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Interview with Ihsen Kammoun, director of Road to El Kef
Monday 14 February 2022, by ,
With his mother and brother gone, a vulnerable teenager living in northern Tunisia charts a path that threatens to tear apart what remains of his family.
The film explores quite complex family issues; no mean feat for a film that’s under half an hour. What did you want to explore through these relationships?
One of the things I felt strongly about was that I wanted this film to have its own time to tell its story for as long as it takes. I wasn’t really interested in making a film that was too straight ahead nor depict what was going on with ISIS fighters. Instead, I wanted to make a film that showed what I felt when I interacted with fragmented families in one of my visit in Tunisia in 2017 — the intensity of the family dynamic in a post-trauma passage. My son was less than 8 years old when I was having such conversations with these families, and I was sure that if he had grown up to get brainwashed and run away to join a terrorist organization, I would collapse, and my life would be over. The fact that these fathers, mothers and siblings had to navigate such traumatic events and find ways to create meaning in their lives after such experiences was inspiring.
Tell us more about the characters. Are they based on people you know?
Karim: This 16-year-old fledgling artist never wears his emotions on his sleeve. Nevertheless, the wounds run deep. Frank but tactful, with disarming eyes, he’s a quiet force among his tight-knit circle of friends. Despite his positive qualities and moral sense, Karim chooses to follow a secret dark and potentially destructive path.
Houssem: Stuck in an emotional void ever since losing his wife and child, 40-something soft-spoken lounge driver born. He maintains a calm exterior but harbors a desire for revenge against those who wronged his family. Occasionally, that desire becomes obsession and blurs the lines of reality.
Karim’s friends: Djo, Emine and Aziz. What brings them together is their dreams and passions. That circle of friends is very close in attributes to many of the groups you see in Tunisia’s youth.
Olfa and Mariem are a representation of a different category of Tunisians who are in different sides of the spectrum when it comes to political correctness.
Lilya represents innocence, hope, positivity and a ray of light in such a dark time for the family.
All these characters were inspired from reality. Some people I have personally known played a strong role in developing such characters. Ala Edine Yacoubi, who played the role of Emine, had inspired the creation of some characters in the film. In real life, he is also a rapper that goes by the name of Weld El 15 whose song Boulicia Kleb caused a lot of controversy in 2012.
What’s your background as a filmmaker?
Like all filmmakers, it all started as a love story with films since childhood. When my classmates were playing outside, I was inside devouring books. As my imagination began to develop, I loved creating characters and building their arcs without even knowing what an arc is. In 6th grade and middle school, I remember making cassettes with voiceovers and special effects that I recorded with tangible items in our house. In high school, I started writing hip hop songs and telling stories in them. My passion for music has grown stronger and I starting writing and producing music. In 2009, I produced and directed one of the first music videos to be played on MTV for independent Tunisian musicians. I hold a Bachelor degree of Arts in English Literature and Linguistics. I did not pursue a degree in film school, but I’ve learnt from watching and doing. After taking some short courses in different film schools (UCLA TFT…) I founded EQLAE Pictures in 2019.
What would you like to do next? Are you keen to work on feature films?
I have two feature film projects that I’m currently developing. I feel a lot of excitement about both! They do involve larger budgets, so it all must cook slowly but surely.
Can you tell us more about the research and preparation you did?
Besides real-life interactions, me and Charlie did extensive research (topic, time, place…) with books, documentaries, news, reports and real-life statistics. In a post Arab Spring Tunisia, ongoing instability in the new government has created challenges with domestic terrorism. As of 2019, an estimated 27,000 Tunisians were found to be attempting to mobilize, demonstrating a high commitment of Tunisian citizens to join the Jihadist mission. However, while the number of those attempting to mobilize signified a cultural shift, only around 3,000 were successfully able to do so. Of the roughly 3,000 Tunisians that became foreign fighters, an estimated 1,000 have returned back to Tunisia according to the Edgmont research group. Many of those fighters were described as young men and women who were secretly depressed and felt the need to pursue a purpose in their lives. Some others were full of life, dreams and talent. Their families had experienced devastation the most, leaving them with nothing but shame to confront society with. Pre-Production involved the contribution of a very strong team in Tunisia as I was conducting it remotely with my co-producer Anis Kriaa. With the assistance of his production partner and casting director, Mohamed Grayaa, we managed to do location scouting, casting tapes, crew recruiting and budgeting while working from two different countries. We used a project management software online that helped us tremendously keep everything organized.
Is there a particular short film that has made a strong impression on you?
Two Cars, One Night by Taika Waititi, Quiero ser (I want to be…) by Florian Gallenberger, Doodlebug by Christopher Nolan, Les Borgnes sont rois by Edmond Séchan.
What’s your definition of a good film?
To me, a good film is a good story that flows in time on the big screen. And a good story on the big screen is a well-rounded medium that uses visuals and sounds effectively to immerse the audience into a powerful and intimate experience. These visuals and sounds would come to life thanks to authentic actors who embody their characters and let their emotions run through them. A good film also connects to audiences and gives them space to engage with it by experiencing empathy, sympathy or identification.