Manele Labidi delivers a colorful "radioscopy" of post-revolutionary Tunisia

For her first film, the Franco-Tunisian filmmaker has chosen to offer a little analysis to her compatriots under the sign of humor. "Un Divan à Tunis" is to be discovered in French cinemas.

Selma, 35, opens her psychoanalysis practice in a popular suburb of Tunis after practicing in France. In this post-revolutionary Tunisia, there are many customers. Only, Selma forgot a major detail : Complete the formalities to obtain the essential authorization necessary to practice your activity. Selma's administrative adventures mingle with her own existential questions and the neuroses of her patients.

A sofa in Tunis is the chronicle of therapy for everyone under the Tunisian sun, from the baker to Selma's uncle to the owner of the local hair salon. The characters are colorful and the story is colorful. The first film by Franco-Tunisian Manele Labidi turns out to be good therapy … through laughter. The film will also be released in Tunisia on February 28, 2020.

Franceinfo Afrique: how did the story of Selma come to you, the idea of ​​putting this couch in Tunis ?

Manele Labidi: this film was born following the Tunisian revolution in 2011. I was struck at the time by the liberation of speech which came after years of dictatorship during which certain subjects were proscribed from conversations. I have witnessed this outpouring of speech in all directions. People had opinions on everything: politics, how society should be run … I told myself that there was something to do around this theme. In addition to the liberation of political speech, that of intimate speech seemed important to me. How to manage to articulate the collective revolution and that of individuals ? I thought about taking the point of view of a psychoanalyst because psychoanalysis is a discipline that has always fascinated me. I thought it was a good way to take a radioscopy of the country at the time, while telling the story of Selma's individual and identity journey.

Your film is a comedy. Why did you choose to approach a rather serious theme with this lightness?

I am a great admirer of comedies : Italian comedies of the 70s, American comedies, Chaplin … On the one hand, I have never seen any antagonism between the serious subject and the use of comedy. On the other hand, when you use comedy to deal with serious matters, you can get a lot of stuff done in quite subtle ways. I have the impression that they infuse more into people's minds and that they bring about more reflection.

Besides, I find that the Arab world and the Arabs, in general, are never portrayed from this angle in fiction. There is always a dramatic bias. We are always shown as victims of terrorism or simply terrorists. There is always this theme of the forced veil, women who live under the yoke of patriarchy … I hear all this in the news, I see it in documentaries and fictions. Whatever the context, when you are in a post-revolutionary country or at war – even if you are in an Arab-Muslim country – life takes over. People also experience common problems: they raise their children, they want to leave their parents' home, there are addiction problems, alcoholism… Why not try to tackle them on the first line, that doesn’t to say that we are not political? In the hollow, there are a lot of things that I note about the state of male-female relations, about religion, the rise of Islamism after the revolution, the administration with which everyone struggles and which represents, here , also the political vacuum after the revolution. I also wanted to pay tribute to my culture by giving it the opportunity to play with cinema, with comedy which is a cinematic genre par excellence.

It was very important for me to change the representations that we have on the Arab woman and the Arab man. Arab women are also very strong women and Arab men are sensitive men. Religious men are not only terrorists, there are also people who live their religion – and that is the great majority – in spirituality and the most total peace.

Finally, for me, Tunisia cannot be told other than from this angle. Humor is in the country's DNA. People go through the most terrible dramas, but there is always this second degree and this opposite. I was raised like that. My parents, my family and my neighbors in Tunisia are like that! There is always this distance that humor allows and that, above all, allows you to survive. It is a protection to survive and it was important to honor it.

Selma is a free woman. She decided to set up her practice against the advice of everyone who predicts failure. What relationship do Tunisians have with psychoanalysis ?

At the risk of disappointing a lot of people, we are not at all against the idea of ​​seeing shrinks. Psychotherapy is not developing badly. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, is still very embryonic because it responds to a very specific framework. Psychoanalysts are rare and rather concentrated in certain privileged geographical areas. But there is a real demand for psychotherapy. After the revolution, speech was not only freed, but there were also post-traumatic shocks. People have seen, overnight, a dictatorship fall with the rise of insecurity, terrorist acts that we had never known until now, the economic crisis with the decline of tourism which is the main resource from the country. In doing my investigation, I realized that there was an increase in anxiety, depressive and paranoid disorders as a result of this.

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Selma's profile is that of a Tunisian woman who left her country at the age of 10 to live in Europe and who decides to return home. This return is experienced as a challenge. Why this profile for your heroine?

I espouse this point of view because I am bi-national. I wanted to work on the trajectories of people who came from both sides. It was very important to confront the two ideas of displacement. We have, on the one hand, a population that would kill itself to come here – which is ready to drown – and it, on the other side, is making a reverse path, against the tide. After the Tunisian revolution, many people around me asked themselves the question of the return because in France the political discourse towards the Maghrebis is not always very sympathetic. I saw a difference before and after 9/11. The relationship I have with others regarding my Arabness has changed since that date. Many have said to themselves, given this observation, that this was the solution: to go to the lands that our parents dropped because there were no prospects. I come from classical immigration: my parents came because there was no job in Tunisia. They came to France to have a better life, this is the somewhat classic pattern of Maghreb immigration of that time. The process of making this film is the same thing, we have this idea of ​​saying that we have to manage to build something on a land that has, in a way, rejected our parents. We understand the motivation of these people who return and who try to build something. But what is tragic in this story is that when they get there, they face the same problems as those they had in France. They are not perceived as 100% Tunisians.

When I go to Tunisia, I speak Arabic, I have no accent, except that I do not know a word grot in Arabic because I was not in high school, I did not have young friends who we bullshit with. There is a whole section of the common culture of my generation that I do not have, even though I am Tunisian in blood. This is why we do not have all the codes and it is the subject of real questioning. If in France, we are not fully anchored and this is also the case in our country of origin, the question then is to know where to put our anchor. This is the main question of my life or the rest of my life : where can we make a home, where can we create a house ? What is the third way ? These are questions that remain unanswered.

This is well worth an analysis. That’s what you did …

It's certain ! It's a lot of work (laughs).

What drove you to Golshifteh Farahani ?

I knew I was going to do a Tunisian casting. I knew what energy I was going to have at play: a very Mediterranean energy with a very particular body language, a vitality that I wanted to find again. To counterbalance this, I wanted a character very different from the rest, who was less talkative, quiet, mysterious. There were scenes of silence, listening and watching. Therefore, I needed an actress who was charismatic and who had a very strong presence in those moments that demand subtlety in the game that is not always easy to obtain.

She’s an actress I’ve always loved. I love her filmography and she fascinates me because she has this kind of caffeine that makes me think of Katharine Hepburn. She makes me dream as an actress. I only saw her to interpret this role because she radiates a kind of mystery, intelligence, empathy, benevolence … She is both extremely feminine and very masculine. There was all that and I told myself that I was going to try because it was not won because it is a first film. And in fact, she agreed. Her agent loved the script. He sent it to her and she read it in two days. We remembered and she said, "I love it, I do it with my eyes closed. "

You took back roads before arriving at the cinema. What was your course ?

I really am not of the seraglio. I arrived a bit like a stowaway (laughs). I studied political science and business. I worked in finance between 23 and 30 years old. And at 30, I gave up everything! I started from scratch because there was something wrong with my life. I started to write and envision this profession, which was for me a dream and a fantasy. I have always been passionate about cinema, a fervent consumer of films and, moreover, I also wrote, but for my pleasure. Over the years, I have gained a little bit in security and insurance. I thought to myself that in the worst case scenario if it didn't work, I would find work. But I tried and I am glad that I managed to release this film because it was not always easy.

Can we say that "A Divan in Tunis" is the story of a liberation on the screen and behind the camera?

It's obvious ! All films have an unconscious. I felt during the shooting and during the editing that things were happening. When I see the film again, there are a lot of things that jump out at me ! Like, for example, this Peugeot 404 which is a character for me. My grandfather is a farmer. I saw this car used to transport cattle, in wedding processions … It is a very strong image in my head. This car is the methaphore of the film: it is a French car which has been customized with Tunisian sauce. One has the impression that she will die on every street corner, but she always starts again. For me, this is Tunisia ! Each time, we are given losers, we say it's over and in fact, we restart. It's the same for the character of Selma. Tunisia is a bit like Selma too. She is in-between, she searches for herself and sometimes she stalls, then she leaves. The most important thing is to leave.

A sofa in Tunis by Manele Labidi
With Golshifteh Farahani, Majd Mastoura, Aïcha Ben Miled, Feriel Chamari and Hichem Yacoub
French release: February 12, 2020