For Tunisian filmmaker Leyla Bouzid, screening her second feature film A Tale of Love and Desire had been a long time coming. It was ready before the start of the pandemic, but only screened at the Cannes Film Festival this month. Bouzid decided to wait a year rather than show it elsewhere.
A Tale of Love and Desire is about the education of a sensitive and shy man, Ahmed (Sami Outalbali), 18, a French-born man of Algerian descent who meets the outward and bubbly Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor) at the Sorbonne University, where they are taking an Arabic literature course. Farah has come from Tunisia to study at the famous Paris institution. More outgoing, she begins pursuing the reticent young man as he tries to live a life of what his parents and peers have told him is that of a good Muslim. They buy books together, go to cafes and parties, study in the university library, and Ahmed even invites Farah for Christmas dinner with his family.
The story is told from Ahmed's perspective. "I wanted to present the image of a young man, who is shy, withdrawn and timid," says the director. "It is something that is missing from onscreen representations of reality. Whereas in real life, there are many men like that."
While French society views both protagonists as Arabs, Bouzid uses the film to show the differences between them in their attitudes, outlooks and experience. It's the conundrum at the heart of the film: how can someone born in France and who's never been to their homeland be the same as someone who grew up in North Africa?
"I wanted there to be a meeting between a Tunisian girl who comes from an Arabic country, and a young man who is from an immigrant family assimilated in the West, but who sees himself as part of Arabic culture, even if he only has a loose idea of what this means," Bouzid says.
"If they had met in Tunisia, there would not have been this division between them," she continues. The film captures the feeling that many have when they grow up as first or second-generation immigrants: that they are part of two cultures and are unsure of which one they belong to, taking bits from here and there to suit how they can best manage their lives. Ahmed's idea of Arab culture is not a lived experience; it's one passed on to him by stories from his parents and peers.
The director, whose first film, As I Open My Eyes, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015 to huge acclaim, was born in Tunisia in 1984 and came to France to study at the Sorbonne. However, she distances herself from the idea that this new project is autobiographical. "Of course, my story is closer to that of Farah, but it's not me. I never lived this type of love story, and I didn't do any Arabic literature course; there are a lot of things that have been invented."
It took Bouzid two-and-a-half years to write the script. She wanted to look at how desire has been presented in Arab culture over the centuries. "My background is from an Arabic culture, and I think there is a grand tradition of discussing love in this culture that unfortunately in the past few years has appeared less and less."
Casting was crucial. Bouzid saw Outalbali on French television and immediately thought he had the look and demeanour to play Ahmed. For Farah, there was an audition process in Tunisia. "When I saw Zbeida Belhajamor, I thought 'this is someone who could be troubling for a man'."
Belhajamor had acted in one film before, playing a teenager in the 2018 film Ors El-Chouk, but this would be her first serious acting part. Bouzid flew the actress to France to meet the actor, to see if they had chemistry. "Immediately, there was a fascination there, and I didn't want to lose that. So, I decided that, until the camera was rolling, I would keep them apart. There were no rehearsals or readings."
Bouzid may have been busy, working on this film and its premiere, as well as looking after her son aged 4 throughout the pandemic, but she's still managed to write another script. She's not ready to reveal more about that project just yet, however. All she'll say is it's a family drama set in Tunisia, and we have no doubt it'll be just as riveting as her other work.