A family affair: Ridha Behi & producer Ziad H Hamzeh on 'The Island of Forgiveness' in Cairo

From its first images 'The Island of Forgiveness' envelops the viewer into a world far away, in times gone by. It possesses the perfect balance of nostalgia and forward thinking, to create a masterpiece that is both historically correct but also fantastically mesmerizing to watch.
A family affair: Ridha Behi & producer Ziad H Hamzeh on 'The Island of Forgiveness' in Cairo

To those unfamiliar with Tunisian auteur Ridha Behi's work I say you are missing out! There is a magical quality to Behi's special brand of filmmaking and a need to provide audiences with a viewpoint different from what they are accustomed to seeing which serves as a leitmotif in all his films.

The Island of Forgiveness is no different. The film world premiered at the 2022 Cairo International Film Festival and was immediately beloved by audiences there and critics from the MENA world alike. From its first images The Island of Forgiveness envelops the viewer into a vision of a world far away, during times gone by. It possesses the perfect balance of nostalgia and forward thinking, to create a masterpiece that is both historically correct but also fantastically mesmerizing to watch.

The story is that of Andrea Licari, a Tunisian man of Italian descent now 60 years of age, who has become an accomplished author, college professor and a leading thinker in Rome. But as Andrea, now having to grapple with his own failing health, travels back to his native Djerba to scatter his mother's ashes, he finds himself flooded by memories of his broken childhood, and images of his tumultuous past flash by. Mixed in are his father Dario's unfortunate accident, which upended the family, Dario's brother entering to profit from the misfortune and a long buried family secret appearing which threatens to shake Andrea to his very core.

The majority of the film takes place in the 1950's on the island of Djerba, before the independence of Tunisia. This was a different place, and a different time when Djerba was home to a multitude of ethnic backgrounds, among them the Berbers, Spanish, Italians, as well as people following diverse religions like Islam, Judaism and Catholicism, all living side by side. This is the theme of Behi's film, this incredible to believe nowadays unity that his protagonists inhabit which makes the story almost surrealist. But it isn't, it's more of a magical realism which makes it even more perfect.

The Island of Forgiveness is made in the typical tones of Behi, the kind of visually stunning, heartwarmingly acted and unobtrusively directed film that simply lives on in shades of wonderful inside one's soul. And possesses more than a hint of the stylistic influences that Behi mentions in his director's statement -- Luchino Visconti, the Taviani brothers and the literature of Pirandello. The film features a rare appearance by Claudia Cardinale, a presence (and cinematic present!) which brings more realism to the story. Cardinale herself comes from the kind of background of Behi's protagonist, Andrea Licari.

I caught up with Ridha Behi and his Syrian-American producer Ziad H Hamzeh in Egypt to ask them both about the making of this latest film, working with one's family as Behi often does, and what it meant to be premiering the film at the Cairo International Film Festival. Palpable in their presence is the kind of mutual respect that has created such a long lasting and successful partnership for Hamzeh and Behi.

How do you feel about premiering in Cairo, which is the oldest film festival in the Region?

Ridha Behi: I have an impossibly bizarre history with Egyptian cinema and Egypt itself. When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I watched the film Afrita hanem with Farid al-Atrash. Al-Atrash was a Syrian born actor, composer and singer. It’s a film with songs, a musical comedy. It also stars Samia Gamal the dancer. Al-Atrash is also the brother of Asmahan, the legendary singer, as you know. 

I told my father I was going to watch a film about Mecca, the Hajj. But my father realized I was going to watch this film and arrived just as female dancers were dancing, so I was punished. He made me shine shoes to make up for the lie. He thought it was a terrible way to punish me but I found it entertaining and played with my shoe shining box. 

So Egyptian cinema is like that for me — a little bit a blessing and punishment at once. 

Ziad H Hamzeh: That is actually a very good way to put it. In many ways Egyptian cinema has that contradiction in itself. 

Yes, it is like guilty entertainment in a way. You are a poet Ridha!

Behi: My adolescence was quite difficult and reading books helped. I grew up in a conservative Muslim family but my father sent me to a nun’s school. At home, we practiced Islam, ate mutton for Eid, etc. And in Catholic school, we celebrated Christmas, Santa Claus — I had two worlds!

So you had to find a way to make sense out of those two worlds, and reading was the way?

Behi: I found it hard to read at home, in a typical Arab household with lots of women and kids around, so I would go to the cemetery to read. Egyptian literature, Youssef El-Sebai, and people would tell my father “your son is a bit strange, he’s at the cemetery every day!” For me, it was the most fantastic place where to read.

It’s the most quiet place on earth.

I read all the literature, all the Arab poetry, French poetry, Victor Hugo, it’s there that I read it, at the cemetery.

If I’m a bit of a poet and a bit of a philosopher, it comes from there. 

Ziad H Hamzeh and Ridha Behi at the Cairo International Film Festival in November 2022

Why did  you make this particular film about an Italian family in Tunisia, and got Claudia Cardinale to be the kind of godmother of the film, as she watches over the production and makes it all be truthful, in a way. How did you come up with the story and cast Cardinale?

Behi: My father was a teacher from 1925 to 1931 in Djerba, where the story takes place. He lived with a French Christian professor. When he worked there, I hadn’t yet been born but he told us this story of when his French Christian colleague fell ill, my father read the Koran to him, prayed Islamic prayers to make him better — not for converting him. Only to make him better. 

My father didn’t drink wine, the Frenchman did and this kind of acceptance of the other, this tolerance of the other one cannot be found so easily today. It was important for me to talk about the past but it is today that interests me. The Islamists today refuse "the Other", even other Arabs and other Muslim people, not just the Christians. I found it important to make this film today, and it’s in the style of someone who is older — I’m not as violent as I was in my youth, so the film is also calmer, more quiet. 

Claudia Cardinale understood the mentality, the place, the people. As she was born in that environment. Though I had to cut the role a bit once we found out she wasn’t well. 

This film is also a family affair, with Badis Behi, playing a leading role.

Hamzeh: Badis, his son, and little Andrea is Ridha's grandson, And his daughter is the DoP on the film, and his brother Taoufik is the production designer and his sister Samira is one of the producers on the film. It’s completely a Behi production, a family affair. You know how Orson Welles in his older age wasn’t given any more chances to do the films that he needed to do? He went out and did his own independent films, his own personal films, when independents weren’t even allowed particular equipment or anything. These are the characteristics that Ridha works through — “OK I don’t have money? I don’t care. I have resources!” He’s doing what Orson Welles did. He’s like, "I’m not going to let the money stop me! I’m going to build it and they will come."

Legendary actress Claudia Cardinale in a still from 'The Island of Forgiveness'

Ziad, speaking of invaluable resources, you’ve been along on this journey with Ridha for a while, I met you in 2012 when Always Brando was just coming off premiering in Toronto. And making the festival circuit. Here we are ten years later with this film. What does it mean to you to be Ridha’s producer?

Hamzeh: In many ways it’s an honor, to always be able to support his vision and his ideas and to be his partner on this journey that he walks. I never really associated with any other Arab filmmakers, simply because, and I don’t want to be insulting, but simply because of their lack of vision — or the complete vision. He gives care to the work, he has intricacies, a metaphoric ability that he is able of harvesting from a particular work, his work is not done just for the ordinary. You really have to be intelligent and somebody who can penetrate beyond the surface to analyze and understand how historically grounded and thoughtful his work is. 

All of his stories have been consistently that way. He’s got the best of what Tunisian culture can give and the best of what the European culture can give and he mixes it, perfectly well. Because of my unquestionable respect for him, anytime he says “we’re doing this,” I say “OK we’re doing that!”

There are two schools for cinema, aimless entertainment, for the masses. We all need to watch it sometimes. Then there is cinema that changes the world, one film at a time and I think Ridha’s work belongs to that second category, which for me belongs on top.

Hamzeh: I completely agree with you, it’s exactly where you can classify his work. He refused to make stories that will not make the world a better place for tomorrow. Every single film he has made, there has been a message that contributes to a better world. Even in the style of the filmmaking, even in the details. In the editing room, he’ll say “I don’t want it to be playful, I want it to be truthful, I want it to be honest.”

So even in the style in which he makes his films, he stays true to the ideas that appeal to him. 

Behi: For me, I want to answer why I wish to work with Ziad. As all cineastes and all artists, I need a partner who will listen. Someone with experience and who has a point of view. When I met him for the first time, in Tunisia, we talked about Arab cinema. And as he said before, he confessed he didn’t find good Arab cinema, or good Arab scripts. 

And I asked him, “what film of mine have you seen?” And he admitted none. His experience was with Egyptian commercial cinema. Me, I’m someone who always has doubts. I ask myself many questions. And Ziad offered a point of view that encompasses all the world, not just the American cinema, or the European, or the Arab cinema. 

I needed him, his experience and his vision. I don’t need him as much for the money as for his priceless presence. 

All images courtesy of Hamzeh Mystique Films, used with permission.

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