The first Arab film to compete for the Golden Bear in 20 years, Mohamed Ben Attia's Hedi quietly defies expectations and the usual Arab cliches.
Speaking at a Berlin Critics' Week panel discussion two days ago, veteran French critic and five-year head of Cannes' Semaine de la Critique section Charles Tesson tried to analyse his festival's selection criteria by pointing to “expectations” put upon countries. Think Third Reich/Holocaust epics or Stasi films from Germany, or narco and border films from Mexico. Carrying even more weight is the expectation that a production from the Arab world should deal with politics and religion – and, let's admit it, preferably terrorism, women's submission or the Arab Spring. Who's interested in the emotional turbulence of an Arabic heart if not beating inside the breast of a rebellious young jihadi, or a girl shagging out of wedlock and being punished for it?
So, Mohamed Ben Attia's debut Hedi (Arabic title: Inhebbek Hebi), which kicked off the Competition today, is remarkable in two aspects: It is the first Arab film to be competing for the Golden Bear in 20 years (Berlinale has invited many Iranian films, but no Arab ones); and it does NOT deal with politics or religion, much less terrorism... worse, the press release refers to it as a “love story” and it's been supported by the Dardennes brothers!
Although clearly rooted in the post-revolution reality of provincial Tunisia (set between Kairouan and the beach resort of Mahdia) – and at grips with the so-called Arab Spring generation (youth who came of age with the 2010 Tunisian revolution) – it is rather an intimate portrait of a young man on his journey to self-discovery. Tensions between tradition and emancipation; conformism and rebellion are palpable but peripheral. If there's a jihad to be found here, it's more of the 'greater' type – the inner one – than the (smaller) political one so en vogue these days. As a matter of fact, Ben Attia's main protagonist is the least radical hero one could conceive, owing more to an Oblomov than to a Bin Laden. Hedi (the name means “serene” in Arabic) is a rather irritatingly placid type whose inertia might – or not – be the result of a suffocating mother who always ruled over her son's life – from job to bride. Hedi's journey goes from resignation at the life drawn for him (he's about to marry a sweet girl, get a new job and settle down in the brand-new flat above the family villa, all courtesy of his loving mother) to confrontation and emancipation, with Ben Attia's camera scrutinising Hedi's rather deadpan transformation (Dardennes alert!).
Of course since it's a love story, the trigger's a woman he madly falls for only a few days before the planned wedding: Rim, the young tourist entertainer who's brimming with the energy and confidence that he and his betrothed lack, and immediately offers him the horizon of other shores (Montpelier, France) and an alternative future (turn what he calls his 'dreams' into what she challenges should just be “projects”).
Will Hedi break away from family and tradition to follow his lover to France? Interestingly, Ben Attia seems to suggest that there's more than one way to escape, and that there might be as much courage and freedom in abstaining as there might be in “jumping in”. Ultimately, Hedi finds himself in a way that one more nicely defies expectations. Like the film itself, he's daring – in his own quiet way.