Director Hinde Boujemaa and actress Hend Sabri discuss their collaboration on Noura’s Dream, which makes visible the invisible everyday violence women face. Read our review of the film here.
Director Hinde Boujemaa and actress Hend Sabri describe Noura’s Dream as a modern-day Greek tragedy in which a flawed, complex woman must choose between her children and her lover. Set over the course of just a few days, Noura (Hend Sabri) sees her life turned upside down when, just as she’s about to divorce her abusive and imprisoned husband and marry her lover, her husband gets out of jail — and starts infiltrating her life in subtly violent ways. Like Medea and Electra, she must respond instinctively and quickly to the situations she finds herself in.
What makes the film so remarkable is that it makes visible the invisible violence and indignities that women are subjected to, especially by men. And yet, Noura is never a victim: she has agency and grit, but no good choices. As Sabri describes, all of Noura’s choices are “lose-lose,” so she becomes a victim of her own choices. Of course, the reason her choices are limited is because of the patriarchal structures that guide her life.
At TIFF, I sat down with Boujemaa and Sabri to discuss why they wanted to tell Noura’s story, the importance of complex female characters who are neither idolized nor victimized, making visible the invisible violence women face, and how they collaborated to tell this story.
Seventh Row (7R): Where did the idea for Noura’s Dream come from? What made you want to tell this story?
Hinde Boujemaa: The idea came from observing different lives of different women in our society. It’s an observation of our society. Things that touched you, and that you want to put in the story.
Hend Sabri: We spoke about it maybe two years before filming. She had that idea, and she thought about me, but she also thought about other actresses. I did not live in Tunisia, so we did not meet very often. But we happened to see each other many times and test each other, try each other. She asked me to come and audition for the part, which I had never done…
Hinde Boujemaa: Because she’s a big star! And I told myself, Are you crazy? You’re asking Hend Sabri to audition? What are you doing!
Hend Sabri: And she came!
Hinde Boujemaa: Yes she did! It was great. I was pretty sure, you know?
Hend Sabri: That I would say yes?
Hinde Boujemaa: No, of me, of my choice. There was a really strong attraction with her as a human, as a woman, as an actress.
Hend Sabri: Yeah, we have the same sensibility. We discovered that we have the same approach to social causes, women’s status in general, in Tunisia, and the Arab world. We have a lot of affinity and communicate easily.
Hinde Boujemaa: And respect for each other. Even if we have different points of view, we discuss.
Hend Sabri: We talk a lot.
Hinde Boujemaa: We do. It’s important to talk.
Hend Sabri: And we talked a lot before this film. We had it already talked out before going on set. When we went on set, we already had a certain idea of what she wanted me to be and what she was expecting of me, as an actress.
Hinde Boujemaa:. We were sharing everything. It’s important for me to be that way with all the actors. They are smart, so you have to use their intelligence.
Hend Sabri: Yes, she has no hierarchy. The way she works is very democratic. She listens a lot. She puts her actors, not only me but also Lotfi [Abdelli] and Hakim [Boumsaoudi), the two men in the story, in a collaboration mode where everyone comes with their luggage, but also their ideas. Everybody put something from really deep inside into this film, and she knows how to collect that from us.
Hinde Boujemaa: Yes, and I want to take the best of all the actors. They are here with me to give me something to use.
Hend Sabri: She knew how to raise my interest, because this is not an uncommon story.
It’s a very common story but untold in our region, especially from the angle of love and adultery. Women are, in general, either sacralized or victimized. But women who are human, and have all aspects of being human, I like her approach to that.
Noura is not a perfect woman. She’s a woman with all her flaws, with all her fears. Sometimes, she can be empowered. She can act in a cowardly way. That is what I liked because in all our region, women are either heroes, totally supernatural beings, or victimized, lower-than-men beings.
This is a film from the point of view of a woman who’s in love, but who also cherishes her children, who also has very noble values, but at the same time, also has her fears, and she makes mistakes. So that’s what made me really go for this film with my heart. We need more universal stories about Arab women, not necessarily stigmatized with all the luggage of an Arab woman. I like this freedom of approach she has, which is a very human approach, not a cultural approach.
Hinde Boujemaa: Yeah, I think that adultery, for a woman, is a weird problem. Even in Sweden, or in the north, or in more developed countries, it’s not the same [as for men]. There’s something totally unfair between [how we think about] a man who has a mistress and a woman who has a lover. Even here, they don’t have the same glaze. So that’s why this story is more general. It begins in Tunisia, in a small village, but it’s a universal problem.
7R: What was the process for embodying Noura and to prepare for the shoot?
Hend Sabri: We had maybe two weeks of rehearsals. We had talked for hours and hours and hours before, and I had already references in mind and fictional references that we spoke about a lot. She gave me films to watch — references to the character, the female characters that she liked in other films, and that she wanted me to get a glimpse of to incorporate them into Noura.
I found Noura inside, just as I found her in Hinde, just as I found her in my mother. We are cutting into a special time in a woman’s life where I think every woman goes through these moments of self-doubt. What’s my priority: is it me or my children? Is it staying the course of this life or changing totally? It speaks to me a lot because every woman goes through these moments, but we are not allowed to expose them as men expose them in films.
Hinde Boujemaa: Or you are a slut. And it’s international.
Hend Sabri: And we’re judgmental. I think women are even more judgemental about women’s issues that are discussed on screen. They try to hide a certain guilt of feeling this way by just refusing to see it on screen. We have been raised for generations and generations that you should sacrifice yourself for your children and your family. I know it’s not just in the Middle East; it’s everywhere in the world. So that’s what I found of her in me.
We cried for hours talking about our personal experiences. We shared a lot of our lives, and we had those moments on set where we could just look at each other and have a tear at the same moment, or share knowing that women all feel certain things that they are not allowed, that they do not allow themselves to feel. Noura is this embodiment of the times that we do not allow ourselves to feel.
Hinde Boujemaa: She’s the kind of actress who’s really involved in the projects that she chooses to accept to do, and she’s so curious. She observes everything.
7R: One of the things I really loved was Noura seems really smart about how she navigates this world, how she navigates the power structures and the men in her life. She chooses her battles: when she is going to fight back and when she knows she can’t win. How did you think about writing that?
Hinde Boujemaa: It’s kind of a survival instinct. There’s something unconscious, and you have to find a solution in one second. You are in front of a solution with warning, warning, warning, so I don’t have the time to reflect about the solution and to tell myself what I’m going to do now. No, it’s instinctive behaviour.
We all have emergencies in our life. For her, the first thing is the children. Instinctively, she does all the necessary things to protect her children. We worked on the instinctive, animalistic kind of womanhood, not only motherhood, but the instinct of woman is usually very protective, and she tried to protect her lover…
Hend Sabri: Except for one situation.
Hinde Boujemaa: When the husband threatens with the children. So it was love or children, and she decides.
Hend Sabri: We’re not being judgmental. In another story, she could have chosen her lover; we wouldn’t have judged. But this Noura, in particular, as Hinde wrote her, imagined her, created her, she worshipped her children. She really wanted to preserve that, and she betrayed her lover. She had a Greek dilemma between her children and betraying her lover.
Hinde Boujemaa: A dilemma of split seconds. She didn’t have the time to reflect.
Hend Sabri: And I like that, as an actress, nothing is really thought of. The film is over less than a week, four or five days. Everything happens to the spectator as it happens to her. There is no reflection over what she is going to do or say to husband. She always reacts with the audience. We discover he’s out of jail when she discovers he’s out of jail. He comes home and tells her to follow him; she goes after him just as the audience is going. We never know what the next step is.
For actors, it can be liberating, because you are so much in the present scene and present moment. You don’t have any reference to the scene or what’s going to happen. I think that kind of tension is very important in certain scenes because the spectator is living with the character. There is no delay between what the character is living, feeling, right now and what the audience is living, feeling, right now.
7R: Part of what I mean is you can feel there’s history there. She’s dealt with versions of this situation before, or men like this before. She knows how to handle her husband. When she’s in the police station, for example, and that police officer says to her, “You can put the husband away,” you know that she wants to do that, but she knows the other police officer is corrupt.
Hinde Boujemaa: She’s stuck between the children and the lover. She’s stuck always. She’s always in this dilemma.
Hend Sabri: As every woman is. You always have to make a choice where you lose or lose; it’s what you lose. Whereas men don’t go through the same kind of dilemma.
Hinde Boujemaa: The path of least resistance, she chooses that.
Hend Sabri: I think what’s interesting is, if we changed the angle or point of view from Noura to the husband, you would find a totally different approach to what a choice means to a man and what a choice means to a woman. A choice, in a woman’s situation, even when she makes the choice, and is proactive about making the choice, is always a lose-lose situation. Whereas it’s much easier for a man to make emotional choices, life-changing decisions.
That is a very interesting part of the film. She never complains. She never even cries in the film. She always looks confident. Even at the police station, she’s keeping her head high. But at the same time, you feel something else, or at least she broke my heart so many times in scenes. But she takes it because she can not allow herself not to take it. This is the strength and vulnerability of every woman in the whole world: we can not allow that vulnerability to allow to show at crucial moments in our lives. We can maybe allow it offscreen. Maybe she allowed it, but we did not keep that on camera. She wanted a strong woman; she did not want a self-loathing woman.
Hinde Boujemaa: I didn’t want a miserabilistic woman or a victim. She is a victim, but she’s a victim of the big system. And she’s the victim of her decisions. She’s the victim of her fear.
7R: How did you approach the mise-en-scène of the film? The framing is so meaningful and beautiful.
Hinde Boujemaa: It was important to me to feel the five senses of my actress — the smell, the touch — so that’s why I decided when I am with her, to be really close to her. With the family scenes, it’s another thing because I needed to have this energy that you can find in each house. I focused a lot on her because she has this gift to say without doing anything and to tell a lot.
Before shooting, I was working on different ways of mise-en-scène, but when she came in front of me, and the other men, too, there is something of an instinctive way of working. I abandoned all my ideas and obeyed my personal vision, and that vision was to be near.
7R: There are a few moments where violence happens, and it happens outside of the frame. How did you decide to do that?
Hinde Boujemaa: I was afraid of the cliche because everyone is expecting it. There are easy things to do when you do a movie. It’s easy to hit; it’s easy to shout. I think that we are all conditioned by a kind of dramaturgy that we’ve learned, and now we are in a point that people know exactly the scene because they all know the typical tragic structure.
They have to be surprised by the story. They need something else. It’s the reality of the human being: we are full of surprises and unpredictable. It was so easy to show violence, but the characters are more complex. Humans are more complex than that.
Hend Sabri: And violence can be very subtle. It doesn’t have to be beating, it doesn’t have to be shouting. There is violence that can be felt in silence. If I may add something, I think that just showing the physical part, or just the big parts, discredits other forms of violence. And I think we are playing a little with this in this film, as well.
I’m sure the audience will have mixed feelings about how violent is violence? What is the threshold that a woman should accept, and when or where does it become unbearable? Which should be subjective. I like how she played with that. There are no limits. Violences can be just not liking the smell of someone you are sleeping next to.
Hinde Boujemaa: Exactly. In the scene after the rape, he came back to the house and told her, “Now I’m sure that you love me.” That’s super violent.
7R: Yes, it feels like there are so many little indignities that just build up and build up. They start small, but before you know it, they become a really big problem.
Hend Sabri: And we, as women, are preconditioned to think that, if he doesn’t beat you, then it’s fine. That’s what the mothers say, the grandmothers say.
Hinde Boujemaa: Yeah, exactly, that you have to accept your husband.
Hend Sabri: So we learn to deal with that and even to make concessions with ourselves.
Hinde Boujemaa: Yeah, that’s why she never quit him before. And that’s why a lot of women in this world never quit their husbands, even if there’s this kind of violence.
Hend Sabri: Because there’s nothing justifiable. And I’m sure many men would say he’s not that bad because the violence is not on-screen.
7R: I feel that’s what the film really does, is it makes visible…
Hinde Boujemaa: The untold violences of everyday.