Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 October 2019

Hend Sabri on 'Noura's Dream': 'I don’t think the Tunisian audience has seen me in a role like this'

We speak to Hend Sabri about why the time was right to return to cinema in her home country

Hend Sabri drew inspiration from women she knew in real life for her role in ‘Noura’s Dream’. Tiff
Hend Sabri drew inspiration from women she knew in real life for her role in ‘Noura’s Dream’. Tiff

Tunisian actress Hend Sabri has pushed the boundaries again with her return to Tunisian cinema in the drama Noura’s Dream, which last week had its world premiere in the discovery section of the 44th Toronto International Film Festival.

Sabri plays a woman trying to navigate relationships on her own terms and find long-­overdue happiness while her abusive, small-time criminal husband, Sofiane (Lotfi Abdelli), is in jail. Noura is struggling to raise their three children while working in a dead-end job in a hospital’s laundry department. An affair with mechanic Lassaad (Hakim Boumsaoudi) is the hopeful spot in her life, but they face time in jail for adultery if they are caught. Noura is well into divorce proceedings, while Sofiane is oblivious to her plans. If only the final papers would come through, then Noura and Lassaad could be together.

Click to play a clip from 'Noura's Dream':

Noura is a compelling, relatable character. The danger surrounding her affair makes her both anxious and giddy. She is no saint and is a skilful liar, but she’s also a devoted mother who is doing the best she can in difficult circumstances.

Sabri says that while Noura’s Dream centres on the laws and taboos of the region, it’s a global story. Characters are drawn with realism and subtlety. This is no fairy tale.

“It is not emblematic of one culture, it’s a universal story,” she tells us, while in Toronto to promote the film. “It can be understood and felt by a woman in Sweden, a woman in Saudi Arabia, or a woman in Australia or a woman in Tunisia.”

The language in the film is raw – a characteristic adopted by a new wave of filmmaking in the region after the Arab uprisings – and it may catch audiences by surprise. “I think it’s going to be shocking,” says Abdelli, who gives an outstanding performance in his role. “We are free in Tunisia, but we use a new language in this film, raw language, like we speak in real life.”

With her chipped manicure and weary face, Sabri makes Noura feel familiar to audiences. She’s an everywoman. Sabri plays her as hopeful, determined and impatient as the film opens, with her long-awaited divorce only days away from being granted.

But everything changes when Sofiane is ­unexpectedly released from prison and returns home. He’s controlling and anxious to resume family life. Noura, who has become skilled at deception, tries to keep her husband calm as tension increases, while secretly meeting with Lassaad, who is also subtly controlling.

Belgian-Tunisian writer-­director Hinde Boujemaa says she wanted to make a realistic film about a relatable character for Noura’s Dream, which marks her feature film debut. The filmmaker says she was partially inspired by the female subject of her 2012 documentary It Was Better Tomorrow, which tells the story of a squatter struggling to survive in post-revolution Tunisia. That film earned Boujemaa the prize for best director of a documentary at the 2012 Dubai International Film Festival.

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A still from the film with Sabri as the title character alongside Hakim Boumasoudi, who plays her lover, Lassaad. Tiff

She shot Noura’s Dream in the cafes, alleys and typical homes of the Jebel Jelloud neighbourhood of capital city Tunis, using tight framing and an intimate style of camerawork, favouring long close-ups on her actors. Boujemaa says she was also inspired by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, who was known for telling stories about women, desire and relationships.

She says it’s “like love” to be in her characters’ faces with her camera. “You feel the stings, you feel the love,” the director explains.

“We worked hard on building the characters from inspirations on and off screens.”

Sabri says she drew inspiration from women she knew in real life for her riveting portrayal of Noura. “I tried to collect all these Nouras from all the women I know – from my mother to Hinde, to my friends, to me and we made a collective Noura.”

I’m always looking for those gender issues or challenging issues about the condition of a woman.

Hend Sabri

An established star and winner of several awards, including Best Actress at the Alexandria International Film Festival in 2017, Sabri is a versatile actress best known for her work in TV and independent productions, as well as her portrayal of a woman with HIV in 2011 film Asmaa.

“I’m always looking for those gender issues or challenging issues about the condition of a woman,” she says. “It’s not a departure for me, but maybe a return to Tunisian cinema that is now in tune with my age, my experiences as a woman, motherhood. I don’t think the Tunisian audience has seen me in a role like this in a Tunisian-speaking film in a long time.”

Sabri says she wanted to play Noura because this is a feminist film with a strong personal story inspired by reality, following a character with “her own set of fears and values”.

But she says this is not a tale about morality. “What I like about Hinde’s writing is there is absolutely no moral judgement in this film at all.”

Updated: September 15, 2019 07:39 PM

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