INTERVIEW: Self-Empowerment by Way of the Midriff; Raja Amari's "Satin Rouge"
by Kate Schultz
Raja Amari’s first feature length film “Satin Rouge” is a meditation on the transformative powers of self-expression. A widowed Tunisian housewife, tired of living in the shadow of her daughter and dead husband, finds herself drawn to the seductive, but socially unacceptable, belly dance cabaret down the street. From then on, nothing is out of the question, not even a bizarre love triangle.
The director stopped by New York for a few days on her way back from the LA Film Festival, before heading home to Paris. After a few minutes with this stylish, funny woman, it’s clear she does not and never has resembled the withdrawn widow in the film. For one thing, she’s on a distinct career path: Back in her native Tunis she worked as a professional film critic and was a scholar in Romance languages. A few short years later, she was enrolled in the Paris film school, Femis, where her first short “Avril” (1998) won a number of awards including a special jury prize at the Milan Film Festival. “Satin Rouge,” which was written while she was at school, has earned a new directors’ showcase award from the Seattle Film Festival.
Amari herself trained as a belly dancer at the Conservatoire de Tunis, and yet she was not allowed to go inside the belly dance cabaret near her family’s apartment in Tunis. Women of her social class simply did not go there, she explains. When she returned to Tunis to shoot “Satin Rouge,” at the top of her agenda was to use that same club as a location and cast the dancers as actors in the film. Kate Schultz spoke with Amari about the film, which Zeitgeist Films releases on Friday.
indieWIRE: In both of your short films and with “Satin Rouge,” you present characters and stories many viewers have never seen before. I wondered if your stories are based on your own experiences?
Raja Amari: Yes and no. I’ve probably seen things around me and then I’ve taken them and put them into stories, but it’s not autobiographical or anything like that. It’s like it was in my surroundings. I got inspired and moved on. Conservative people are a good case to study, actually, because they’re different from me. I see them evolve around me and I get inspired from it and develop some characters and stories out of that too. I come from a family that’s normal, verging on conservative. In Tunis, I live just next to a cabaret. And that’s a world I had no access to before. The film enabled me to make the jump to get to see that world.
iW: How do you compare Tunisian belly dance cabarets to American strip clubs?
Amari: It’s actually very different from strip tease because there’s a certain code in cabaret. Usually people are there to have fun. I tried to transmit the atmosphere of fiesta, fun and enjoyment. In terms of the actual women who dance, they exhibit their bodies, but not at all the way you would in strip tease. They are in control of the situation and they are imposing themselves as they are.
iW: The footage in the cabaret seemed to demonstrate your great love for dance. What can you tell us about that?
Amari: Well, first of all I studied dance, just like the daughter in the film. I really loved belly dancing. And also I really loved the actresses from Egyptian musicals from the ’40s and ’50s, like Samia Gamal. She was a real diva at the time, very well known. I really love watching musicals from that time. Shooting “Satin Rouge” was a way for me to get into that world. A few weeks ago, Le Monde, which is a famous French newspaper, asked me to present and introduce a film as part of a cinema club and I chose one of the Samia Gamal musicals. People were very surprised at how modern the film was, and by how much liberty and freedom the dancer had in the film. Dancers actually had more freedom than they have now in the current Arab world. And they were very interested in how the women would dance in a more Oriental way and then shift to a more Occidental way. They were not expecting that.
iW: In “Satin Rouge,” were you making a comment on the role of women in society or are you describing one woman’s personal story of mourning and awakening?
Amari: I started out with Lilia, the main character, who is not representative of Tunisian society. I just started out with that specific character. I wanted to study her evolution and how she’s going to journey throughout the film. I didn’t want to set the character in conflict with society. That was not my intention. Typically, in Arab films and Tunisian films you have a woman who is in conflict with the society, and she’ll fight against it. I didn’t want that. That was not my subject. Lilia, the character played by Haim Abbass, actually finds her freedom in the context of what I call social hypocrisy. She is involved in a society that is hypocritical in the sense that there are two worlds out there: the world of the night and the world of the day. What you do — what you really do — you do not show. She finds a compromise in the sense that society is like that. She just adapts to society. She does what she wants, but she doesn’t show it to the world
iW: What can you tell us about the title?
Amari: People often misinterpret the title as being the name of the cabaret. The title actually comes from the red satin fabric. It’s a very important scene for me because that’s the moment where Lilia dreams in front of that wonderful texture, and she is tempted. That’s also the moment where things shift for her toward a different type of life. That’s also very important because starting from that point she can start buying things she could not buy before. She could take liberties with herself and with money that she couldn’t take before. The material, the texture, is a way for her to accept another world. The mere fact that it’s so soft and so colorful and full of light, attracts her to another world and helps her to awaken her senses and dream of a better life.
iW: How do you feel American audiences have responded to “Satin Rouge” and has anything surprised you?
Amari: I was pleased with the welcome of the audience because when I expected them to react, they reacted nicely. They responded very well. I wasn’t sure what to expect because, of course, reactions always vary from one country to another. I wasn’t worried, but people had told me back in France that Americans are kind of prudish around the edges and so I was kind of tense about their reaction.
iW: What was the budget and how was it funded?
Amari: $1 million. It was a co-production, so the money was shared between France and Tunisia, so that made it easier. It was funds from the government. In Tunisia, you can’t do otherwise. You have to have funding from the government, otherwise you have no funding whatsoever.
iW: You have already won numerous awards for your shorts and “Satin Rouge.” What secrets can you reveal about your filmmaking technique for other young filmmakers?
Amari: Hard work. Maybe the reason I’m successful is because what I talk about in my films is different from the way Arab cinema is normally made, viewed, seen, and interpreted. Maybe I have a different approach that people relate to more easily or like better. I think it may be also how I deal with women as subjects. The female characters aren’t submissive, they are active, and that may be appealing to the audience.
iW: I understand Tunisia has an active filmmaking community. What can you tell us about that in light of your development as a filmmaker?
Amari: There is indeed a cultural and cinematographic atmosphere in Tunisia and that enabled me to attend some films that were being made on location there. I was also a film critic, so I was immersed in that atmosphere right from the beginning when I was in Tunis. But it’s true that in France, it’s very lively, very active in terms of the film community, and so it was definitely important for me to go out and meet people there.
iW: What’s your take on the state of affairs for women filmmakers these days?
Amari: Tunisia may be the exception in the sense that there are actually as many men filmmakers as there are women filmmakers and they’re very used to it.
iW: If that’s the case, then I want to live there.
Amari: (Laughs) Well there are other problems. Anyway, it was not difficult for me to shoot there. It’s pretty normal. I think that in Tunisia, as much as anywhere else probably, people are kind of condescending and patronizing in a way, but I can’t figure out if it’s because I’m a woman or because I’m young. They are condescending, but if they do what I ask them to do, well, who cares if they’re patronizing? The only problem with being a woman filmmaker and having a woman as the film’s subject is that the woman is often seen as the victim and is soft-spoken. They don’t have very strong issues. They’re not pushy, they don’t go far enough and I really want to push the envelope, to go outside of that and really tackle difficult subjects and not be so sweet and soft-spoken about it. I think that’s the tendency for women filmmakers making films about women.
iW: Was it hard to break into the film world?
Amari: It’s very difficult to get into that world obviously, but right from the beginning, when I made my short, I met with producers who were very interested in my scripts. I started working with Nomadis Images, the Tunisian co-producer of the film, so that helped with my introduction into that world. Also, I submitted the script to various organizations and commissions. If they can give you funding that helps a tremendous amount to work in film. I won a prize [Femis’ Laureate du Prix Junior de Meilleur Scenario] for the script “Satin Rouge,” and that really helped a tremendous amount because then a lot of doors opened up for me because of that prize. It would have been harder without that prize.
iW: What filmmakers have inspired you?
Amari: As a schoolgirl, I was very much impressed with Pasolini. I really liked the way he dealt with women and had images of women being charismatic, mythical, very strong. Overall I like Italian cinema. And French, because I’ve been immersed in it, in particular The New Wave and also Truffaut. Right now, I feel close to the new French cinema, young French cinema, like Francois Ozon, Arnaud Despleschin. It’s not that they came out of the same school as me, Femis, it’s more that I like the way they deal with their characters.
iW: What didn’t I ask that is important to say about the film or yourself?
Amari: I made the film in a particular context. The post production was done after September 11, so of course our producer was kind of worried, thinking “Oh my God, what kind of career is an Arab film going to have in such a context?” And he was wondering if it was going to be rejected altogether. What’s very important is that “Satin Rouge” brings something different to this world. We are bombarded by the media, and they show a certain image of the Arab world. What I want to do is bring a more subtle, more nuanced, vision of the world and open people up to other images.