Uniting talent from across the MENA region, Tunisian writer, co-director, co-producer and actress Afef Ben Mahmoud and Moroccan filmmaker Khalil Benkirane have an upcoming project that promises to be a must-watch.
Currently in post-production after a challenging shoot in Morocco during the pandemic, Backstage tells the adventures of a contemporary dance troupe when an onstage provocation leaves one member of the company injured and leads the entire team on a search for a doctor, through a night in the forest of the Moroccan Atlas mountains.
The film begins with the troupe at their most beautiful, thereafter deconstructing the myth of these dancers, slowly but surely, through a cinematic progress that begins to highlight their humanity beneath.
With Tunisian born Ben Mahmoud acting as co-director, as well as having written, co-produced and starring as Aida in Backstage, and her real life husband, the Moroccan Benkirane at the helm and as the film’s main producer this project had me at “hello.” Having watched the great performances by Ben Mahmoud in festival favourites like Mehdi Hmili 2021 Streams and Nouri Bouzid’s 2019 The Scarecrows which premiered in Venice, one can easily see what she brings to a project. She is one of those actresses who beyond their beauty, also mesmerizes the viewer and carries an entire film on her shoulders.
Benkirane on the other hand has directed a documentary on world music DJ Cheb i Sabbah, and helped set up the Grants Programme at the Doha Film Institute. In fact, it was through the recent DFI Qumra industry incubator that I got to find out more about Backstage.
The transition for the couple to this collaborative narrative project was natural and inevitable. The story comes from Ben Mahmoud who admits that “many things inspired me to write this story as I started my career as a professional dancer.” She explains further that as an art form, dance is the most demanding because, “if you want really to be a professional dancer, it's like 12 hours of practice minimum every day. And if you don't do it everyday, you can’t pretend that you're a professional.” She also was in the sound mixing room for another film when a friend put on some music to re-energize the crew, which created a lightbulb moment in Ben Mahmoud. “It must have been five o'clock in the morning. I was so tired, and this friend who does lots of mixing, DJ’ing started playing some old music which he had remixed and pretending to play drum and bass,” she explains. “I was very tired but I started dancing to this very traditional music, full of drums and bass and suddenly I started to imagine what dancers from different disciplines would bring to the same piece of music and that gave me a visual gallery into this project, how various dancers, from different backgrounds would collaborate — the writing came soon after.”
Although perhaps we don’t often think of the power of dance in this aspect, but more about art and music, what also appealed to the filmmakers was the unifying power of dance. “We have people from Tunisia, Morocco, French-Moroccans, Palestinian, Belgium in the troupe,” Ben Mahmoud explains, “and everyone talking their own language, which is very important to us, because dance in the end is a corporal expression, and non-verbal communication is so crucial to all of us.”
A choreographer was a central, crucial figure for this project, Ben Mahmoud realized early on. “We solicited the choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and explained to him all our desires [wishes], which he tried to incorporate in his choreography. Putting different people from different disciplines together was the main idea, how can we reach unity, despite diversity — diversity of genres of dance and diversity of people’s backgrounds, with everyone talking their own language.”
Cherkaoui is a well-known figure in contemporary dance, someone Benkirane describes as the “Pina Bausch of today.” A dancer and choreographer of Belgian and Moroccan background, Cherkaoui who has worked on theatre productions in Europe and Asia. He choreographed Joe Wright’s 2021 film Cyrano, starring Peter Kindlage. Other cast members of the Backstage troupe include actors Saleh Bakri, Abdalah Badis, Sondos Belhassen, Hajiba Fahmy, Sofiane Ouissi, Nassim Baddag and Ali Thabet, composer Steve Shehan and costume designer and actress Salima Abdel Wahab.
“Everyone speaks their own dialect in the film, we are not imposing an [classical] Arabic,” declares Benkirane, continuing, “basically, I felt that everything that Pan-Arabism was trying to impose through its political agenda, we are giving it with an artistic aim — and it’s a celebration of who we are today."
Because they do live together and share all ideas between them, making a film together came about organically for Ben Mahmoud and Benkirane. “I share everything with Khalil and whenever I was writing, when I’d have a new page, I’d read it to him, so for me this was obvious,” Ben Mahmoud admits. “We were on the same wavelength,” adds Benkirane, “and what I liked about the film, and knowing Arab cinema pretty well having been involved in it for more than 20 years, is that I felt this was something different. Yet, Benkirane also admits that “at the same time, through a normal narrative-constructed story, we were delving into some serious issues about the Arab world, without writing a thesis on each."
One of these very issues is “the right of a woman, here as a dancer, whose body is her work tool, to refuse to get married and have children,” as Benkirane explains, a notion not often tackled in the Arab world. He also liked the fact that a contemporary dance troupe, much like soccer these days, can have “people from all around the world, as long as they are tuned to the same common goal.”
Ben Mahmoud has another take on the common goal aspect, as she admits, “the most important thing for us is the human being and in the end, we are all the same — we want the same things, we have the same goals, there isn’t that much difference between us.”
Because Backstage has been attempting to film in the last couple of years, it has been subjected to a few starts-and-stops because of the worldwide pandemic. “The hardest was the start,” says Ben Mahmoud, “every time we planned for a date, they would close the border or something happened, so we postponed twice.” Which meant a lot of money lost, and also some key cast and crew members becoming unavailable, according to Benkirane. They filmed in a “bubble” as Ben Mahmoud calls it, near a small-town, Azrou in the Middle Atlas mountains where they may have only had one case since the start of the pandemic. It was a five week shoot plus two weeks of dance rehearsals, for a story that percolated in Ben Mahmoud’s mind since 2009, with her sitting down to write it in 2016.
One good thing about shooting in the pandemic was that Cherkaoui, who is typically fully booked, may have actually been available because of it. Dancers did suffer the most disruptions to their work, with an inability to rehearse and perform publicly because of Covid restrictions.
So, what did the couple hope to achieve from Qumra? “Qumra is a very nice meeting point,” says Ben Mahmoud, “and a unique opportunity.” It’s a productive meeting point, featuring the best of the industry and a great forum for productive meetings and discussions and potential partners, adds Benkirane, who is of course used to the Qumra meetings from his work at Doha Film Institute.
Benkirane and Ben Mahmoud are in the midst of editing Backstage and they are hoping to have a picture-lock by late May. They also have a few special effects to add on, with a vicious monkey and a mysterious character appearing in the film — but I am not giving any spoilers away.
Fingers crossed that we get to watch this fantastic project soon, inshallah.