“To make films, I stopped everything,” says Lotfi Achour, renowned director and filmmaker at heart. The only African film in contention for the Palme d’Or, “La Laine sur le dos” by Tunisian director is competing in short films category. His “western couscous” made with 27 characters on the set and ten people on post-production, was shot in the same region as Star Wars. It tells the story of a beat-up pickup truck stopped in the desert by two corrupt policemen. Interview with the child of the Medina of Tunis, who came to France at the age of 20 for theatre studies. Since then, he navigates between France and Tunisia.
RFI: Having been selected by the Cannes Film Festival 5000 among short films and being in contention for the Palme d’Or, what inspiring does this hold for you?
Lotfi Achour: It gives me great pleasure. I find myself in Cannes at an important time. I have also finished a feature film about the period after the Tunisian revolution. This presence in Cannes allows me to advance my work on this film, to meet people and see movies.
Even if you have already made some short films, you are best known as a director of more than 20 plays. How did this appetite for the cinema come about?
It is a fairly old appetite, but I never took the time to do it since I’m crazy about theatre. I am a true workaholic. I always carried out theatre projects in Tunisia, France and elsewhere. That was two years ago, I was concluding the tour the last play, an adaptation of Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London for the Olympic Games. The play ran for two years. At the end, I decided to go exploring. I stopped everything and I thought: now I will make films.
What difference does it make to project one’s ideas no longer on a stage, but on the big screen?
What changes is the work process. The organisation and the production are very different. Maybe I also arrived at a saturation point. In theatre, we always have the same point of view: it is at the centre of the room. We rehearse, we see things – in the true sense – in the same perspective. Although sometimes we reverse things by putting the audience on stage. In cinema, I can adopt other perspectives and be in several points of view. The transition to the cinema was a kind of liberation.
Do spectators react differently to the movies?
In cinema, once the the film is concluded, you can change anything based on the public’s reaction. In theatre, we continue to work on the play. Or on the actor himself – through the exercise of representation – will find and improve his game. It’s something impossible in the movies..
La Laine sur le dos tells a simple story: the small van full of sheep from a breeder accompanied his little son stopped in the desert by corrupt police. The first striking thing is the impressive landscape that surrounds them. Where did you shoot?
I shot it in the Tunisian region of Tataouine. Everyone in the theatre knows the planet Tatooine in Star Wars. Star Wars was shot just outside of my location. It is a beautiful landscape. This is not a sandy desert, but a desert much more rocky, a desert with reliefs. It was like being in Arizona, because I wanted to revisit the western genre that rocked me when I was little. So I wanted this confrontation: the good, the bad and the ugly.
The story takes place at a particular time, around the feast of Eid al-Adha. You transform the festival of sacrifice, perhaps not in celebration of corruption, but still in a good opportunity to practice corruption.
Ah, corruption has no periods, it is there all the time [laughs]. In Tunisia, but also in many countries in the world, corruption is something that eats a country, economy. In Tunisia, there are currently a lot of corruption. This is due to several reasons, such as a deterioration of people’s living standards. That does not excuse anything, but they are also little people like the two policemen in the desert in the film. Two guys we put there in the morning to watch “nothing.” Nothing is absolute vacuum. They are bored. And then we will look for the evening. Why Eid? Because, this is certainly the time when there is more social pressure on each. Not to celebrate Eid, not to sacrifice sheep is almost a shame. It is a terrible failure for finding people.
Corruption appears in your movie in an extremely calculated manner, with many steps between the control of papers and payment of money. One has the impression that corruption is a very sophisticated activity in Tunisia, and that, five years after the revolution.
True, after the revolution, it became a country plagued by corruption. This becomes extremely dangerous for our economy, because there is a weakening of the state. What interests me most in the film is not corruption. What is interesting is the way corruption is practised. The way in which someone who has power can have fun enjoying this power by any means. Both officers are doing a movie, they act out their own act of corruption. They act it out it both through boredom in which they find themselves and they derive enjoyment from it. Receive the money immediately mean less fun. Here also lies the cruelty of the film. The act of corruption is commonplace and is everywhere. In Europe, a dirty cop is hiding behind the law, but the result is the same.
You work between Tunisia and France. What is the situation today to make movies in Tunisia?
Since the revolution, there are very positive things that are happening in Tunisia. In terms of creation and film in Tunisia, for now, we established a National Film and Image Centre (IASB). Until then, the Ministry of Culture directly managed the production aid. Now we have an independent body, but it needs to win its autonomy and must find new ways of financing films.