Tea time with Aya
Where did you find the inspiration for Aya?
Aya takes place in Tunisia, after the Revolution but also after the elections of October 2011. The Islamist regime came to power and took the majority in the Parliament. That introduced more and more radicalism into a Tunisian society that used to practice a moderate Islam. Salafi invasion began in the streets and university institutions and ended up calling for the destruction of works of art, destroying movie theaters, and historic monuments recognized by UNESCO.
Salafism grew in Tunisian society, as indifferent politicians stood by. They got the help of the Ennahdha party, supported by the royal family, who invested millions of dollars to preach the ideology of Salafi Wahhabism.
So Tunisia watched a second religious dictatorship take its society hostage. Police interrogated women about their clothing and followed couples in the street. Women with hair exposed are intimidated in the neighborhoods where the Salafi militia run things. To protect themselves from assaults by religious fanatics, women must wear the hijab or the niqab. But more shocking is to see girls under the age of 10, with their heads covered, who leave their regular schools in favor of the newly founded Koranic schools.
The Tunisian legislation regarding women’s rights was unrivalled in the Arab and Muslim world over the past sixty years. With the Islamists taking power, these rights were discarded, replacing the notion of equality with complementarity between women and men.
I felt that the world had fallen like a house of cards. Instead of fighting for rights that are not yet granted, from now on, we have to save the rights we have. A few months ago, I read in a newspaper that a 6-year-old girl went to school wearing the Niqab. The story immediately grabbed me. I wanted to know more. I was curious, moved, and stunned. I wanted to understand what pushes this little girl to go to school in Islamic garb. Many questions came to mind. Are we conscious of the alarming situation that young women and this generation find themselves in? Are we ready to build a democracy and a state that respects the choices of everyone? Who is responsible for what happens to this young girl? Is it just her wild imagination that pushes her to wear this dress, an outfit that scares all free women in my country? Ultimately, I learned the real story, a simple story, of a family. The fanatical father forced his wife to wear the Niqab. The girl, very attached to her mother, decided to secretly wear a black cloth that she fashioned into a Niqab.
What interested you in questioning the place of Islam within the family?
Aya portrays a vision of the changes for North Africans. It is the setting for a drama that touches on the family, the psychological, and the society. It is a mise en abyme of the moral and social hypocrisy. It is also a work attempting to capture the possible deconstruction of imposed values since early childhood. Aya places this story in a universal perspective and opens to philosophical questions by asking what is the place of a child in the world. At the same time, it incorporates the empirical and the transcendental.
Aya is also a study of love and faith. The characters have inner conflict, pain, all the forms of confusion. They seem to be at the heart of their lives and their being, yet on the surface, nothing seems to change. Emotion comes out, but does not reach a fever pitch. The body of Meriam, ever moving within confined spaces, keeps moving beyond the limits of a frame that is too narrow for her.
My hope was to tell the daily life story of an ordinary family, and to depict this mini-society while letting the film have its silences and unspoken moments by the characters. Each gesture then has an impact.
Through this family story, I wanted to enlarge the field of possibility, against expectation, toward a tragedy that allows for immediate freedom from all forms of domination of women by men. Another reason for me to make this film was to show love’s power to defeat all forms of oppression and violence. As Paul Éluard said: « Here is where clarity wages its last battle », and I think it is within this little family that this clarity wages its last battle.
Why does childhood interest you?
Aya is a film about childhood that gives hope and rebirth to the world through each look. With its playfulness, where the child discovers life and is able to integrate everything into her little game. Going back and forth from imagination to dream, the film has a power over time and death. The child expresses human fragility. Faced with a tough situation and with no defence, the child is an allegory. The main matrix of her wound is being « without help » against a machine that she does not understand. Nor does she approve of its rules. Aya is also a film about the intimate and painful process of taking the first step toward freedom of the self.
I can only be close to children and their world. I love filming that which children have not lost. Their ability to see the world without immediately having an opinion or jumping to conclusions.
Aya is childhood in perpetual transgression, seeing the world for the first time. She sees adults without understanding them, and she grasps the origin of movement. Carrying a pencil with her at all times, she sees her days structured by learning the Koran at the Koranic school, which she hates, and following classes at the regular school. She is very attached to her mother and keeps imitating her, while feeling beholden to her and helping to cover up her habits which were forbidden by Youssef.
Facing the muted voices of her parents, Aya speaks freely and expresses her wants and desires. She ends up taking her mother’s thoughts for her own by using her imagination. It creates a mirror between mother and daughter. Through her tragic and childish act (wearing the niqab), she helps her mother to free herself. In the school of life, there is no difference between the child (Aya) and the adult (Meriam). She is the means to show that despite her experience and knowledge, Meriam is never very far, via these challenges, from the child without any defenses.
How did you find the young actress who plays Aya?
The film stands squarely on the shoulders of the young actress, and the challenge was to find the one who could give this complex take on the world. Casting took many months. More than 300 girls were seen and still no Aya. I was going to abandon the film when May Berhouma showed up! Her mother brought her in, two days before the end of the casting. Her first words were: « Hello, my name is May and I am an actress ». Her self-confidence was striking for a 6-year-old.
A strong friendship developed. With a lot of patience, May’s great talents were revealed. Passionate about cinema, thanks to her mother who teaches dramatic writing, May knows all the films of Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf and Vittorio de Sica. She had confidence in her abilities and kept surprising us throughout the filming. There were magic moments in which May realized she was playing a role that was equal to the adults. She kept asking me questions about how her character evolves. She wanted to understand everything. Living in a liberal family, she confided in me one day that her biggest challenge was playing a role that was so far away from who she really is. I hope she will keep working. I believe in her.
What sort of freedom would you say the short format allows?
The short film is a balancing act. How to tell a story, direct it and make it work in very little time. It’s a demanding format with a real challenge! I consider it like a cinematic gymnastics which prepares us for the challenges of the feature-length film. The freedom it offers is working with a lighter production structure with fewer constraints than features.
If you’ve already been to Clermont-Ferrand, could you share with us an anecdote or story from the festival? If not, what are your expectations for this year?
Each festival is surprising and exciting. The potential people to meet, the discovery of new talents… It’s a great opportunity to watch the selected films. I love the surprise of which films end up staying with me. They leave an impression behind that never goes away. Also, as a producer, and I can say that Clermont-Ferrand is the film event that should not be missed. Its synergy is incredible.