x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Power, corruption and revenge

After getting a lot of attention at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Tunisian director Nejib Belkadhi's film Bastardo, about an orphan who turns the tables on his past, is one of the most anticipated screenings at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

A scene from Bastardo. Courtesy ADFF
A scene from Bastardo. Courtesy ADFF

Bastardo tells the tale of an orphan who gains power by ­controlling the local mobile phone market in the Tunisian ghetto where he was abandoned. The film’s Tunis-born ­director Nejib Belkadhi looks ahead to ­the film’s debut at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival

How did this project get started?

I did a pilot for TV in 2004, and it was many stories in one. This story was part of the pilot but didn’t make it to the final version, but it stayed there, somewhere, in my mind.

What within the Arab region, and ­Tunisia specifically, inspired ­Bastardo’s storyline?

There are two layers in the story. There’s the first, which is the story itself and more social. The second is more political and deals with power and corruption, and technology and capitalism. This story has originated in the political situation in that part of the world and in my country also. In 2010 we had the revolution but I wrote the film, like, three years before.

How did that timing influence how your story unfolds?

It’s all about talking about power and corruption in a different way, because in countries like Tunisia back then you couldn’t go and say: “OK, our president is like that” or “Our system is like that”. You weren’t allowed to do that. But I would have done the same thing, probably, after the revolution as well.

Yet you tried to erase every reference to your home country within the film. Why?

I think there’s something universal about this story. It’s not just about our region. Even in America it’s the same thing. All of us are corrupted by something. We are like marionettes and there are puppet masters everywhere – it can be money, it can be some CEO, it can be some president.

How does incorporating mobile phones, and a rooftop antenna, help make your argument?

Because the mobile phone is one of the biggest revolutions we’ve had in the last years, (along) with the internet – they’re linked together. I try not to talk only about phones themselves but the antenna, which is the instrument of power for (the main character) Mohsen and was killing him at the same time. The more power he had, the more he was being killed. You get corrupted that way, as a president, or a dictator, or CEO or whatever.

Mohsen obsesses about one of your other characters, Morjana, who always seems to be partially obstructed in the film. What does she represent?

In that surreal world, with everything that’s happening in that district with that story, what is real and what is not real? Morjana represents the fantasy of having a man who tries to (have) that woman – a beautiful, rich, glamorous woman. But she’s not there at all.

Another one of your characters has the unusual ability to attract nearby insects. Were any of the ants that crawled on her real or were they all computer-generated imagery (CGI)?

No, no, it’s CGI. That was very, very hard to do. It took us like a year to make them. The guys from the CGI (studio in Tunisia) told me they would have done the most impressive New York explosion, like a Star Wars thing. It would have been easier than dealing with those insects. They had to animate every single ant by itself, because I didn’t want to have all of the insects doing the same thing. They had to study how ants moved. They filmed them.

• Bastardo, which is up for a Child Protection Award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and is showing as part of the New Horizons programme, screens at 6.15pm tomorrow in Marina Mall’s Vox 6 and again on Friday at 3.15pm in Vox 1