Kaouther Ben Hania: ‘Injustice is a theme in all my movies’ 

Kaouther Ben Hania: ‘Injustice is a theme in all my movies’ 
Kaouther Ben Hania is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker. (Supplied)
Short Url
Updated 27 October 2023
Follow

Kaouther Ben Hania: ‘Injustice is a theme in all my movies’ 

Kaouther Ben Hania: ‘Injustice is a theme in all my movies’ 
  • The acclaimed Tunisian director discusses her extraordinary latest feature ‘Four Daughters’ 

DUBAI: In 2016, the world first felt the righteous fury of a Tunisian mother named Olfa Hamrouni. Her two eldest daughters — Rahma and Ghofrane — had run away from home to join Daesh in Libya. Rather than let herself be consumed by her grief, she went public with her story, condemning authorities who did nothing to help her and the system that allowed it to happen. It was a cry for justice, a cry heard clearly by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania. 

Together, Hamrouni and Ben Hania have made “Four Daughters,” a docu-fiction hybrid unike any film ever made. In it, Hamrouni appears as herself, and, in dramatizations of past events, seasoned Tunisian actress Hend Sabry plays her. At other times the two interact, passionately discussing the events at hand. Hamouri’s younger daughters appear too, as well as actresses Ichraq Matar and Nour Karoui playing the two lost elder daughters, who first act out what happened, then bond — as themselves — in grief. It’s as emotionally complex as it sounds, and as thematically complex as you can imagine.  




Olfa Hamrouni and Hend Sabry in 'Four Daughters.' (Supplied)

“I was drawn to this story immediately, but I was so lost in the beginning,” Ben Hania admits to Arab News, speaking to us on the sidelines of the 67th BFI London Film Festival earlier this month, at which the film screened. “There’s a lot of layers — it’s about trauma, tragedy and even the very act of opening your own wounds back up in order to heal them. 

“But in the end, I found a way to tell it — mixing fiction, documentary making, and even a meta-documentary about the shooting of the movie itself. That all gave me the possibility to tell different levels of the story. It’s a surreal story on its own, you have to open yourself up to telling a story like that the way it demands to be told, organically,” she continues.  

Ben Hania, at 46, is approaching two decades as a filmmaker, helming her acclaimed first short “Brèche” in 2004, with “Four Daughters” marking her sixth feature and 12th film overall. 2020’s “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” about a Syrian refugee who is turned into an art piece, brought her and her country’s cinema to new heights, becoming the first Tunisian film to be nominated for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards. “Four Daughters” is on a similar path, submitted last month for the 2024 Oscars ceremony after becoming the first Tunisian film to earn a nomination for the Palme d’Or since 1970 at the Cannes Film Festival. 




Eya Chikhaoui and Tayssir Chikhaoui in 'Four Daughters.' (Supplied)

There are two things that link each of her works — their exposure of injustice, and their emotional and thematic richness. Both are a reflection of her character, because as affected as she is by the inequity of the world, she is careful and considered in how she approaches it in either fiction or documentary. 

“Injustice is a theme crossing all of my movies that I am very sensitive to. But while you want to tell that story, you also have to know why you want to tell that story, and what the story means, and what the story can convey in terms of emotion first, and then, in terms of ideas,” Ben Hania says. “These are very important questions that any filmmaker should ask him or herself before doing a movie.”  

While she remains cautious, it is no coincidence that, two decades on, her work continues to grow more daring.  

“Yes, I'm the same person, but I’m less scared,” she says, pausing for thought. “I mean, I'm still scared when it's typing. I’m still scared of doing something bad. I've been scared of not telling things as they should be told, scared of the medium. Cinema is wonderful in so many ways, but it's always scary to say, ‘I have something to say. I have a story I want to share.’ But experience has given me confidence.” 




(From left) Olfa Hamrouni, and her two younger daughters, Tayssir and Eya Chikahoui, at the screening of 'Four Daughters' at Cannes in May. (Supplied)

Taking on a task as demanding as “Four Daughters” required a lot of confidence, not just because of its scope, but because so much of the journey of making it was led by questions that may never have answers. The reason why the daughters were lost to a radicalization movement can never be fully understood without their presence (if then). As a result, Ben Hania made the film a safe space to try to work through the huge void they left behind, without the burden of form or preconceived solutions.  

“It always remained a work in progress. I would plan things, but always leave room for surprise. These are real people telling their stories with their own words. Even the actors are using their words. So you have to be able to adapt to their truth — to get lost before finding your way, while preparing, while shooting, and then while editing, until you find the final movie you want to make.” 

Making the film, understandably, was overwhelming for all involved, including Ben Hania herself. To get through it, they leaned on each other, and, to Ben Hania’s surprise, it was Hamrouni’s younger daughters, Eya and Tayssir Chikhaoui, who were the ones that got them through it, bringing a strength that powered all of the women on set.  




Tayssir Chikhaoui and Nour Karoui in 'Four Daughters.' (Supplied)

“Their courage surprised me, honestly. I knew they were courageous, but I couldn’t believe at times that not only were they telling this story, they were reassuring and comforting us, which is completely crazy,” says Ben Hania. “I also couldn’t believe the sisterhood between the two actresses playing the elder sisters and the two real young daughters — they became a composite family through the tools of cinema. By the end, it was like they were real sisters.” 

What gets Ben Hania emotional now, as the film tours the world’s top festivals ahead of its theatrical debut, is not just the many truths they mined from their lives, faith and society — truths that linger in the mind long after the film is over for both author and viewer —  rather, it is the effect the film has had on the real-life relationships of Hamrouni’s family, which had been torn apart by the events the film depicts.  

“When we started shooting, they weren’t really speaking with one another. They were fighting all the time. And then the movie gave them this possibility to tell each other things, to understand each other,” Ben Hania says. “I put so much thought into how I wanted to tell this story but, still, I underestimated the therapeutic aspect of what we were making. That was so great. That was such a beautiful surprise.” 


Dave Chappelle to perform at Abu Dhabi Comedy Week

Dave Chappelle to perform at Abu Dhabi Comedy Week
Updated 19 April 2024
Follow

Dave Chappelle to perform at Abu Dhabi Comedy Week

Dave Chappelle to perform at Abu Dhabi Comedy Week

DUBAI: US award-winning comedian Dave Chappelle is set to perform in the UAE at the Abu Dhabi Comedy Week on May 23, organizers announced on Friday.

The capital city’s first-ever comedy festival will run from May 18-26 at Yas Island’s Etihad Arena.

Chappelle will join a long list of comedians performing at the event, including Chris Tucker, Aziz Ansari, Tom Segura, Jo Koy, Tommy Tiernan, Kevin Bridges, Andrew Santino, Bobby Lee, Andrew Schulz, Bassem Youssef and Maz Jobrani.

With numerous accolades and awards to his name, including multiple Grammy Awards and Emmy Awards, Chappelle is renowned for his wit and fearless commentary on contemporary issues.

While May 23 will mark Chappelle’s inaugural performance in Abu Dhabi, he has previously captivated audiences with two sold-out shows in Dubai.


Manal AlDowayan on her work for the Venice Biennale 

Manal AlDowayan on her work for the Venice Biennale 
Updated 19 April 2024
Follow

Manal AlDowayan on her work for the Venice Biennale 

Manal AlDowayan on her work for the Venice Biennale 
  • The acclaimed artist is representing Saudi Arabia at this year’s ‘Olympics of the art world’ 

DUBAI: The acclaimed Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan is on a roll. Earlier this year, she opened two well-received exhibitions in AlUla, where she is also working on an ambitious land art commission for the upcoming Wadi AlFann cultural destination. And this week, AlDowayan will represent her country at the 60th iteration of the Venice Biennale — dubbed “the Olympics of the art world,” consisting as it does of multiple national pavilions — which runs until Nov. 24. She will be presenting what she describes as “two of my most major works in my career at this point.” 

AlDowayan has participated at Venice before. In 2009, she showed her work in an onsite exhibition organized by the Saudi art-focused initiative Edge of Arabia, alongside fellow Saudi artists including Maha Malluh and Ahmed Mater.  

AlDowayan will represent her country at the 60th iteration of the Venice Biennale. (Supplied)

“I’ve been going to Venice for about 12 years,” AlDowayan tells Arab News. “The first time I showed there, I knew in my heart that I would be coming back to represent Saudi Arabia; I would do everything in my power to come to this moment and prepare myself. It’s something very important for an artist: to participate in the Venice Biennale.” 

It was only last August that she was visited in her UK studio by Dina Amin, the CEO of the Visual Arts Commission, and cultural advisor Abdullah Al-Turki, and told she had been selected to represent the Kingdom in 2024.  

“My first thoughts were: ‘There’s no time,’” she says with a laugh. “To come up with a concept, complete the research, execute the concept, build it, and install it, is really complex. But my team, my studios, and I were ready. I already knew what I wanted to present, and within one week I had put together my proposal and it was approved. The artwork is a continuation of my language, my research and my forms that I work with.”

Participatory workshops for 'Shifting Sands - A Battle Song' by Manal AlDowayan. (Supplied)

The Saudi pavilion’s theme at Venice this year is “Shifting Sands—A Battle Song.” It is curated by a trio of female art experts, Jessica Cerasi, Maya El-Khalil, and Shadin AlBulaihed. In AlDowayan’s sound-meets-sculpture installation, she brings together much of what she has explored in her practice over the past two decades — community engagement, participatory art, media (mis)representation, and the visibility, or lack of it, of women in Saudi culture. The work is also about the momentous changes taking place in the Kingdom today, and her response to them.  

The work comprises two key parts: sound and soft sculptures. Saudi and Arab women’s voices are front and center; AlDowayan allowing them to reclaim their narrative, which she believes has consistently been misrepresented.  

“If you’re always told that you’re oppressed, repressed, depressed… you sort of lose the sense of yourself,” she adds. “And this artwork talks about this sort of constant hounding by Western media — and local media — speaking about the Arab woman; her body, her space, the rules of her behavior, and how she should exist in the public space.” 

Manal AlDowayan's 'Shifting Sands - A Battle Song.' (Supplied)

For this section, AlDowayan put out an open call inviting women to take part in workshops. They proved very popular, attended by all ages, professions and backgrounds.  

“In Riyadh, within three hours, 350 women registered,” she says. “We had to block the registration link because I don’t know how to control 350 women. I’m just one.” In the sessions, participants reacted to negative press headlines and media clippings, and AlDowayan recorded those reactions.  

“I always say that people are trying to define what a Saudi woman is,” explains AlDowayan. “We researched thousands and thousands of articles in my studios, in seven languages, and there were some very dark things written. I showed the women these articles and said, ‘Do you really feel these articles are really speaking your truth?’”  

She also asked them to write and/or draw their own stories. Examples included: “Two women equal one man.” “Thanks love, we don’t want to be saved.” And “Surrendering doesn’t look good on us, for we are wars.”  

Detail from Manal AlDowayan's 'Shifting Sands - A Battle Song.' (Supplied)

A selection of the written quotes were then read out loud by participants. While reading, they had headphones on, listening to, and harmonizing with, the eerie humming sounds made by sand dunes, which AlDowayan had previously recorded.  

“It was beautiful and meditative. You will see women with their eyes closed, their arms stretched out. It was a very spiritual moment,” AlDowayan recalls. The whole ‘performance’ was inspired by ‘Dahha,’ a ritual in which warriors celebrated victory with music and dance.  

Inside the pavilion, where the women’s recordings play, stand three soft black-and-brown sculptures, full of folds, shaped like the sand crystals known as desert roses — a recurring motif in AlDowayan’s work.  

“The rose is a very weak and delicate (thing),” she says. “But this crystal is born in extreme circumstances. First, it needs to be pouring rain, then there needs to be high temperatures and that’s how it crystalizes. I feel like I’ve adopted this form as a body and I deal with it like skin.”  

The folds of the enlarged sculptures are imprinted with “a cacophony of what Western media has written: the veil, repressed, oppressed, women, sexuality… All the words that always float over our heads,” says AlDowayan. They also include some of the women’s positive messages, as well as their drawings.  

“While you’re taking this journey you will hear the sound, and sound is sculptural in my opinion: It occupies but you can’t see it,” she says. “I feel the invisibility of sound, and its ‘presence’ is like the Arab woman. She’s strong, she’s there; it’s undeniable. Just because you don’t see her, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t exist.” 

As for how visitors will react to her work, AlDowayan hopes to provoke conversations.  

“I want questions. I want extreme emotions. They can hate it, they can love it, they can cry. But, I can’t do neutral,” she says. “Neutral means I did not succeed. If they have questions, then I’ve succeeded. If they talk about it after one day, I’ve succeeded.” 


US Kuwaiti artist Latifa Alajlan — ‘I used to compare myself to other artists’ 

US Kuwaiti artist Latifa Alajlan — ‘I used to compare myself to other artists’ 
Updated 19 April 2024
Follow

US Kuwaiti artist Latifa Alajlan — ‘I used to compare myself to other artists’ 

US Kuwaiti artist Latifa Alajlan — ‘I used to compare myself to other artists’ 
  • The third in this year’s series focusing on contemporary Arab-American artists in honor of Arab-American Heritage Month

DUBAI: Kuwaiti artist Latifa Alajlan moved to America in 2016 to study art at Grossmont College in San Diego, followed by a Master of Fine Arts program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where alumni include major American artists Georgia O’Keeffe, Joan Mitchell and Grant Wood.  

Now, Alajlan is based in New York, where she is represented by Franklin Parrasch Gallery. “New York is the Makkah of the art world,” she tells Arab News. “You have so many galleries and institutions — that’s what I do every Friday. It’s very meditative for me and I enjoy walking around the city.”    

Alajlan, Latifa, Ishq, 2024. (Supplied)

But she is also aware of the competition in such an established artistic environment. “In New York, when you’re a young artist what’s dangerous about it is that you compare yourself to other artists,” she says. “I used to do that a lot and I had to take a step back and realize it was unhealthy. Everyone has their own journey.” 

Hers began in Kuwait, where her parents, especially her strict father, would “force” Alajlan and her siblings to visit museums and write essays on artworks. “I just didn’t understand. People were enjoying their summer, and we were going to museums,” she says. “That was boring.”  

Now, however, Alajlan can look back on her childhood and understand her parents’ intentions. “That’s what I appreciate: the fact that they kept pushing me,” she says. 

Lilith's Garden, 2024. (Supplied)

As for her creative practice, Alajlan has experimented with ceramics, glass-blowing, blacksmithing and sculpting. But such labor-intensive mediums weren’t for her. “I almost lost my fingers,” she says. “It’s intense. . . I’ve realized painting is my thing.” 

Through her abstract work, Alajlan addresses political, cultural and architectural attributes of her homeland. But she finds inspiration everywhere, she says — from her friends to conversations with strangers. There is an element of mystery to her canvases; she might hide certain parts of her composition with splodges of paint, filling them with gentle gestural strokes and motifs from mosques.  

“To me, painting is very therapeutic,” she says. “It’s my way of praying.” 


Recipes for success: Chef Lorenzo Buccarini offers advice and a pasta and caviar recipe 

Recipes for success: Chef Lorenzo Buccarini offers advice and a pasta and caviar recipe 
Updated 19 April 2024
Follow

Recipes for success: Chef Lorenzo Buccarini offers advice and a pasta and caviar recipe 

Recipes for success: Chef Lorenzo Buccarini offers advice and a pasta and caviar recipe 

DUBAI: “I discovered my passion for cooking at a young age, being drawn to the sights and smells from my family’s kitchen,” Zenon Dubai’s executive chef Lorenzo Buccarini tells Arab News. “My earliest memory of cooking is helping my grandmother prepare lasagna. Those moments ignited a lifelong love affair with the culinary arts.”. 

Zenon, located at Kempinski Central Avenue in the heart of Downtown Dubai, offers Mediterranean and Asian cuisine. 

“Working with Zenon Dubai has been an enriching experience filled with creativity and collaboration, allowing me to push boundaries,” said Buccarini. 

Zenon is located at Kempinski Central Avenue in the heart of Downtown Dubai. (Supplied)

From the vibrant culinary scene of London in 2012 to Istanbul in 2014, Bali in 2016, and Morocco in 2018, Buccarini has dabbled in an array of cuisines over the years. Here, he discusses his go-to dish, favorite cuisine and most challenging dish to prepare. 

Q: When you started out, what was the most common mistake you made? 

A: Underestimating the importance of proper seasoning. Achieving the perfect balance of flavors is essential in every dish, and mastering seasoning techniques was a valuable lesson early in my career. 

What’s your top tip for amateur chefs? 

Invest in quality ingredients and don’t be afraid to experiment. Additionally, learn fundamental cooking techniques such as knife skills and proper seasoning, as they form the foundation of any great dish. 

Zenon offers Mediterranean and Asian cuisine. (Supplied)

What one ingredient can instantly improve any dish? 

Fresh herbs — whether it’s parsley, basil, cilantro, or thyme, incorporating fresh herbs adds depth and complexity to your cooking. They elevate the flavor of any dish. 

When you go out to eat, do you find yourself critiquing the food?  

Naturally, as a chef, I pay attention to the details if I’m dining out. 

What’s the most common issue that you find in other restaurants? 

Something I often notice is inconsistency in execution — whether it’s undercooked proteins, over-seasoned dishes, or lackluster presentation. Consistency is key to delivering memorable dining experiences. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Zenon Dubai (@zenondubai)

And what’s your favorite cuisine when you go out? 

I do enjoy exploring different cuisines, but if I had to choose a favorite, it would have to be classic Italian cuisine. There’s something inherently comforting and soul-satisfying about dishes like homemade pasta or a perfectly cooked risotto that never fails to delight the palate. 

What’s your go-to dish if you have to cook something quickly at home? 

Spaghetti aglio e olio. It’s a simple yet flavorful pasta dish made with garlic, olive oil, chili flakes, and parsley. It’s quick to prepare and showcases the beauty of minimalistic Italian cooking. 

What customer behavior most annoys you? 

It can be frustrating when customers request significant modifications to a dish without considering the integrity of the recipe. While accommodating dietary restrictions is important, excessive alterations can compromise the intended flavors and balance of the dish. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Zenon Dubai (@zenondubai)

What’s your favorite dish to cook? 

One of them is osso buco. It’s a classic Italian dish made with braised veal shanks, aromatic vegetables, and a rich tomato-based sauce. The slow cooking process allows the flavors to meld together beautifully, resulting in a dish that’s hearty, flavorful, and deeply satisfying. 

What’s the most difficult dish for you to get right? 

For me, mastering the perfect risotto has always been a challenge. Achieving the ideal balance of creaminess and texture while ensuring the rice is cooked to perfection requires precision and attention to detail. It’s a dish that demands patience and practice to get just right. 

As a head chef, what are you like? Are you a disciplinarian? Or are you more laidback? 

I try to maintain a balance between discipline and approachability. I do set high standards for my team, and I expect professionalism in the kitchen, but I believe in fostering a supportive and collaborative environment. Effective communication and mutual respect are essential for success in any kitchen. 

Chef Lorenzo’s pasta, cream reduction and caviar 

Chef Lorenzo’s pasta, cream reduction and caviar. (Supplied)

INGREDIENTS 

For the cream reduction: 1L double cream; 500g dried porcini; 1L water 

For the fresh pasta (can be substituted for store-bought pasta): 600g semolina flour; 1400g 00 flour; 8 fresh eggs; 300g water 

INSTRUCTIONS 

1. To reduce the cream, add it to a pan and gradually reduce the heat to a slow boil, stirring frequently. As the water boils off, the cream will be reduced. You want to reduce it by half. Then place the pan to one side. 

2. For mushroom stock, add the dried porcini to a pan with the water and simmer for one hour. Strain immediately. Reduce the stock by ¾. 

3. For the pasta, mix all ingredients together to make a dough. Put in the fridge for one hour. Remove from the fridge and shape it as you like (here at the restaurant we do rigatoni). You can just use standard, store-bought pasta too.  

4. Cook the pasta in boiling water for five or six minutes (or as instructed for store-bought pasta), then drain. 

5. Put 250g of the cream reduction and 20g of reduced mushrooms into a hot shallow pan. Add a pinch of salt. Add the pasta to the sauce. Stir. Add a little parmesan and top with caviar.


REVIEW: Netflix’s ‘Crashing Eid’

REVIEW: Netflix’s ‘Crashing Eid’
Updated 19 April 2024
Follow

REVIEW: Netflix’s ‘Crashing Eid’

REVIEW: Netflix’s ‘Crashing Eid’

Shying away from the traditional, comedy television show “Crashing Eid” presents quite a progressive viewpoint — but certainly not an uncommon one.

The four-episode series follows the story of Razan, an independent young Saudi woman who fled her old life and built a new one in London along with her teenage daughter Lamar — only to find herself in love with a Pakistani Brit, Sameer.

The show opens with a surprise spin as Razan takes it upon herself to initiate a proposal to Sameer, who she has known for two years. She and her daughter then plan to take a short trip back to hometown Jeddah during Ramadan, without her family knowing that she has no plans to move back home — or that she is engaged.

Sameer decides to return the surprise by showing up to her family’s home, only to be met by Razan’s father, who mistakes him for a maintenance worker. This spurs the show into a flurry of misunderstandings and awkward interactions that surface some rather crucial unresolved family issues and traumas.

As Saudi has become more global in its population, in many ways including international marriages, the issues in “Crashing Eid” have become more vital to discuss than ever.

Rather than focusing on the difficulties that come with marrying a foreigner, such as lengthy legal procedures and official marriage approvals, the show hones in on societal acceptance. The aspects of honor and locality of marriage are brought to the surface.

The show also uses the main plot to dig up some underlying issues prevalent in any society, not just in Saudi Arabia. Through Razan’s homecoming, she is forced to revisit the reality of her previous marriage to Lamar’s father, who had been physically abusive. Choosing to leave him and start a new life abroad, she is met with societal condemnation and victim blaming.

While Razan’s brother Sofyan battles divorce and child custody issues, the family reveals the challenges of generational gaps. It also demonstrates the common shift to the globalization of younger generations and the tight hold on traditions within older ones.

The show has a unique way of making difficult or rather taboo topics palatable for a general Saudi audience. It sets the table for conversation, at the very least.

Sure, some of the acting seemed fairly novel, reminiscent of early 2000s sitcoms sans the laugh track, and the show also had a peculiar style of direction and editing.

But certainly, “Crashing Eid” must be applauded for its bold statements, proving that it is not afraid to rock the boat for the chance to tell authentic Saudi stories. For anyone looking to get a deeper sense into the modern-day Saudi household, the show is a must-watch.