Like Soni, Beauty and the Dogs relies on sequence shots (scenes shot in one take) to drive the narrative and writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania brilliantly harnesses the acting talent to portray a nightmarish series of events during one night. We meet the protagonist, Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani), during the credits confidently preparing for a disco but the following eight chapters (signed by intertitles) show her disintegration after she has been raped (mercifully this ‘chapter’ is omitted). The film then follows her attempts to report the crime, aided by a friendly young man she’d fancied at the disco.
Ben Hania isn’t just recreating events, which are based on a true story, but commenting upon post-revolution Tunisia, after President Ben Ali was deposed in 2011. She shows the forces of reaction remain strong as, for example, Mariam is refused treatment at a hospital without ID, which she lost during the attack. Comments are made about her (slightly) revealing dress suggesting she somehow deserved to be raped. Such sentiments are not absent in western judiciary and media so we shouldn’t feel smug about how ‘backward’ this is.
Most of the action takes place during one night, beautifully shot by Johan Holmquist (his only imdb credit!). Variety complained that ‘Ben Hania’s almost chilly mise en scène lessens the emotional impact of the protagonist’s truly nightmarish plight’ and the narrative was unbelievable because so much happens to the victim. I struggle to understand how, given the Al Ferjani’s incredible performance, the emotional impact can be anything other than staggering; for me, the blues of the mise en scene are perfect for the coldness of the society that allows such treatment to occur. As to the writer’s second point, that is what gives the film its Kafkaesque quality: the trauma of the rape is made worse by the difficulty in getting recourse to justice. What happens to her is screamingly unjust and thus shows the absurdity of social institutions.
Unlike Soni, where the camera’s positioning sometimes distanced us from the drama, the sequence shots serve to ‘immerse’ us in the action. This immersion is emotional as the scene plays out in real time, the lack of editing signifies a lack of manipulation as we know the action we are seeing was actually played out by the actors. However, Ben Hania’s direction isn’t just ‘follow the action’ as she carefully frames, and reframes, the composition and the steadicam movement always flows in an aesthetically pleasing way.
The film was screened at Cannes and I look forward to seeing Ben Hania, and Al Ferjani’s, next films.
Hedi was shown in the ‘First Feature’ section of the LFF programme, following awards for the film itself and the lead actor at Berlin earlier this year. It’s a relatively simple and straightforward narrative lifted by strong performances by each of the leads. ‘Hedi’ is a young man in his mid-twenties who is suffering from a protective and controlling mother and the pressure of a more successful older brother who has migrated to France. Hedi is currently working as a sales rep for a Peugeot dealer in a small town outside Tunis. Following the terrorist attack at a resort in Sousse in 2015, business is slow but Hedi is nevertheless sent out to ‘prospect’ for new customers.
Stuck with a soul-destroying job, Hedi is also faced with his mother’s arrangements for his marriage to a young woman from a wealthy local family. Hedi and his bride-to-be are forced to meet secretly in his car but, even so, he hardly knows her as the wedding date approaches. The ‘inciting incidents’ in the narrative are the decision by Hedi’s boss to send him on a prospecting tour when he should have time off for the wedding preparations – and the arrival of the older brother back from France.
Staying in a tourist hotel during his ‘prospecting’, Hedi decides to abandon the fruitless task of contacting potential clients and instead to enjoy himself. In so doing, and in a well-handled series of encounters, he links up with one of the entertainers at the hotel. Rym is one of a troupe who put on shows for the small group of German tourists. She’s a few years older than Hedi and has travelled widely. His mother’s (and brother’s) plans for Hedi are seriously challenged.
Hedi, as played by Majd Mastoura, is at first a placid and rather solemn young man who begins to open up with the vivacious and confident Rym. It isn’t hard to see the film, written and directed by Mohamed Ben Attia, as having a metaphorical quality. Tunisia post the 2011 revolution is still on the cusp of the move from tradition to modernity. The impact of migration/travel to Europe as a modernising force is presented in the contrast between Rym as a liberal figure and the older brother whose contact with European culture has created a different kind of mix. Hedi himself has a passion for drawing which has the potential to fund a different kind of life – but which is mocked by his mother. I’m not sure if Hedi will make it into UK distribution, but it is appearing in the Leeds International Film Festival in November and is definitely worth trying to catch. Since it is co-produced by the Dardenne Brothers’ company, Les Films du Fleuve, perhaps there is a chance of distribution in different European countries.