Afef Ben Mahmoud talks about her latest part in 'Streams' and how it relates to women's role in today's society worldwide

Mehdi Hmili's 'Streams' premiered at this year's Locarno Festival to rave reviews and MIME caught up with its star, Afef Ben Mahmoud for a sincere, candid talk about her character Amel, motherhood and the role of women in today's world -- and not just the Arab world.
Afef Ben Mahmoud talks about her latest part in 'Streams' and how it relates to women's role in today's society worldwide

From the first frames of the film, the viewer knows Streams is going to be a watch unlike any other. The joy of a mother playing with her beloved son, while they attempt to catch a mouse in their apartment, sets the tone for the next nearly 120 minutes, when the audience is taken on a rollercoaster ride of situations and emotions.

If you're a woman watching Mehdi Hmili's haunting masterpiece, you will cringe, cry, get angry and feel a surge of something unexplainable welling up inside you. But you will not dare to look away, not even for an instant, mesmerized by Afef Ben Mahmoud's stunning performance as Amel, the mother -- a woman caught up in a micro-mistake, an ordinary lapse in judgement, yet one that threatens to cost her everything she loves.

At the center of Streams success as a work of art, is in fact Ben Mahmoud's spellbinding performance, as she channels the kind of women that Anna Magnani played for Roberto Rossellini. Yet also a new kind of heroine, one that is both strong and vulnerable at once.

I caught up with the Tunisian star after the film's premiere in Locarno, to find out how she was cast as Amel, but also what she wishes audiences to walk away feeling and thinking, after watching her remarkable performance.

How did you connect with this film, how were you cast for it?

Mehdi [Hmili] knew me as a Tunisian actress and we met in person at the Sarajevo Film Festival. After meeting him there, he told me he was producing a short by his wife [Moufida Fedhila] — she’s a filmmaker too and is the producer now on Streams. And he proposed that I act in his wife's short and that was our first collaboration. It went very well and the short, which is titled Aya had a lot of success and since then, he told me that he wanted me to work on his film. This was in 2016 I think. He sent me the script, I read it and I loved the character and since then the exchanges started — every time he had a new version, he would send it to me. We became friends more and more and that’s how we reached the shooting of Streams, as really good friends, with the same way of thinking and we look at the movie and the script in the same way. It was very very important to have all these conversations before we started shooting, to know the character very well.

Did you know the filmmaker’s work before Streams?

Of course I do know Mehdi’s work before, as Tunisia is a very small country and everyone knows one another. Mehdi made his first feature Thala mon amour just after the Revolution and I liked his work so much. He has a lot of sensibility and especially when he works with his women characters, even in Thala the character played by Najla Ben Abdallah, she was amazing and he has this special sensibility to direct very very well, which you can see in his movies. When he works with us, you can see how much he respects women and how much he gives space and consideration to women. Even in Streams you can see how much he gave to the woman character, which is something I liked so much.

What do you think is the meaning of the title?

I know that Mehdi likes very much the work of [John] Cassavetes and he was inspired by one of his movies and the title. Personally, I like the meaning of Streams, like of currents, of a flow. When you see what happens to this family and how sometimes life starts turning and dropping and how things can change suddenly 360 degrees, and this is how everyone lives somehow. Especially when you see how this wife was trying to have a nice standard of life, to give the maximum she can give to her family and even if she was very dedicated to her family — how life can take you, suddenly and drop you very very far. I loved the title in this way because it’s really representative of how life will be for the two main characters, the mom and the son. 

What was it that connected you to this character? How did you make Amel so real and relatable to us, the audience?

I love this questions — and thank you for telling me that you feel I made her so real and relatable to you. The character of Amel I liked her so much. In life, if something happens and it’s “injuste” (unfair) — injustice is something that drives me really crazy. I can’t handle it at all. And also, I am a mom, and I can tell you that for me being a mom there is a before and after — life changed forever. When I was single if you told me then “oh, are you scared of something?” I would have said no. There was almost no limit, you don’t care about yourself, you have this craziness to try almost anything. But the day when you become a parent, this day for me is when you start being scared. This is when you start being someone who realizes the danger. The danger which didn’t exist almost before… And then you are not only scared for them, your kids but for yourself as it relates to them. So everything changed and for me this sensation makes you discover there is no limit to protect them, [your children]. So Amel she is a woman who lost already a son and she has another one, and she will do everything in her life not to lose her second child. So being a mom and knowing this deep sensation of how there is nothing you won’t do for your kids, nothing you won’t be for your kids, when I see all she goes through and the injustices she goes through, this character really touched me deeply. As soon as I got into her skin I couldn’t be half/half — I could only live her to the fullest because I couldn’t handle and I couldn’t stand what happened to her. I believe in what she’s doing and I believe in her pain and in all her trajectory. 

When watching the film, I was in awe of how frank and honest it is in dealing with all kinds of issues in our modern world. From sexual harassment to the inadequate treatment of women, as second-class citizens. And also how it takes just one wrong turn, a simple lightness in making a decision, to ruin our lives forever. While it’s easy to dismiss the points tackled in Streams as a Tunisian problem, that’s far from the truth! The Western world is full of the same issues and problems. Did you know that you were part of such a universal story, did you realize the film went beyond the borders of Tunisian society?

As you know, I've been living in Qatar for the past twelve years and one of the most beautiful things in Qatar is that we are many expatriates from all around the world. My daughters have friends from Romania, from Italy, from France, from Turkey, from England, from Egypt and Lebanon. This is when you start to be friends with the moms of these friends of my kids and you start talking about life and you realize that in the end, as a human being, we are almost the same, all over the world. When you see the movement of #MeToo for example, it’s not only in the Arab world, it’s all around the world and you see that if you are a woman, and especially if you’re a woman who is not powerful, you are second-class, you don’t have enough money and you are beautiful, this makes you a fertile territory of abuse and harassment and you’re not entitled to fight and defend yourself because you are in a "second class." 

This is not just a Tunisian problem, you can find it all around the world and the best example is what we are witnessing with the MeToo movement. 

To come back to what happened to Amel in the police station. Something beautiful happened between Mehdi and me — there is this trust, I believed in him and he gave me the space. So I was not tied to the lines. He gave to me and I gave to him. In the police station a lot of text was not in the script but when they say to the man that he can now go home and Amel needs to go to jail, at this moment I felt the injustice. How can he go back home only because he is well connected? He was trying to rape her and she’s the one who is going to jail? Me, at this moment I couldn’t stand the injustice and when I started to shout and bite and fight, all that was true and was not written. I lived it as a true moment. This can happen everywhere all around the world. I have two girls, and I can’t handle this kind of injustice. I felt like I was in another world in this moment. 

And finally, what would you like the audience to walk away knowing after watching Streams?

Honestly I think after watching Streams, it’s like a reminder that unfortunately in life everything can drop and everything can turn suddenly -- without warning. And if you have kids, how much you need to watch after your kids because you never know. Which influence they can have… Amel and her situation shows you life is fragile and how it can turn 360 degrees in one second. It’s like a warning, the title is in red, and for me the red letters "Streams" isn’t accidental, it’s a warning. There are a few references to warnings in the movie, like the beautiful red light in her face before she gets into the car with the guy. It was the director’s choice, he wanted the warning in that moment. Sometimes we forget ourselves in life and think everything can be forever. But unfortunately life can be cruel. 

Streams to me is a warning on the one side; but on the other side it’s made well for women, to show the injustice they go through. The best thing a director can do is to point the finger at injustice and to make people realize they need to be careful of the dangers.  

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