Mohamed Ben Attia Believes a Man Can Fly in Venice Film Festival’s ‘Behind the Mountains’September 4, 2023
Move over, Richard Donner.
In “Behind the Mountains,” premiering in Venice’s Horizons section, Mohamed Ben Attia makes sure “you’ll believe a man can fly” once again. Although it might not be as graceful.
“I didn’t want him to be like a superhero or fly like Superman. He is floating, struggling with gravity,” he says about his protagonist Rafik, who gives up his entire life – and even ends up in jail – chasing an impossible dream. But there is one place where dreams come to life and he wants his son to experience it too.
The Tunisian director, also behind “Hedi” and “Dear Son,” was hesitant to play with supernatural elements at first.
“I don’t have any technical background. I am not technical at all! But I’ve become obsessed with this man, who extracts himself from his community in such a radical way. I kept seeing an image of someone running towards the edge. He jumps, and then starts to fly,” she says.
“We were all a bit afraid. Especially my producer Dora Bouchoucha Fourati, who kept asking: ‘But can he fly or not?! It’s impossible!’ It’s not a Marvel movie, that’s for sure, but cinema can be playful. It gives us hope that tomorrow will be completely different.”
Ben Attia brought some of his own fears into the story, he says. He also recognized Rafik’s rage.
“Recently, we have all been going through very difficult times. But many people who read the script found it hard to empathize with him. He really behaves like a crazy person.”
Consumed by violence, he destroys his office, kidnaps his child and ends up terrorizing another family while on the run.
“I relied on Majd Mastoura to bring some ambiguity to this character because at the end of the day, he simply wants to escape. He just does it in a radical way. We are so preoccupied with being politically correct these days, but we could be a bit more radical, too,” he adds.
The two have already collaborated on “Hedi,” awarded in Berlin. Samer Bisharat, Walid Bouchhioua, Selma Zeghidi, Helmi Dridi and Wissem Belgharek also star.
“When you look at these films, their themes are almost the same. The only difference is that now, this rebellion got stranger,” he observes.
“For me, it’s still about our contemporary institutions, our society and family. His rage comes from me too: from being stuck in this conformist way of life. Every time we try to change things, it’s perceived as violent.”
As Rafik starts to explore the mountains in the Northwest of Tunisia with his son, accompanied by a shepherd, things do get messy. But they also get more mysterious.
“I don’t explain everything and I realize it will cost me some viewers, but there are stories where borders between the known and the unknown are very thin. You don’t know if it’s a realistic film or a fantasy, just like in [Jeff Nichols’] ‘Take Shelter,’ which was one of our references,” he says.
“You start with something ordinary and then you have this one door that could potentially lead somewhere else. That’s all you need.”
In the film, there are others who want to escape their stifling surroundings, including a woman who’s forced to let them into her home.
“She and Rafik, they are the same. They are not comfortable in a place society has chosen for them. Still, when she sees something odd, she can’t admit it. She will do everything to protect this ‘fake’ way of life and Rafik, once he enters her house, returns to what he was trying so hard to escape.”
Ben Attia might put reality aside in his upcoming projects as well.
“I have this stupid idea to make things strange again,” he laughs.
“When we see something weird, we are afraid, but we are also attracted to it. We want to explore it. Rafik will share some of his madness with his son. He will show him there is another way and that despite what they tell you, there are no limits.”
Bouchoucha Fourati and Lina Chaabane produce for Tunisia’s Nomadis Images. Belgium’s Dardenne brothers and Delphine Tomson are also on board at Les Films du Fleuve, as well as France’s Nadim Cheikhrouha at Tanit Films, Italy’s Giovanni Robbiano, Lorenzo Rapetti, Giovani Giusto at 010 Films, and Paolo Maria Spina.
France’s Luxbox is handling international sales.
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