Whistler Film Festival 2018 Filmmaker Interview: Meryam Joobeur, director of BROTHERHOOD

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Filmmaker Meryam Joobeur’s 25 minute narrative film takes us to rural Tunisia and into the life of a hardened shepherd, Mohamed, who is deeply shaken when his estranged son Malik, who’d left the family to fight for ISIS, returns home with a Syrian wife. Tensions between father and son slowly build into an inevitable and heartbreaking confrontation with devastating results. Brotherhood is the recipient of AWFJ’s EDA Award for Best Female-Directed Short at Whistler Film Festival 2018.

Jennifer Merin: Please tell us what your film is about.

Meryam Joobeur: Mohamed is a hardened shepherd living in rural Tunisia with his wife and two sons. He is deeply shaken when his oldest son Malek, a foreign fighter for ISIS, returns home from Syria with a mysterious new wife. Tension between father and son rises over three days until reaching a breaking point.

Brotherhood is an exploration of a complex family reunion and the consequences of past wounds and misunderstandings.

JM: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and the main characters in it?

MJ: The journey of Brotherhood started with a chance meeting in February 2016 with two red-haired Tunisian brothers, Malek and Chaker, in the middle of nowhere in the North of Tunisia. The two brothers were leading a flock of sheep across a lush green hillside when I spotted them. I had been aimlessly traveling for days and had a strong impulse to stop my car the moment I made eye contact with them. I asked Malek and Chaker if I could take their photograph but they refused so I continued my trip. However, this chance encounter deeply marked me; the contrast of their unique faces filled with freckles against the green landscape, and I kept thinking of them.

I then learned that a neighbouring town Sejnan had experienced a surge of radicalization post the Tunisian revolution in 2011 that ousted the dictator Ben Ali. A higher than average percentage of men from Sejnan had gone to Syria. This knowledge and the encounter with the brothers became the basis for Brotherhood. I knew I wanted to address this social issue through the intimate lens of one family and I also knew that I wanted the brothers to act in the film. So… A year later I went searching for them without knowing their names and where I had found them. I searched from village to village and finally landed on their doorstep with the script for Brotherhood. I convinced them and their younger brother Rayene to act in the film. I returned in six months later for the shoot. I never doubted my instinct that there was something special about them and the bond between us deepened in the weeks leading to the shoot, which took place in March 2018.

JM: How is your film stylistically distinctive?

MJ: Cinematographer Vincent Gonneville and I worked hard to create a cinematic approach that was distinctive but that served the narrative. Because our cast had such unique faces we decided on a 4:3 aspect ratio to underline their faces and the subtle gestures and glances that wordlessly move the narrative forward. We also used mostly natural light and tried to capture the stunning nature of our location in a way that it felt like another character in the film.

JM: What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

MJ: Through researching the subject of Tunisian foreign fighters for ISIS I discovered that isn’t a clear ‘profile’ for the type of Tunisian man or woman who have joined ISIS. They all come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, there have been sons of upper-class families that have joined ISIS as well as impoverished and socially frustrated men and women.

5. What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film?

Every step of the way in making Brotherhood, life sent signs that this was an important moment in my filmmaking and my life because I understood the power of my instinct. I came out of the experience of Brotherhood with more confident in my abilities and a renewed sense of faith in life.

Another important discovery was in how to approach working with non-actors. I was initially nervous in preparing Malek, Chaker and Rayene for their performances because I had never trained non-actors before but realized that my most important role as a director was to provide a safe space for them to feel supported and confident in their abilities. Once trust was established, their natural talent was able to shine. The same can be said for working with professional actors. I had the incredible chance to work with two great Tunisian actors, Mohamed Grayaa and Salha Nasraoui, and was at times so awestruck by their presence that I didn’t want to cut.

JM: What were your biggest challenges in making the film?

MJ: The biggest challenge was the tough weather conditions during production. However, the strong winds and stormy weather ended up becoming a very important creative asset in the film, adding a layer of tension that worked in favour of the story.

JM: Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process?

MJ: I feel that my background, whether it is gender, sexual orientation or cultural background, all influences the way I see the world and thus the way I approach filmmaking. I think what has helped me the most as a filmmaker has been my multi-cultural background- Tunisian origin, raised in the US, currently living in Quebec- because it has allowed me to see the nuances in life/reality reflected in my films.

In the case of Brotherhood I did notice that being a woman might have played a role in my ability to quickly gain the trust of the cast and crew.

JM: What are your plans for the future?

MJ: I am currently working on two feature scripts including a feature version of Brotherhood!

JM: Who are the Filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

MJ: Currently, I am very inspired by filmmakers Luca Guadagnino & Lee Chang Dong.

JM: What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

MJ: One of the most important lessons my father taught me was to never feel ‘lesser than’ anyone I encounter in life and this is how I’ve always approached my career- to project a quiet confidence that can allow others to trust in my abilities. I advise fellow female filmmakers to never see gender as a barrier to their dreams because anything can be achieved through hard work and resilience. So many stories of incredible women, Eleanor Roosevelt, Oprah, Serena Williams, Michelle Obama, Frida Kahlo, and Viola Davis to name a few, are a testament to this truth.

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