Three years after Mehdi M Barsaoui's We Are Just Fine Like This (2016) won the Best Muhr Short award at the Dubai International Film Festival, he has arrived at Venice Film Festival with A Son, his much-anticipated debut feature film.
"Winning the prize in Dubai was important because it was an important spotlight," says Tunisian-born Barsaoui. "At the time I had started developing A Son, I added that detail into my biography in the catalogue and it helped me a lot to get this film made."
We are sitting by the beach on the Lido at the Venice Film Festival. Barsaoui, 35, speaks to me in English before switching to French. He is immensely proud to have his film at the festival, he says. "Presenting the film in Venice [ …] from Tunisia is exceptional. It's a good opportunity to talk about our country, our problems and our issues."
And problems and issues come thick and fast in A Son. The action takes place in the summer of 2011, a few months after the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
"It was important to set the film here, because we saw at that time, in real life, a transformation," says Barsaoui. "We moved from dictatorship to democracy … 2011 was a very important year for us in Tunisia.
"But I'm not a sociologist and I didn't want to make a film about the political situation directly. I was more interested in telling a family story."
In the film, Meriem (Najla Ben Abdallah) is at a party celebrating a promotion at work. On the drive home from the event, tragedy strikes when she and her husband Fares (Sami Bouajila) drive down a road where extremists are attacking the military. In the crossfire, their son Aziz, 10, (Youssef Khemiri) is shot and critically wounded.
The parents are told that Aziz must have a liver transplant. But when the doctors run blood tests to try to match a family member as a donor, the family is rocked by the revelation that Fares is not Aziz's father. It's a cleverly designed story. Through the moral conundrum faced by the couple, Barsaoui creates an overarching metaphor for what was happening in Tunisia during this period of turmoil.
“There is a parallel,” says the director. “When Ben Ali left, everything seemed perfect in the beginning. But when you started to scratch beneath the surface, we discovered a lot of things. It’s like this family – everything is revealed in the crisis situation.”
This discovery sets off a domino effect, where one revelation leads to another. The spouses face a spiral of increasingly complex moral quandaries mirroring those also facing Tunisian society at large: can they forget about transgressions from the past to build a better future? Are they liberal-minded or stuck in patriarchy? And most immediately pressing, how can they find an organ donor for their son in a society and culture where organ donation is not widely available?
Organ donation in the Muslim world is often a polarising topic because of conflicting opinions on whether or not it's an acceptable practice. But this debate wasn't what Barsaoui set out to reignite.
“I didn’t choose to make a film about organ donation because it’s a hot topic,” says Barsaoui. “I wanted to describe how my country deals with organ donation and how organ donation and Islam can combine to save lives. For me, the most important element is to save lives. It’s problematic in our country, but it’s not a religious issue. It’s an issue because people are unaccustomed to donating. Also, the law states that you can only give an organ to someone you are very closely related to.”
As for the narrative of unfaithfulness, that was based on an incident that the filmmakers read about in a newspaper article. "In the real situation he put his wife in jail," says the director. "My film is an invitation to go beyond [biological parenthood] and see the loving relationship that there can be between a father and son even if they are not biologically connected."
As a result, the marriage crisis depicted in the film reflects the dilemma faced by Tunisia's transition to a more liberal society. A Son reflects the moral quandary stemming from that: it's easy to talk about being modern and progressive, but sometimes it's harder to put into practice.
Fares must show he can see beyond the cultural conditioning and traditions that tell him to abandon his wife and accept her. Whether or not he will do so provides plenty of tension. The film serves as a challenge to Tunisians as well, says the director.
“Female adultery is not often depicted in Tunisian cinema,” he says. “Thus, an important theme of the film is that we should be able to forgive women for adultery as much as we can men.”