05/19/2014 07:02 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Challat of Tunis at ACID in Cannes: Urban Legend or True Lunatic?

2014-05-19-challat2903142.jpg Kaouther Ben Hania's film Challat of Tunis screened in front of an overpacked, sold-out audience this year in Cannes, part of the ACID program. ACID is a French film directors association that helps films find an audience, but also distribution and more screening options. In this, Challat of Tunis was the perfect choice, as their successful opening night event proved, beyond all doubts.

Ben Hania's is a documentary-meets-fiction film, which left me with that wonderfully tippy feeling of not knowing where reality ends and make-believe starts. I enjoyed it thoroughly, because while telling a story taken from the Tunisian headlines -- of a man on a scooter who in 2003 went around slashing the bottoms of women he considered inappropriately dressed -- it really ran alongside a commentary on society in Tunisia today. Nothing is what it seems but everything is open to interpretation, with the help of Ben Hania's presence to help thread the story through. Full of insight, poignancy and even humor -- the filmmaker holds auditions to find the perfect slasher for her film -- Challat of Tunis is a film that comes freshly out of country where telling the truth, speaking one's mind is no longer a crime.

I caught up with Ben Hania and her producers, Julie Paratian and Habib Attia, in the UAE Pavilion in Cannes for a wonderful chat about their film.

Your film seems both a documentary and a set-up, a constructed documentary. How did you come up with that format?

Kaouther Ben Hania: Because the real story, when it happened, there was no investigation, no one was ever caught by the police, so there were a lot of rumors and rumors are fantasy, fiction. It was the best form to treat this story in which the part of reality is small. What was interesting for me was what is the collective conscience of people and the fantasy around it and what it tells about us, so I had to set up stories to explain this.

So you set up auditions for the Challat. I love that!

Ben Hania: Yeah, I set up a lot of things, because the facts are so small and what was interesting was what is behind the facts.

The film is really entertaining because you make it about an urban legend. It becomes more of a reverse, dark fairy tale where the prince is actually a slasher. So why did you decide to make this particular story, when you could have explored any in Tunisia?

2014-05-19-photocopy.JPG Ben Hania: This story was interesting for me because it was how to make a film about an anonymous guy by negative, to treat this character as the negative in photography. We don't see him and we don't see his face at the end of the film, we don't know who is the Challat, but we know a lot about Challat.

Julie Paratian: He's a symptomatic character, symptom of the society and of a state.

Ben Hania: Of a situation of the dictatorship, all this is the real metaphor of the sickness.

What has changed in Tunisia since 2003, the time of the attacks by the Challat?

Ben Hania: The main change is that we can talk about it, before we could not have a debate about this issue and social and political issues. The fact that we didn't talk we were frustrated, and I think the Challat appearance in 2003 is also because of this. When you talk it's kind of a deliverance. if you are under oppression you can explode. And the Challat for me explodes. The main change is that after the Revolution we can talk about it, there is no censorship, and this film is mainly a symptom of how we can treat things, and talk about them freely. And we start by talking so we've taken the first step.

Paratian: She started the film before the Revolution with that same idea and the idea of the Challat remained a very good way to go inside the Tunisian society after the Revolution. It was a good vehicle to know what has changed and what has not changed. Without saying "OK is the Revolution good, is the new government good," directly. And what she does with putting that guy inside the part, is like an experiment to show what has changed and what has not changed. And what has not changed is what is deep inside in the mind. The relationships between men and women, but what has changed is the fact that you can talk about it so you can free yourself and hear other people's opinion.

I mean, you are basically talking about women's bottoms for the entire time! It's a huge deal in a film from Tunisia. Your two main characters are women's bottoms and a slasher. The film, by its sheer existence shows a change but also changes the world.

Paratian: Absolutely! I had that feeling after showing it mostly to an Arabic audience, that's what we had in Dubai. Because what's really strong also is that it's made by a Tunisian woman who is able to laugh about her country, to show her country's bad side, not only to show her countrymen fighting for their rights.

Personally, I see cinema as a means of activism, as a way of changing the world. Are you both conscious that when you make a film by its sheer existence it's changing the world a little bit?

Ben Hania: I'm not sure that films can change the world, but I've heard this and I find it wonderful because it's so true, they can change our relationship to the world. Our way to look to the world is different, but changing things, cinema doesn't do this.

If I read an article about the Challat I would get some basic info, it wouldn't stay with me very long, but a film makes that story stay within me for a long while. Media doesn't do that.

Ben Hania: For me, the main difference between news and cinema is like the difference between amnesia and memory, cinema is memory it's for generations, but news is now. And we are in a very crazy period, because we have a lot of news so we're kind of amnesic, we have heard everything but don't know anything.

Paratian: It's the difference between journalism and literature. As a woman you are touched, and as a man you are touched also. We have talked to men who say, I understand some things about being a man by watching these guys, because there is somethings they say that I recognize in myself, even if i would never say it. Cinema affects you more strongly than only abstract things.

Did you know always that you wanted to be the narrator, and be there throughout the film?

Ben Hania: Yes, because there are a lot of stories in the film and there is no link between them and the main link is an idea. I needed a character to link all the stories. For example the girl with the tattoo, the girl who commits suicide, the casting call, I needed the character to link all this so I borrowed the code of an investigative documentary...

Paratian: Like a Michael Moore film, you know...

2014-05-19-photo1.JPG When and how did Enjaaz, the post production fund of the Dubai International Film Festival come onboard?

Habib Attia: We started the development of the project with Dubai, in 2009. Then Dubai knew about the project, so Enjaaz was just a concretization of this collaboration. Enjaaz came in at the right moment. We had the final cut of the film but we were not booked on the financing, they enabled us to finish the film in the right way. The other great part of DIFF is their visibility. It's important to have a partner like Dubai, not only for their film festival, where we had our world premiere, but other events in other festivals and distribution. Dubai is the right partner for financing-slash-quality, because of how they are perceived in the world. DIFF is not only a very big festival with red carpets but it's very market oriented and it has this handle on its identity. It's important to have them as a partner on the film.

Paratian: Also it has made the position of Arab co-producers stronger, because before they didn't have a lot to bring to the table. Now they can bring money, partners and so they have a better position, and it makes what they bring to the project more interesting. Habib is a very subtle but very strong producer and he can get a spot in the international market because he brings that. It's very important. What I saw, in Dubai, was that there is really a community of directors and producers who are starting to come together, and you realize that you now have a voice, you have a community.

Ben Hania: We can breathe a little bit, Enjaaz is like a breath.

All images courtesy of the filmmakers, used with permission