Beauty and the Dogs: How Tunisian Director Kaouther Ben Hania Made a Feminist Horror Film in Nine Shots

Pairing a universally resonant quest for social justice with cinematic boundary-pushing, Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s Beauty and the Dogs is an unmissable feature that’s as empowering as it is harrowing. Laced with enough specificity to reflect the transitional period that North African underwent post-revolution, the film’s genre storytelling devices effectively depict a young woman’s nightmarish ordeal in the aftermath of a brutal rape.

Conceived entirely in nine unedited shots, Beauty and the Dogs challenged Ben Hania and her crew to be resourceful when positioning cameras and lighting equipment, since the film’s events unfold mostly at night. At the film’s center is a raw performance by fresh-faced actor Mariam Al Ferjani (as a character whose name is also Mariam), whose face conveys states of catatonic shock, fear, and defiance. Holding back none of her criticism of her native country’s institutions, Ben Hania explores the violence that established order perpetrates against society—especially toward women. As Mariam roams Tunisian hospitals and police stations, for instance, she is seen not as a victim seeking help, but a nuisance. Broken and humiliated after surviving sexual assault, she digs deep for the strength to fight a battle not only for herself, but for all women who have been silenced before her.

Beauty and the Dogs‘ stylistically unconventional gut-punch is an impressive achievement. Kaouther Ben Hania shared some insight on its creation with MovieMaker.

A scene from Beauty and the Dogs. Image courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Was there something in particular that prompted you to write and direct Beauty and the Dogs, or was your motivation a response to violence against women more broadly speaking?

Kaouther Ben Hania (KBH): Both. You have always this inner anger, and there was this story that the media was talking about. It happened in 2012, and then the real victim wrote a book about it. I was amazed by the courage of this young girl, and I was imagining what kind of night she had and what kind of pressure she felt. I through, “She’s a modern hero. She deserves to be the heroine of a movie.” The first desire to do this movie was to explore how a fragile and normal girl, even if she thought until that moment that she was weak and that she had to hide and tell lies, can discovers her real inner personality and her real strength. This is what gave me the motivation to make this movie.

MM: How difficult was it to make a film like this in Tunisia, in terms of financial support and public opinion, since it tells a story that is critical of government institutions, especially the police?

KBH: There are many changes going on in Tunisia, especially after 2011 when the Tunisian revolution happened, so it’s becoming a democracy. I know that I couldn’t have done this movie eight years ago under the dictatorship. When I started doing this movie, the first financing we got was from the government. It was a Tunisian fund for cinema, so that’s a big change. We got money from the government to do a very critical film about police. Then, when the movie went to Cannes all the Tunisian officials were really happy and proud that a Tunisian movie was in the Cannes Film Festival. I really didn’t have any problems to do this movie.

MM: Talk about discovering your young actress, Mariam Al Ferjani, and the qualities that you thought made her an ideal lead. With such a difficult role to play, how did you approach directing her to achieve such a raw performance?

KBH: It was very difficult because I had very specific criteria in my head. I did a large casting to finally find Mariam Al Ferjani, who plays the main part, and what I liked about Mariam is that she had, at the same time, a lot of fragility and a lot of strength. Also, she had a child’s face, but also a very voluptuous body. Besides all this, she’s a very serious person, and she was really motivated to play this part. We worked a lot together to make this movie. We had long discussions. For example, one of the exercises we did was to write subtext. We would write what her character was thinking when she doesn’t talk to know what state of mind she is in. Then we looked at how she walks, how her body changes in the movie. It was also rehearsing a lot of with the other actors.

MM: There are surreal undertones throughout the film that sometimes veer into the realm of horror or a dark fairy tale. Even the film’s title reflects that. Why did you decide to take this approach?

KBH: I really like psychological thrillers, horror movies and film noir. I like these kinds of movies, and I thought that in this movie her feelings are very close to horror, so there are some codes of this cinema that I like in the movie. It is like dark fairy tale, and even has a title that’s close to Beauty and the Beast. It’s not the original title in Arabic. There’s another title in Arabic, but we couldn’t translate it because it’s a metaphor, so we were looking for an international title with the distributor. I thought, “She’s beautiful, and she meets all of these dogs: the real dogs, is this case, and all of these policemen telling her to shut up. There was this image of a confrontation that I liked in the international title.

A scene from Beauty and the Dogs

MM: One of the boldest choices you made was to not show the brutal attack on your protagonist, despite it being at the center of the narrative. Why did you go that route?

KBH: I thought that there are a lot of movies about rape, and the rape scene has already been filmed in many ways. It can be a very sensational scene, and I’m really interested more in hidden violence, the violence of institutions and the violence of not being heard. In this kind of case, nobody saw the rape, so the experience is shared only between the victim and the criminal. It’s her story against his story. Not including the rape made the film stronger; I like when you don’t show things in cinema. In many movies, when you don’t show the monster, the monster is scarier. For me, not showing the rape is the same idea.

MM: Aside from the fact that most of the film takes place at night, which I’m sure brought upon certain obstacles, the narrative is entirely told in nine shots. Each shot is a long take that appears to have been delicately choreographed. What was your intention taking on this unique technical challenge?

KBH: Every shot is a long take with no editing inside, so we worked a lot with the DP. He had to put lights in the sets that looked like practical lights, but we also had to hide all of his lights, because we were filming 360 degrees. It was a real work of architecture, lighting all of the sets. I thought that it would make the film more engaging with the audience, because when you see a movie in real time, you are more connected to the main character. You are there now, in real time with her, so it’s like inviting the audience to assist directly with what she is living. It gives the audience another experience of the tension in the film. You have Rope by Hitchcock, it’s a thriller, and he shot it like this with long takes and you feel the tension in every take. For all of these reasons, I thought that it was the right artistic choice for this movie. We rehearsed a lot. We had like three months of rehearsal on sets to get everything precise, and to have all the actors sync with the technical crew: the cameraman, the focus puller, the sound engineer, and all of the people behind the camera. They all had to turn at the same time with the camera. We were in narrow places, so all of this needs choreography. It was a big dance to rehearse.

A scene from Beauty and the Dogs

MM: Your film comes on the heels of the #MeToo movements, which here in the United States has upended the film industry and evidence the horrors committed against women. Has its ripple effect reached Tunisia, and how does your movie fit within women’s current struggles there?

KBH: We are living in a small planet, with social media and the Internet; what happened there changed things in other parts of the world, so the #MeToo movement is already going on in Europe, North Africa, and Arabic countries. Now it’s not specific to the United States thanks to movements in many countries. I saw it with my movie. I didn’t plan it, but it was released at the same time as we learned about Harvey Weinstein, and the beginning of the #MeToo movement. It was released at the same time, so I was doing the promotional tour and having a lot of Q&As with the movie and talking about this issue. In Tunisia for example, I know that the Civil Society, a feminist association, they took my movie and showed it for many women living in the countryside to explain the laws against harassment and violence, and to tell women how, in a legal way, to sue in cases of harassment or violence. It was also an ideological tool for feminist associations in Tunisia. The movie was also a huge commercial success in Tunisia. MM

Beauty and the Dogs is now playing in select theaters, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

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