it, it was amazing. The festival is really cool.
Tell us about your experience with As I Open My Eyes. How was it to do this film, how did you get on board with the project, did you ever feel fearful of participating in it?
I never played before, I had a friend who is a filmmaker and we decided to make a movie just for fun. One day, he talked to Leyla about me and we ended up meeting. It was very funny because she told me about the screenplay, its story, and it was in a way describing my life at the moment. Even though there were many differences, there was something about the energy that I used to have during the Revolution.
So I said to myself that I need to do this, it was exorcising my feelings about it. I wanted to be a part of this new wave of new filmmakers in Tunisia who are talking about the revolution and trying to represent a different image of this country. It was funny because Leyla chose me over the 200 girls she’d seen during the casting. I felt very good because of that!
A big part of the film regards how women are/were treated like in Tunisia. The director is also a woman.
The two main characters are indeed women, but I feel that it’s much rather a film about the energy of the youth rather than the energy of women. The situation of women in Tunisia is one of the best ones, regarding women’s rights in the Arab world. I believe that these women don’t need someone to speak for them, they are free enough. Of course there are a lot of things left to do, but I can see the same things happening in Europe (women being beaten, or raped) – it’s not something proper to Tunisia. To improve their situation… actually, it’s a battle that is part of a bigger battle. And I truly believe that these things will come naturally, because honestly – it’s the women who are working, who are doing the housekeeping, who are already doing everything. That’s why I believe that the Tunisian Feminist movement is a bit problematic, because the women from here are already very strong and emancipated.
You took part in the demonstrations of the Arab Spring. How was it for you to channel that energy in the film?
It was very different, because my participation in the Revolution was more that of an observer. Of course, I went to the protests, to the strikes, but I don’t think that I had an actual role to play when it came to catalyzing the events. In the movie, it’s completely different, because Farah is part of the Revolution. Of course, her singing wasn’t necessarily the one singular event which caused the dictator to leave, it came together with the concerns of other oppressed people and added to the whole that was the Revolution.
What do you think happened to Farah after the Revolution?
(long pause) Hm… I have no idea… Usually people ask me if she kept on singing.
I don’t think that’s a necessary outcome.
Where she is? I think that she’s disappointed, just like me.
Because it was a big joke. Well, not really, but we are still in a very difficult situation. There is still a tendency to go backwards. I mean, our current president is 89 years old! Corruption is still a huge problem. And even now there are a lot of young people who were recently jailed because of their political views. They use pretexts to close them up, like for example they arrest them for smoking cannabis – but the ones arrested are usually filmmakers, rappers, bloggers who said things which are not acceptable in the eyes of the state. And actually, the police then re-sells the cannabis, to catch more people…
Still shot from As I Open My Eyes by Leyla Bouzid.
So, after going to a lot of festivals in Europe with the film and then you came back to Tunisia, where you changed the way films are distributed across the country.
We did a very important thing, it’s the first time this happened in Tunisia. All official cinemas are in the capital, Tunis, there’s like two regions of out 24 which have proper places to watch films. The rest have like Youth Cultural Houses, but usually nobody went there, they rarely organized screenings anyways. So everybody was watching films on TV or pirating them.
We managed to release our film on the same day in all 24 regions. We took all these cultural houses from every regions, where we sent technicians with copies of the movie and people were stunned! For a lot of them, it was the first time that they had ever been to a cinema, to see a film outside of their own homes! The people who helped us are young distributors who studied in France and came back home to try and change things. I think it’s very important, because since then almost all movies that came after us did the same thing, more or less.
So what can you tell me about what is going on right now in Tunisian cinematography? There is a new generation of young filmmakers whose work seems socially-oriented.
You can’t really put them all together according to a theme, though. The common point is that they are young, who are giving us a new perspective on what is going on in our country. For the moment, it is already huge. It is not necessarily political, or social. We can still say that there is a new wave of young directors who are making films, who are looking in a completely different way at Tunisia’s society.
What can you tell us about you, yourself, as a filmmaker? Can we expect you to return to TIFF one day not as an actress, but as a director?
I’m still studying, so… I have a lot of ideas about films I would like to make in Tunisia, actually there is a project I’m working on right now. And I don’t feel like talking about other countries than Tunisia. My mother is an art professor who also teaches sociology, I think that influenced me. That’s why I am interested in doing social, anthropological documentaries. In order to analyze society. I think it’s really fun, I enjoy doing that. It would be really interesting to eventually show my movie here.
By the way, from what we talked earlier, you know a lot of Romanian literature.
Yes, Gherasim Luca and Emil Cioran. I love how Luca deconstructs language. It is fascinating – a Romanian that writes so beautifully in French. It reflects such a beautiful way of thinking, his writing is so expressive and rich. And the videos of Gherasim Luca reading show that his works as well when it’s read as when it is on paper. He deconstructs the words with such passion, into syllables, condensing them and extracting new meaning from everything by going to the core of the words.
So, thank you so much! Enjoy your stay here!
I'll try! I still have a Q&A tonight and then I have to leave. But I really loved it here.