Interview with Sami Tlili, director of Hors-jeu flagrant [Obvious Offside]
Wednesday 24 February 2021, by ,
Do you have a particular interest in football? In your opinion, what place does football have in Tunisia?
I am both a big fan of football as well as a critic of its excesses (the business of football, the political exploitation of football, the fanaticism of both the fans and the major actors in this sport, to cite a few examples). I often go to the stadium to watch my favorite team play but I don’t like to talk about football, and it annoys me when debates over football are put front and center to the detriment of more important and useful subjects. Football was present in my last documentary Sur la transversale, but the approach is different with Hors-jeu flagrant. Like other North African societies, there is a lot of popular excitement around football in Tunisia. It occupies the majority of public debates, and the majority of programs on TV, radio, etc. are devoted to it. Football has always been used as a tool in Tunisia during the period of the dictatorship and even more so now. It is a social and political factor in our society, and as a director, that is what interests me the most. It is a great way to address social and political issues. Football reveals the contradictions deep within each of us just as it can awaken an ugly and vile side within us.
How did the casting take place?
During the writing of the script, I already had Majd Mastoura in mind for the role of the driver. So, I can say that the role was truly written for him. Majd has a very natural and minimalistic acting style and that is exactly what I was looking for. Also, Majd is a friend and I know to what point he understands nothing about football. For the police roles, I first wanted to avoid actors that had already too often been seen in these roles in audiovisual productions in Tunisia, in which you always have the same actors who play the role of cop. Add to that the fact that this film doesn’t rest on the individual performance of each actor, but more on the interaction and synergy between the duo of police officers. That’s why for the police roles, I did camera tests with duos of actors. Each time, we would take two actors and ask them to act out a scene in the film. When the duo of Mohamed Hessine Grayaa and Bahri Rahali, two actors I admire, took the test, I knew right away that it would be them. They began improvising, getting into their respective roles, and it really worked marvelously between them, except for the fact that the entire team that was there were bent over laughing. It’s important for me to get along well with the actors I’m working with. It’s very important that there be good energy and good dynamics.
Your film is full of humor! Do you have a particular preference for this tone? What kinds of styles and subjects do you like to explore in your work?
Yes, when the subject and its treatment lend itself to this. But on the condition that it is natural and smooth. I don’t see humor as an objective in itself, but more like a scriptwriting and filming tool. I am a very cynical person. I always approach life’s problems with lots of sarcasm and self-deprecation. I try to give my films a bit of myself. From film to film and from experience to experience, we become freer, we make discoveries as a director, and from there we become more daring and try out new things. Sincerely, I don’t really have any preferences in my subjects, I have my favorite directors, writers and musicians, yes, I have my influences and my references, yes, but for my subjects, I work a lot on feeling. If I feel strongly about my subject and it touches me, I start exploring different pathways, but if the subject doesn’t interest me, even if it is “trending”, I don’t stick to it. It may also be my problem, I lack “pragmatism” when it comes to that, but I could care less.
What is your experience as a director in Tunisia?
I started at the age of 19-20. We made short films with friends that we shot on mini-DV cameras and that we edited with software that was becoming more readily available to the public at that time. It was a completely crazy time. We didn’t know where our dreams would lead us, but we jumped in with both feet. We wanted to reach the stars, but all we had were our dreams and our insolence/carefreeness. Afterwards I went to France for my studies. In 2011, I directed my first film on “the professional circuit”, a 78-minute documentary called Maudit soit le phosphate and in 2019 another feature-length documentary Sur la transversale. The films won awards and were screened in Tunisian theaters, which is quite rare for documentaries in Tunisia.
What do you think the future holds for short films?
The future of cinema doesn’t exist without short films, that seems obvious to me. As much as I am delighted by the influence that video art is exerting on short film and that is really enriching this format, I am also a little worried about the influence that the new formats of communication on social networks might exert on the short film. There is a confusion between the formats popularized by social networks and the short film format itself with what this implies with regards to dramaturgy and cinematographic language.
If we were to go back into lockdown, what cultural delights would you recommend to alleviate our boredom?
To be honest with you I’m fed up with being locked down, I’m sure I’m far from being the only one who feels this way. So I hope there’s no more lockdown. If not, at first I opted for films, organizing catch-up sessions for the works I missed in 2019 and 2018. After that I opted for reading and I think that this is what suits me the most. So try to read as much as possible but not on your tablets and other screens. The pleasure of holding a book in your hands is incomparable.
Hors-jeu flagrant [Obvious Offside] is being shown in International Competition I13.