Youssef Chebbi talks about his first feature

In official competition of the 19th edition of the Marrakech International Film Festival (FIFM), ” Ashkal », by Tunisian director Youssef Chebbi, was screened on the second day of the festival at the Palais des Congrès in Marrakech, transporting the public to another universe.

In one of the buildings of the Jardins de Carthage, a district of Tunis created by the old regime, but whose construction was brutally stopped at the start of the revolution, two cops, Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) and Batal (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa), discover a charred body. As construction sites gradually resume, they begin to look into this mysterious case. When a similar incident occurs, the investigation takes a disconcerting turn.

In an interview with Hespress UKthe Tunisian director Youssef Chebbi, returned to his first feature film “ Ashkal », the definition of the title he chose for his film or the difficulty of going from a feature to a short film.

Hespress UK: FIFM returns after two years of COVID. How did you experience this period as a director?

Youssef Chebbi: It was a period of break like everyone at the beginning. Then it was a period for me where I had to write. We wrote “ Ashkal throughout this period. And that allowed us to take a lot of time, the time we needed to research well and be inspired by other things, not just to be effective in writing. It did drop the beat yes, but it was pretty valuable.

Hespress UK : “ Ashkal is your first feature film. After being screened in the Directors’ Fortnight at the last edition of the Cannes Film Festival, it is now in official competition at the FIFM. What does this represent for you?

Youssef Chebbi: It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a good story for the film, and for all the people who accompanied the film. It’s great, we’re very happy. It’s also good to be able to show it, to share, to listen to things around. It is a very good period.

Hespress UK: Why did you choose the title Ashkal »?

Youssef Chebbi: For me, it can apply to different things. At the beginning, we can think that it is interested in the architectural specificities of this city which was never finished, and which was in the process of being when we were filming, it was an in-between .

And so everything she creates as a motif almost independent of the people who inhabit it, because one has the impression that she is somewhat autonomous. Then there are also things that can relate to the shape of a face, the shape of a body.

I thought it was a lack that succeeded in capturing these different facets. And from where we also stand to see things. It also talks a bit about points of view, perspective, where we choose to see things.

Hespress UK : The images of immolation in your film are strongly reminiscent of the Arab Spring and the revolution. Is there a message you wanted to convey?

Youssef Chebbi : Frankly no, not directly. I understand that it could be interpreted that way too. For me, it’s not a film with a message, it’s not a political observation on present-day Tunisia, it’s really a work of imagination, of fiction. Afterwards, what is certain is that the film borrows motifs from contemporary Tunisia which it tries to reinterpret, which it tries to see from other points of view, not only socio-political, but also perhaps to be in what they have to say in a less comprehensible, more sensitive side or the fantastic element which also, at some point, invites itself into this reality.

For me, of course, there is a responsibility, let’s say, we tackle subjects like that, but for me too, the revolution happened, ten years ago. And it also fits somewhere in a narrative fabric. It is an integral part of the history of Tunisia.

And then also these images of immolation are iconic images, a bit like the images of towers collapsing. These are things that influence cinema and that happen like that. I think it can be interesting for the cinema to capture them, and try to understand them, digest them, reinterpret them.

Hespress UK : You participated with “ Ashkal at the Ateliers de l’Atlas in 2019. What was the starting point of this project?

Youssef Chebbi : We had a version. There it was, at the Atlas workshops, in 2019. I don’t know which version it was, second or third, but we already had the characters and everything.

Then I think what happened here is that we went into more detail. I remember that in the previous version, we even went out of the Carthage garden district. I think we synthesized a bit more, but basically, we had a bit more suffocating side, to really stay in this place.

Hespress UK: It is difficult to go from directing a short film to a feature film. How was this transition for you?

Youssef Chebbi: Hard. It takes a lot of time, above all it requires finding the right people with whom you can work, with whom you want to work. I’m really lucky because I think I found them, we found each other.

I think that’s mainly where the transition is. It’s when you find the people you really get along with and want to work with. As a result, we are no longer in a kind of solitude and we start to find solutions without stopping to dream either. That’s what’s tricky. But when it works, it’s really beautiful.

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