Radu Mihaileanu: “Society is moving along at a faster rate than our thinking”
The latest movie of Romanian-born filmmaker Radu Mihaileanu, The Source (La Source des Femmes), was just released in French theaters. A modern-day fable exploring female empowerment in the Arab world. A comedy/drama set in a Morrocan village and centered on a battle of the sexes, where women threaten to withhold sexual favors if their men refuse to fetch water from a remote well.
The Source was written and shot before the Arab Spring. How did you manage to strike at the heart of all the issues and themes that have arisen in the wake of these revolutions?
Radu Mihaileanu: The film misses one of the most important problems, an issue that isn’t really tackled. The subject is touched upon: the question of unemployment. All Arab countries are hit very hard by economic and unemployment issues. But other matters, such as the position of women, the dialogue between tradition and modernity, what certain books refer to as a dialogue between tradition and new technology, relations between generations, relations in religion and in the modernity of religion, that some call the “Islam of Light”… Here, all this is brought up, of course, in the film. There are two aspects… I was struck, during numerous trips through countries in North Africa, especially Morocco, by the beauty and the complexity and subtlety of people, particularly the women. And I quickly grasped how the West tends to simplify to a great extent all these issues, notably the question of “who are the Arabs?”. They know very well that Arabs are a very diverse group, not a single, uniform people. From Iran, where they are Persians, to Morocco, where there are Arab-speakers and Berbers. And similarly, the matter of religion is a little simplified and simplistic in the West. So I wanted first and foremost to delve deeper, to understand better myself, and to show a little more complexity and beauty in these people. And secondly, I quickly sensed that certain aspects were making these societies evolve. One aspect, often a difficult one, is the access increasing numbers of women have to education. These women are becoming even more qualified in some places than the men. Therefore out of necessity, mechanically if you will, they were going to occupy more and more positions of responsibility in both private and civilian life. They are going to change society by opening it, by feminizing it. So that was noticeable on the one hand, while on the other, you noticed an increasingly fascinating dialogue between tradition, religion and modernity, across new technologies, across the Internet, mobile phones and satellite dishes, of which there are a great many over there. So it was only natural that something had to give. Things could not remain stuck as they were. A movement was already underway. Afterwards, well… They didn’t envisage revolutions on that scale, and especially the way the revolution spread throughout the Arab world.
Today’s analysis is even more complex. No one imagined the connection with religion, with extremism. Today’s reading is even more complex.
That’s just it, you set the film in a Muslim context. Is it an attempt to break the clichés that confuse Islam and Islamism?
Radu Mihaileanu: What is clear is that there is a terrible cliché, on the one hand, that combines Islam and Islamism, and that fails to grasp the point that in Arab countries, people are, by nature, Muslim. People must stop calling this into question. It is their nature, their culture. But Muslim does not necessarily mean extremism or intolerance or hatred of others. It is just a culture. It’s just the way they are. People must now be taken as they are. After that, you have to ask yourself questions like: What is democracy in an Arab country? What is women’s freedom in an Arab country? What is really written in the Koran, discussed by many but read attentively by few in its figurative nuance? Because we know that in Semitic languages – in the Koran as well as in the Torah – vowels are not always written. Therefore interpretations are much more subtle and much broader. So I try to shatter all those clichés and, even though it’s not up to me to provide answers, to ask the question: These societies are different. How can they – in their own way, and not in Western way – achieve the right balance and find a democracy that suits them?
By way of metaphors, but also humour, which permeates your film. Is it not sometimes the simplest way to get a message across?
Radu Mihaileanu: On the one hand, I noticed – and this is their mistake in a way – that this is a people with a tremendous amount of humour. That, too, is often overlooked. People think they are tense, consumed with violence… I especially discovered female humour and the poetry of the women. While the women sometimes lack education, they have another kind of ancestral knowledge, and they have obligations, in terms of a culture that is virtuous and thus cannot express things head on. The solutions they find are metaphorical, poetic and often funny. So their relationship with humour is often very subtle. And really, that’s something I’ve dealt with in all my films from the outset, ever since I broke away from a dictatorship as well, and I know that the most “bloodless”, the most beautiful weapon is humour. It always hurts dictators or those who are intolerant. So these women… I saw it when I lived there. I heard it. They handle humour in a very, very subtle, a very delicate way.
How did you go about trying to strike a balance between comedy and tragedy?
Radu Mihaileanu: I find that every day, life teaches me lessons in that respect. Because, every day… I’ll give you an example. Last night we were at a screening in Mantes-la-Jolie, where there were 1,350 in the audience. It was… It was so stimulating, so nice to see all these people together. There were people of every kind: immigrants, French… It was tremendous. At the same time I had the destiny of Tunisia on my mind, everything that’s going on there, which preoccupies us all. And all the things I read on blogs, on Facebook… The Tunisians themselves are wondering where they are going. So there it is, tragedy and comedy or happiness… The people in the hall were laughing, they asked me questions, we joked with one another… And at the same time, inevitably, a great many of us had something worrying, something disquieting on our minds. Tragedy is present every second, every day in our destiny and in our lives. Fortunately we are not always sad, or always laughing, because life cannot be made up in every second either of tragedy, or in inverted commas, of “meaning”. We always need both meaning and what I call this inspiration, the ravage of death, because tragedy is the death that lies in wait. And then sometimes it is qualified by barbarism or something else. And that you might say is the brink of the abyss. Happily by thinking, by continuing to think, you manage to pull away from the brink with a breath of humour. So my films show this same thing, that people become emancipated and manage to get back on their feet and face tragedy, stupidity, all those things – barbarism, intolerance – through humour, through wit. We often forget that sometimes, we talk about humour and call it “wit” so there’s the notion of wit in it, the idea of a game. Life sometimes becomes also a game, and it’s no worse for it…
Are events in Tunisia, with the current elections, a comedy, a tragedy, or something else entirely, in your opinion?
Radu Mihaileanu: What’s happening now in Tunisia cannot be defined in finite terms. You cannot say, “It’s tragic” or “It’s pure joy”. It is on the move. So it is a little too soon to define it. You can only analyse it, and the analysis is complex. Like everyone else, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for the last few days. There’s the liberation aspect, the fact they’ve freed themselves, liberated themselves. By “liberated” I mean they have had a revolution and are expressing themselves. Meaning they took to the street, they wanted to be free, and above all, there’s a young generation that is fed up and is trying to find itself. Now the country is somewhat in the image of an eastern country. There are similarities, even though the cultures are very different, notably in the religious element. But it’s similar in that it is about a country where nobody had ever voted. That’s to say that among the living, no generation has had the culture of voting by universal secret ballot. This is the first time. So for the time being they are finding it difficult to know how to get organized, how to form alliances. What is a secret ballot? So that’s the first approach. The second approach consists in telling themselves that they really want to be free. Another part of the population is really very religious, and thinks that society must exist through the sharia, etc. Another part claims to be religious like Turkey, and here a great deal of attention is required because it becomes almost a linguistic fashion. The Libyans are saying the same thing, and they forget that Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has toured all these countries. It makes you wonder what was discussed. And then in all these societies, because it is just the start of democracy, many people are easily manipulated right now. Personally I ask myself the following question: How is it that even today, so many people tend towards Islam or extreme religion?. And here, I try also to analyse our own society. Because of course I know that today, with new technologies, they are very much in contact with our set-up. Maybe there are aspects of our own set-up that need improving. For example, what we offer in society seems to them to be very superficial. And really, the unbridled quest for money in terms of our image, our appearance, even in our own society, is starting to irritate people, who say it doesn’t suit them anymore. So sometimes, unfortunately, the first solution that they have in this quest for meaning, spirituality and depth is unfortunately an answer which can be manipulated by others, and they fall into extremism. So you can’t make too simplistic an analysis and limit yourself to wondering how it is that that, barely liberated, they vote for another powerful, rather “masculine” regime. So I try to reflect upon that: What are we offering? What do they see when they look at us? And I know that they are looking for a model. When they look at blogs, the poor Tunisians wonder if they might take to the streets again… At the same time they think that maybe they are right: “But wait, it is an expression of democracy. If the others voted in great numbers for this fundamentalist party, then that’s democracy too.” So now, for me, the question isn’t… They did not cheat. The question for me of why, barely liberated, they vote in great numbers for a religious party… Or maybe we can’t accuse them of that, we still don’t know. Perhaps slightly fundamentalist. And what will our alliances be tomorrow? What chance is there of a continued democracy in the future, such that in the following elections, the stakes can change, an opposition can form and express itself? Perhaps this party, once in power.. Something else I also see on these blogs that isn’t very clear is that they wonder if it is only an election of the constituent, or if they are legislative elections, where a government will be formed and they will have the majority. And obviously a government is going to be formed and run by this party. Then what will it allow others to do? What will press freedom be like? What about freedom of expression, when you consider that friends have already expressed things on the Internet and been threatened?
But then I pay a lot of attention to ourselves as well. What do we offer as a model? I’ll give you an example in terms of the media. This is an issue. I release a film, etc. Today, fortunately, my films have been successful, so in that respect… The relationship with the media is rather a good one. All the same, certain media want to talk about the film as long as it features stars. So where does that leave us? Where are we in terms of talking about meaning with the public? The meaning is all in the packaging, in the superficial. If our society, western society, which ought to be, in inverted commas, the “example of civilization”, is only material and superficial, then you have to accept that other societies do not want it. And they are forced to wonder, sometimes awkwardly, what the alternative model is. And sometimes, the answer is that the other model can only be religious, and thus, for them, spiritual, since we no longer offer another kind of spirituality. There was a time when people like Malraux, Camus, Sartre, had access and they dialogued, if you will, with the public. Today, it is very complicated. These people exist but they are not heard anymore.
What is your personal definition of democracy?
Radu Mihaileanu: Democracy, for me, begins with something simple and human. It is about mutual respect: respect for other’s opinions and the expression of other’s opinions. It starts with two. So in a society where there are two several times over, in effect the expression and the pulse of democracy stems from freedom of the press and freedom of expression,. In general, they come first. That’s to say that one has the right to disagree with the other, to have a different opinion, and democracy, i.e. the legislative system, must ensure that this expression must in no way be undermined and can be expressed by the widest number of people. So that’s what we are going to observe in the coming months in all these countries, where people have expressed a desire for freedom, even if there are also economic desires. The freedom of expression of those who will not be in power, the freedom to be what they are, including the freedom of women, the freedom of opposition, the existence of an opposition, the protection of this opposition and freedom of the press… Is all that going to exist? It’s nice, also, to make a connection between the Arab revolutions and the “Outraged”. And you have to because there is a connection. This is a time of discontent, in which many things, political thought, have to move, and not be just about economics and all that that entails. We are reaching the end of a cycle. The people sense it. The Outraged still do not know what they want instead because there is less thinking on the matter. We used to have what we called ideologists – who did not only do good things, I accept that – but whose job it was to reflect on a society in movement. Because society is moving all the time and the history of humanity is in constant movement. Today we are lagging behind. Society is moving along at a faster rate than our thinking.
Interview: Sabine Langeblog comments powered by Disqus