JEDDAH: Set against the backdrop of the majestic Atlas Mountains, “Backstage” — the Tunisian-Moroccan production from husband-wife duo Khalil Benkirane and Afef Ben Mahmoud that premiered at the Red Sea International Film festival on Monday night — is a story that contains multitudes.
Following a fateful night in the lives of a slowly unraveling but close-knit dance troupe, “Backstage” manages to touch on topics such as displacement, climate change, body autonomy, found family, the institution of marriage, and more; all the while slowly zooming the lens into the inner lives of its main characters, all 10 of them.
Speaking to Arab News at the sidelines of the festival in Jeddah, co-director Ben Mahmoud — who also stars in the film as one of its central characters Aida — says that she began working on the script for the film in 2016.
“I began my artistic career as a dancer, then stage actor, then actress for cinema and TV. And this journey through all these life arts, of course made a huge impression in my life. And when I moved to cinema, my goal was to bring these two worlds of cinema and dance together because, for me, they are both not that far. And I love them both,” she said.
Co-director and husband Benkirane said: “I would come home from from work and she would update me as to the new scenes she was working on. My job does not allow me to really get my creative parts, really start the script. But this way worked really, really well. And we usually get on the same wavelength when we watch films. So, it was a beautiful collaboration.”
“And what I liked about the script is that it has a normal, straight line as far as the development of the narrative. But the structure allowed us to inject certain things that we are concerned with, such as the environment, the right for women to use their body as a tool of work, challenging the notion of marriage, which in the Arab world is so dear to tradition, immigration and going back to the place of origin, which does not satisfy anymore because you have become something else,” he said.
The cast, a mix of actors and dancers, features names from across the Arab world including Sofiane Ouissi, Ali Thabet, Abdallah Badis, Salima Abdelwahab, Nassim Baddag and Saleh Bakri. The film also stars dancer Hajjiba Fahmy, who is known for her extensive work with US superstar Beyonce.
But the most prominent name to jump out from the cast and crew is that of award-winning Belgian choreographer and dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who makes his acting debut with “Backstage.”
“Dance is really dear to my heart but it is also not always well represented in cinema. And there are only three dance scenes. But even if we have only three scenes, for me it was extremely important to have a big figure because this is going to give more visibility and credibility to what we are trying to do,” Ben Mahmoud said.
“And it was extremely important for us to have someone such as Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and we were so lucky to talk to him and to convince him to be with us. And we were lucky because he’s extremely generous and we really collaborated together. We gave him the script, he worked on the script, and we didn’t know what he was going to do with the choreography. But when we saw the movement and how it was so linked to the narrative and how much they give this expression through the body to tell everything without words — this was really amazing,” she said.