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TIFF Interview: Director Raja Amari, Hiam Abbass and Sarra Hannachi on “FOREIGN BODY”

Photo is Courtesy of TIFF and Matt Barnes shot on the iPhone 7 (Sarra Hannachi, Hiam Abbass and Raja Amari)

Photo is Courtesy of TIFF and Matt Barnes shot on the iPhone 7 (Sarra Hannachi, Hiam Abbass and Raja Amari)

Raja Amari`s The Foreign Body that was screened as the part of the Toronto International Film Festival was on my must-see list. Largely, it was because of the concept of it that was important, I felt, to be told. It touches upon the immigration issues, or how the immigrant tries to finds it way up. It also about the woman (Leila) who was at the right place and at the right time to give a hand. While the possible danger waits for Samia (Sarra Hannachi), a Tunisian woman, we all left to watch the implications of fear, uncertainty and the possible revelation, a young woman is about to discover.

During the Film Festival, I had a great opportunity to sat down with three amazingly talented women, Raja Amari, a writer and director, Sarra Hannachi and Hiam Abbass, who happily shared their experience, and even, a magical journey they had to go through, to bring us the best piece possible – Foreign Body.

MOVIEMOVESME: What inspired you to make this movie about immigrants coming to France?

Raja Amari: I think it’s a subject I couldn’t avoid. I was immersed in this debate and environment in France. That’s when I work as filmmaker I always start with the character and not the subject. So for me it was important to draw a portrait of an immigrant and to follow her in a certain way she evolves in an expected way. So I started with this character and I started to follow the evolution of this character and interaction with others. I started confronting this character with two other characters who were immigrants themselves, who have different aspirations and expectations.

MOVIEMOVESME: I’d like you to go in depth and explain the path you chose for the character to take at a time when there were many other ways she could’ve gone.

Hiam Abbass: I worked with Raja Amari in the first movie and one of the first things I really loved in her way of dealing with cinema is an intelligent way. It’s the fact that wherever you as a spectator would expect conflict to come, she either will avoid it or she would go straight into it, just having you feel comfortable with what you expect as a spectator. But she would just like break that norm in a way to make the character and the situation still more complex. Therefore, what she suggests is something that she comes and everything becomes easy; she finds a job, Leila, she finds Jack who is very nice to her. But I think this is really how she grows in a very refined way that the journey of each character, where they’re always on the edge of their own emotions, their own limits, expectations that any human being would think that’s what would happen. So therefore for you as an audience that’s what you want to expect. But suddenly it gets more complex than it is because life is more complex. In that way she avoids the clichéd way you could work in cinema.

Raja Amari: It was important for me not to direct the portrait in an expected way of the strict political, social perspective but to look for the circulation of the desire between the characters and how this circulation influence their evolution and their relationship with each other. It was important to stick with intimate point of view and to treat them as human beings in their complexity. They’re not only the victim of the system but human beings capable of passion, betrayal.

MOVIEMOVESME: What did you love about the character that you played and learned perhaps?

Sarra Hannachi: There are many teenagers in my country who are suffering from the situation. So the character was dreaming of a better life; she is an image of many teenagers in Tunisia. She’s looking for happiness and thinks that happiness is somewhere else. So the character is so complex, it’s not constant, she’s full of expectations and she wants to be free. She’s ready to betray as well. Maybe for this reason at the end of the film she comes back to her mom and she stays with her mom but we don’t know that.

MOVIEMOVESME: How did you study the character and what you had to go through to portray her?

Hiam Abbass: Whether it’s Samia or Leila, these two had to live through a change in their life. At one stage when she starts drifting towards wanting to be this new woman that could look like Samia, Leila as well had some part in the reconciliation process in her past as where she starts to live with it in a more peaceful way. So everything is designed in a way in a flow up of events and of changing and of opening in the character towards maybe what’s left behind or facing them at that moment in order to follow up the stream of the build up to the final point.

Raja Amari: When Samia arrived in the world of Leila she shakes her well designed world. She has this kind of success bourgeoise life, she married a wealthy man, she’s established as a Frenchwoman. The arrival of Samia somehow reminds her of what she was and I was interested in this reflection, how those two characters look at each other.

MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about Samia’s personality?

Sarra Hannachi: Samia has a goal and she wants to arrive at any cost. She uses Imed to stay alive because he helps her. She’s not emotional, she thinks a lot, is very calculative and she’s not looking to get married or to be friends with Imed. She doesn’t care about that. Only what she needs is to achieve her goal and to get money and have the documents and to be an individual not like in her country where she was suffering.

Raja Amari: I’m being accused that this movie portrays Samia in an anti-feminist light. It’s important for me to say being feminist is also drawing an anti-hero character also for women because we are human beings and depriving women characters of their complexity is anti-feminist. Drawing them as victims is anti-feminist but drawing them as strong characters is the feminist way.

MOVIEMOVESME: Did you have in mind who you were going to cast in the film?

Raja Amari: Actually I wrote the story without thinking of specific actors. In the beginning I was wondering for the character of Leila to take a French actor. But then I felt that it’s more interesting to have a story with three immigrants who have somehow same background with different aspirations. That led me to Hiam, who I know because we worked together on my first film. I know our relationship as actor-director allows us lot of freedom. I also saw Sarra in a very interesting movie with a very talented filmmaker who discovered her talent. The actor who played the Islamist, he also worked with Sarra in that film. Imed, I saw him in different French films and always referred to him as someone like Imed. So that’s how it happened and I’m very happy with the cast.

MOVIEMOVESME: What kind of journey did you go through to portray Leila and what did you like about her most?

Hiam Abbass: Sometimes we are asked questions as actors we have no answers to. I can talk to you about the preparation, the reading of the script. As an actor you just connect with certain things where you feel that you’re ready to work. Having worked with Raja it wasn’t difficult for me when I read the script to feel her touch. saying yes to a part in the story does not only happen by the understanding of the character but it happens by a lot of circumstances. If it’s someone whom you’ve never worked with, you just have a hint a what they’ve done before. In the case of Leila, everything for me was there on the paper. It’s not just the understanding, the analysis of the character, it’s how do you follow up. You cannot analyse the work of an actor from a specific work you’ve done, it’s a journey in life as the journey of the character.

MOVIEMOVESME: What do you want the audience to take away from this film?

Raja Amari: To put it very simply I just want with the audience to share a human experience of certain characters and maybe to go back to their home and when they open the TV and hear news about immigrants they could have something else on their mind, that those immigrants are just like themselves; humans with their complexity and not just a mess like they’re presented in the media.

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