As the film Weldi by Mohamed Ben Attia was selected at the Quinzaine des réalisateurs at Cannes this year we asked Frédéric Noirhomme some questions about making this film.
Weldi ( original en tunisian title) / Dear Son (international title) / Mon cher enfant (French title) by Mohamed Ben Attia.
Synopsis: Riadh is about to retire as a driver at the port of Tunis. With his wife Nazli, they form a tight family with Sami, their only son who is about to graduate. Sami’s repeated migraines worry his parents. At the moment when Riadh thinks that his son is getting better, he disappears.
Cast: Mohamed Dhrif (father), Zakaria Ben Ayyed (son), Mouna Mejri (mother), Imen Cherif (father confident).
Production: Dora Bouchoucha, Nomadis Images (Tunisia), coproduced by Les Films du Fleuve (Jean-Pierre et Luc Dardenne, Belgium), and Tanit Films (Nadim Cheikhrouha, France).
Could you present yourself and your work in a few words?
FN : I studied at the INRACI from 2000 until 2003. After doing a semester of still photography I migrated to the cinema department. There I was particularly interested in creative documentary films. So this let me to start my career in shooting documentaries and quickly being faced with framing and lighting on these jobs. Following this I did short films, some low budget features and some more documentaries. Gradually things became less low budget and so for the last 6-7 years I’ve been doing features back to back.
According to you what is this film about?
FN : The film tells the story of Riadh, a man in his sixties who is at the dawn of his pension. Sami, his son is about to finish his studies. While Nazli, his wife, takes a half-time teacher position in another city. The story begins with the parents’ anxiety about the chronic migraines of their only son. They are a little overprotective but very loving. Then comes the questioning of Riadh on his marriage, the emptiness of his days after retirement. One morning, their son disappears. They learn of his departure for Daesh in Syria. This event pushes Riadh to go there, he wants to recover his son. His journey to Syria via Turkey will be a moment of deep introspection. He wonders about the meaning of his life, his mistakes, his choices…
It is a film that questions the choices of life. It critics dogmatism, the weight of social norm. Some communications about the film speak of a youngster setting of to Syria. But this fracture in the film is only a trigger for the questions the father Riyadh has. It is the consequence of Sami’s refusal, the son, to submit to this moral heritage in a social, political and media context that lacks real horizons for a young man today.
The film speaks of introspection, suffering, small joys, and everyday life. It does not want to go into anecdotes. The departure for Daesh to Syria may seem less relevant today, but the film does not take part in that issue. What I want to say is illustrated by this anecdote: during the filming in the city of Radès, south of Tunis, we had set up for some daytime exteriors. Our presence was known to all residents for several weeks. Despite the modest technical deployment (a camera, a stationary car and an actor), a man of sixty years, of bourgeois style and refined French, addressed us with politeness. He asked us about the subject of the film, and in the discussion, he told us that his son had also gone to join the jihad in Syria. Since he had no news of him, he suffered intensely. Even if these departures are not news worthy anymore, the fundamental questions for this father and his introspections are not at all obsolete. In the same way Weldi weaves through a whole bunch of innocuous facets of life and everyday life. We are at the heart of an ordinary family.
This was your second film with Mohammed?
FN : Yes, we had worked together on his first film Hedi, un vent de liberté. We had a good collaboration and the resulting film was awarded multiple times like with the silver bear for acting and best debut film at the Berlin festival, the lumière award for best foreign film and a few others. I have some good memories from the shoot in Tunisia and from working with people like Dora Bouchouha and Lina Chaabane at Nomadis. All this was a good incentive to embark on a new collaboration, but anything could happen, or not. During the shoot of Hedi, Mohamed pitched me the broad strokes of what finally became this new film, for which he asked me to join him a few months later. I was very pleased to do so and to further explore his universe. I find his work to be what cinema needs to be, and the kind of films I like to watch and make. A couple of months before the shoot he sent me a few drafts to read and so we got quickly started to prep.
And how did it go this second time?
FN : Very well, but intense. The working conditions and equipment were similar as with Hedi, but this time it was a more ambitious undertaking, with more locations, with restrictions and spread over two countries, with the end of the shoot in Istanbul with a Turkish crew. The story evolves over the course of a year, shot handheld in long takes.
Despite all this our collaboration was more efficient. Having already done a film together It was easier for me to present him with the right propositions and to put emphasis on what was important for him, to understand his intentions and the story he wanted to tell in each sequence. This resulted in a very enriching and exiting shoot.
I have some fond memories of it despite being exhausted. Also as my family joined me there, with our one month and half old baby and my partner Caro being the first AD as she was on Hedi. This time it was a quite different configuration during her so called maternity leave, not a very relaxing one while shooting at a pace of 10-12 hours on a 6 days per week schedule. Knowing where we went and why, being considered family by the Tunisian production, it was both crazy and great, and needed some investment.
Impressive. And how did the prep go?
FN : Mohamed had sent me the script some time before the shoot. By reading the different versions it helped me to better understand it and find the nuances before going out in the field. We set off to Carthage on the 15th of September to start shooting October 30th. I went back and forth to Brussels a few times, but mostly my prep was synced to the 6 weeks of prep set out by Caro. During it we went through the film with Mohamed at the main locations. We have spent a lot of time at the apartment in Rades. Mohamed wanted to do everything as a sequence shot. So we had to alter the sets in facilitate this. To determine which rooms to use, to adapt the script if needed in order to keep the rhythm of the film. So the work by art director Fatma Madani became crucial for the film. People who were unlucky to be there during the prep ended up being filmed as we shot most our shots on a Smartphone to adapt our ideas and detect elements that did not work in order to concentrate on the essential.
What did you have in mind visually?
FN : The film is rooted in reality, so it needed to be lit naturally but still to reinforce the story. The lighting had service the narration more than the visuals. I played around with contrast and warmth to present the time elapses and different seasons, and by using opposing colors between exteriors and interiors to define spaces. For scenes in Tunisia at night I used tungsten inside and cold mercury light outside the windows, and doing the opposite in Turkey: using cold fluorescent inside and sodium outside. This also helped us to cheat some Turkish locations in Tunisia.
My biggest challenge remained the restrictions by shooting sequence shots. Riyadh’s character lives his life without questioning and following the rules blindly. His life has constant forward movement, without stops or reflections. The film had to translate that movement; so using sequence shot became obvious.
Did you have to solve any particular problems?
FN : We needed to think about doing rigging and lighting that would work in all directions. It would happen that during rehearsals we would completely changed the blocking. In Radès apartment the camera would often follow the action through 4 or 5 rooms, often followed by turning the camera in the opposite directions to continue. The same went for the living room and dining room where we often did 360°. Luckily the ceilings weren’t to low. We were able to rig the main rooms. And the living room had these large bay windows and a balcony, but I couldn’t put any lights outside for I would see them in shot.
How long did the shoot last?
FN : We shot for 6 weeks ( on 6 day weeks) in Tunisia and one week in the Istanbul region of Turkey, on the European side.
Most scenes in Tunisia were shot in Radès in the south. The inner city, the port and a lot more sets were done here. We respected the actual geography of most of our sets, except for Karkemist and Jarablus that we used for creating Istanbul and Tunis. Which was not so complicated, in general Tunisia has some very amazing diverse locations available.
What determined your choice in camera?
FN : I settled on an Arri Alexa mini shooting Arriraw with a set of Leica Summilux. The term set was a bit large, as we only used the 29mm. Most of the film, except 3 or 4 shots was shot on this one lens. We did not set out to do this. I knew starting the film; I wanted the first shot to be on something between a 25 and 35mm. In the end, using open gate and cropping to 2.40, the 29mm offered the best field of view, the ease to get both a wide and tight in one go, the ability to give sense of urgency or calmness. After a few days we knew that we were only going to use this lens for the rest of the film.
The choice for the mini was mainly driven by the fact that most of the film was going to be handheld. The lenses I picked because of their lightweight and compactness, their T stop as 1/3 th of the film is set at night and their ability to render without flares. In our naturalistic approach they were the ideal tool when shooting back lit to see into details without being to harsh.
Brice Dejardin was your first AC, you had worked with him before, how did it go this time?
FN : Yes we had worked together on Rattrapage by Tristan Séguéla. For that film we shot anamorphic at night. He had surprised me with his ability to keep focus without using a meter or asking for a second take. He also magically always had the camera ready to shoot early. And like me he got the comic sense of the film. I kept some good memories of that shoot. So when I learned I had to take a Belgian AC along the choice was clear. I needed someone who could pull focus very well. Mohamed is very particular about his directing, he could be happy with take 1 or say 50 just by one different detail, so we needed to be able to guaranty that very take could be used. Brice could deliver that, even as we were shooting handheld with often improvised and altering camera movement.
How did you light it ?
FN : We rigged the ceiling with Litemats and Smartlights above the windows. The Lightmats were the best choice we could have made. Using their silver grids it became easy to get light direction without being to soft. After all I wanted large sources to cover the spaces and keep it natural. Antoine Bellem, my gaffer, had control over the intensity via Wifi and going from day to night was easy as everything was bi-color. They also had enough power to just enough compensate the back lit situations, as I always wanted to hold the exterior highlights. Seeing the outside was important, to feel the housing blocks in the inner city, to keep it claustrophobic and the presence of the surrounding community. Mohamed and I did not want it to feel as there had been any manipulation or imposed style on our part. There needed to be a clear representation of the actors and the story told. Our dramatic interventions were limited to the natural direction of light. Our task was made even more difficult as we never wanted to turn on practicals. No desk lamp, nor standing lamp or bedside lamp. Except for some ceiling lamps in a room, the only light at night came from laptops, an electric heater or those kind of objects. At the start of each day we took our time with the actors to block the scene, which gave me the opportunity to be in the right spot with the camera and to steer them in a position or journey that worked for it, without disrupting the acting, rhythm or meaning of the shot.
Did you rent equipment in Tunisia?
FN : No, it came from Eye-lite Brussels. They also had serviced Hedi. They were very helpful and I had what I needed. Also to get equipment from Brussels to Tunis, via Turkey should be recognized as an Olympic discipline …Louis-Philippe and his crew should get a medal for it, as should Antoine and Brice!
This was your first job with Antoine?
FN : Yes, and I hope not the last one. He was a good ally during the shoot, and he quickly understood the needs of the film. Always watching the monitor and his suggestions were always what I had in mind. He could deal with the unforeseen moments and had a good rapport with the local crew. I hope they felt the same. His presence was invaluable to me, and his calm, taking on the work on his own as I was often working with the director. My one regret is that he was not allowed to go with us to Turkey, as the only position for a Belgian crewmember was the AC, to manage continuity over the camera gear.
How did it work with the local crew?
FN : I knew most of them from the Hedi shoot, like Habib Ben Salem who was our Tunisian gaffer and did the liaison between his crew and Antoine. The key grip Slim Dhaoui and his crew (Chedly Yazidi and Hatem Boukhris) already knew the working method of Mohamed. Everything went well with them, and I would like to thank them this way, if they were to read this.
In Turkey we had to work with a local crew, except for the AC. They were great, worked hard and efficient. We had a lot of sets and little time to prep or spot.
You operated yourself? Everything handheld, did you use any other grip equipment?
FN : Yes I did, everything was handheld except for some shots the camera was rigged to cars or the harbor cranes.
It was quite a job; we often did 30 something takes. I remember at one point we did 54 takes. And we did not do small stuff; the shots were always long and complicated, with sitting down and standing up, walking along with my knees bend to compensate for my height. Strangely enough during the shoot I could go on for a 100 takes I thought, but it was only after we had finished that I felt the athletic side of our profession.
Who did service the grip equipment?
FN : Everything came from the Tunisians, except a slider for the car rigs that KGS provided.
And how about the actors?
FN : Like on Hedi, Mohamed worked with non-actors. He rehearsed a lot with them during the prep. On set he gave them indications, small hints to keep them coming across natural on screen. In spite of their difficult task they responded well to the rare indications we had to give to make the owner’s technically possible. We quickly found a way all together to move through the tight spaces, corridors and doors.
And what about the post-production?
FN : We had two weeks of grading at Mikros in Paris. Raphaëlle Dufosset performed the grade, as she had done on Hedi. She has a great eye for cinematic imagery. I like working with her, but it is not always possible as she is French. I also like working at Mikros, as they really support the projects and are very receptive.
How do you feel about the result and its nomination at the Cannes Quinzaine?
FN : Usually one finds the films one which one works to be great… in a kind of automatic way all the way trough post. But on this one I rediscovered the film during viewing the sound mix. The exported image was the non-graded version, but what a great surprise. The sound crew had done a great job and the film had a new meaning to me. I loved it, in all its nuances, with great acting. I was moved by it on multiple occasions. It may sound naive or pretentious but I am so proud to have worked on this film. It is what film should be and what I like to watch. Its selection is a great opportunity for Mohamed to show his film to great number of professionals, critics, journalists and film lovers. It is also important for him to help him get another project started. I hope.
Camera: Arri Alexa Mini, Leica Summilux, Eye-Lite
1st AC: Brice Dejardin
Gaffer: Antoine Bellem
Key grip: Slim Dhaoui
Colorist: Raphaëlle Dufosset
Translation by Anton Mertens