Mehdi Ben Attia, a Tunisian filmmaker and writer is noted for his 2009 production Le Fil. Translated into “The String,” it tells a story of an unfolding romance between two Tunisian men. I was granted the opportunity to interview Mehdi Ben Attia and discuss both his motive for the film and his opinions on the gay and lesbian communities in the Arab world.
Zahra: What inspired you to create the storyline of your film “Le Fil”?
Mehdi: “Le Fil” is a very personal film. It deals with issues that mean a lot to me and is set in a social context that’s the one I know. I didn’t care about being sociologically correct, what I wanted was to make a film that would sound true to my own ears.
Zahra: When creating your film, was there any particular message you wanted to send out to the viewers?
Mehdi: I wanted to show that homosexuality isn’t necessarily a tragedy, that it is possible to be either gay or lesbian and happy even in an Arab and Muslim country. I wanted to find the way to happiness for my characters and have the audience think “It’s not that difficult after all.”
Zahra: What kind of response were you expecting from the Tunisian audience in regards to your film?
Mehdi: I realise that homosexuality is quite taboo in Tunisia, and I knew it would be very difficult to shoot and show the film there. The shooting actually hasn’t been difficult (once we got the authorisations), but unfortunately I never could screen the film in Tunisia. The responses I got from Tunisian spectators (for example, gays who saw it on the Internet, or Tunisians living outside their country) have actually been very encouraging, more than I thought they’d be, I suffered almost no homophobic reactions, so now I look forward to showing my film in my own country. I hope it happens someday…
Zahra: When you learned that you film was banned from being shown in Tunisia, what was your reaction to the whole situation? And do you think that in the near future, they will lift up the ban?
Mehdi: I can’t say that I’m surprised that my film was never shown in Tunis. However, it was never actually “banned,” the process is more insidious. No distributor ever asked to show the film (they knew it would be forbidden), and so the ministry never had to bother banning the film. I hope I can show “Le Fil” now that the country’s (more or less) free. Will this be possible? I really wish I knew!
Zahra: What’s your current relationship with Tunisia? And if you do visit, do people recognise you or your work?
Mehdi: Tunisia is my country. I live in Paris but I go to Tunis regularly.
It’s a small country, people know each other. People who work in film know me as I know them. But I’m not famous or anything like that…
Zahra: During the uprisings and protests in Tunisia within the recent months, pride flags have been shooting up amidst the crowds, what are you thoughts on this? And do you think the revolution will help in allowing more freedom for the gay community in Tunisia?
Mehdi: I’m very happy and proud that the gays in Tunisia took part in the revolution and had the courage to get out of the “closet!” Yes, I believe the revolution is likely to allow more freedom to everyone — hence, to the LGBT community. Of course, one can’t be sure, the issue of homosexuality is not very central in the political debate at the moment.
Zahra: Hammamet was known for being a central site to the gay community but today Tunisians admit they are everywhere, what are your thoughts on the idea of labelling a town as the “gay community” and segregating them from the rest of Tunisia?
Mehdi: I wouldn’t support such an idea. One should be able to live free wherever one is. I think the gay city in Tunisia isn’t Hammamet—it’s Tunis!
Zahra: Of course tolerance differs in all Arab states, but which do you think is more open to accepting and allowing people more freedom?
Mehdi: The more Arab countries are open to foreign cultures and tourism, the more they tend to be tolerant: Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon, and even Egypt (despite the prosecutions) are certainly places where homosexuality is better accepted than Mauritania, Sudan or Saudi Arabia…
Zahra: Many Arabs are homophobic or anti-homosexual; do you think this is more about cultural tolerance or religious affiliation?
Mehdi: In my opinion, it’s 100% cultural. Of course, religion takes part in the culture, but I’m pretty sure that a religion is what the believers make of it and that if they decide to be more tolerant, they can find in the Book phrases to justify this tolerance.
Zahra: Finally, if there is one thing you can say to all Arabs in regards to the oppression of homosexuality in their societies, what would you like to say to them?
Mehdi: To the Arab gays, I say: Don’t think you’re not normal. Homosexuality has always existed in all cultures and will always exist. Don’t be ashamed, don’t feel guilty. Live your lives freely, and follow your hearts. To the others, I say: Let’s try freedom and tolerance. Let’s fight for our rights, all of us, regardless of gender, race, religion or sexual preferences.
Originally published in Kalimat Magazine, Issue 02, Summer 2011