TUNIS: A love story set against the aftermath of Tunisia’s watershed revolution kicked off the competition at the Berlin International Film Festival Friday – the Berlinale’s first Arab contender in two decades. Hailing from the North African country that triggered the Arab Spring, “Inhebbek Hedi” is the debut feature-length film of Tunisian filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia.
The last time an Arabic-language film set in the Arab world vied for prizes at Europe’s first major cinema showcase of the year was 1996.
“It’s not that I’m not ambitious,” Ben Attia told AFP, “but I never imagined going to Berlin! All of us are surprised.”
It is a rare achievement for any first-time filmmaker to be invited to the Berlinale competition. The only other debut feature in the race this year – British theater director Michael Grandage’s “Genius” – has an all-star cast including Colin Firth, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman.
“Hedi,” the film’s international title, is one of 18 works from around the world vying for the Golden Bear, the festival’s top prize, with three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep heading the jury.
Its tale of “emotional upheaval” echoes Tunisia’s recent history, said Ben Attia, who turns 40 this year. Rather than impart a political “message,” he says his movie tries to depict a kind of personal revolution.
Describing the protagonist, Ben Attia noted that Hedi (serene in Arabic) “isn’t unemployed, his family doesn’t have any money problems ... but he feels out of place in society.”
When he meets a tour guide called Rim and love strikes, Hedi (Majd Mastoura) begins to ask serious questions about the man he wants to be and his role in society.
Ben Attia said he himself used to be a “conformist,” selling cars for a living before launching into filmmaking. The wake-up call came on Jan. 14, 2011, standing in the crowd outside the interior ministry demanding the removal of long-time dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
It was the end of an era “under censorship that we thought was only political,” he said, “but in fact was [also] sedating everybody.”
Protests swept Tunisia in late 2010 after the death of a street vendor who set himself on fire in protest at unemployment and police harassment, leading then President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country.
In his own “emotional upheaval” alongside the tumult wrought by the revolution, Hedi “discovers himself through a love story” and “detaches himself from conventions.”
He realises “he has another choice,” Ben Attia continued, “but then, after the euphoria, he discovers it’s not all that easy.”
Tunisia is hailed as a rare success story of the Arab Spring, although authorities have failed to improve the economy or do much to ease social exclusion.
Authorities last month imposed a curfew to curb some of the worst social unrest since the revolution.
“It’s true we have a bit of a hangover,” Ben Attia said. “We thought [Ben Ali] just needed to leave for it all to get better.
“We truly believed in this radical change, just as Hedi wants to believe in his love story.”
Political instability and Salafi attacks have taken their toll on Tunisia’s vital tourism sector.
In the film, after Rim (Rim Ben Messaoud) loses her job, the lovers think about quitting the country.
The director said he has never contemplated leaving, especially as Tunisian films make waves abroad.
“Tunisian cinema has been on the move,” he said. “We’ve seen films that stand out, that are well received abroad and at home.”
Tunisian director Leyla Bouzid’s film “As I Open My Eyes” won the top award for fiction feature at the Dubai Film Festival in December.
The Berlinale continues through Feb. 21