Lotfi Abdelli is a charismatic, handsome young Tunisian who carries himself confidently. His left eyebrow is accented by a diagonal scar. The award-winning actor for the Arab Film Festival's opening night feature Making Of was detained for five hours at San Francisco International Airport upon his arrival. We met in the newly-situated AFF offices to discuss the incident with artistic director Sonia El Feki graciously providing translation (when allowed). Abdelli, who has joked that he has spent five thousand Arab dollars learning English, insisted upon practicing. Thus, I have elected to retain the charm of his broken English out of respect for his accomplished effort.
Michael Guillén: Lotfi, as a San Franciscan and an American, I wanted to express my deep regret regarding your detainment at the San Francisco International Airport. I hope that—during your stay here in San Francisco—through your festival audiences and the people you meet on the street every day while you're here, that you'll come to realize that the average American is essentially like the average Tunisian; we all want to reach clarity about these matters. To that effect, in hopes that it will further that clarity, I've brought you a rock crystal that I've had blessed by Native American elders, shamans, and I'd like you to take that home with you to your country.
Lotfi Abdelli: Thank you.
Guillén: Could we talk a little bit about what happened at the airport? I don't want to stir up too many bad memories, but there are some things I would like to know: were you treated respectfully by airport security during your detainment?
Abdelli: No. They are respectful but they ask me questions for five hours and sometimes the same question, sometimes I didn't understand which kind of question. They ask me why I come here and I explain to them that I am invited by the festival. They tell me why you come here again and I explain again, "I'm here for the festival." What is your job? I explain what is my job. What is your business? I explain what is my business. What kind of film? After they take the DVD and they see the film they ask me, "You are encouraging and glorifying the fundamentalist in your film" and I said, "It's not true. We are against this and it's very nice for American people to see this film because we explain how it's fragile to become terrorist. It's good to know about this." They ask me what I think about America. After, they take my telephone and they go through the [contacts list] and they ask me what is this names? Who are these people? What is my relation with these people? Sometimes they left me waiting for half an hour and they come back and they ask me again the same questions.
Guillén: Did you have a translator with you so you could better understand their interrogation?
Guillén: They didn't even bother to provide a translator?! [I have to stifle my irritation.] Well, again, I'm very sorry that you had to go through this and I'm especially grateful that you didn't just jump on the next plane home because we—as San Franciscans, as Americans—have benefited from your being here.
With regard to Making Of, I appreciated the film, precisely because it falls within a category of films—and your performance joins a group of performances such as Robert DeNiro's in Taxi Driver and Edward Norton in American X—which focus on the theme of indoctrination. These are films about impassioned individuals without direction and appropriate guidance. Your performance is stunning.
Abdelli: Thank you.
Guillén: How did you get pulled into the project? I understand you are a professionally-trained dancer and have started your own company in Tunisia, is this correct?
Abdelli: Yes. I start with the National Ballet, classic. We create the National Ballet when I was dancer with Tunisian people and we invite French and American and Russian dancers because there were not enough Tunisian professional. We invited a lot of dancers from the world and we created the National Ballet. It's classical and modern and, after I've done a lot of contemporary dance, dance theater all this, and a lot of theater.
Guillén: So it was through your dance performances that you achieved visibility? And then directors began approaching you to do film work?
Abdelli: No. I start to, like 10 years ago, I've done much Tunisian movies—Poupées d'argile [Clay Dolls] with Nouri Bouzid…
Guillén: Ah, so you were involved in an earlier film of his? [Poupées d'argile played at the 2005 Arab Film Festival.]
Abdelli: Yes. And he think about me and he tell me, "Maybe we work on the next film together?" When he just finished the script, he call me and he tell me, "Okay, there is script, and I think about you and what do you think?" I say, "It's okay." Everybody dream to work with Nouri Bouzid.
Guillén: Did you read the script before committing?
Abdelli: Yeah, I read the script. I read the script but Nouri change a lot. That mean for Nouri, a script is a script. But when he start to shoot, it's another thing. He can change a lot. He can improvise and develop it. When we start, you know, reality is not like when you write or read the script. It's not reality. And when we start the reality, that means the real thing start, and I ask him to explain to me which way we are going now because it's so fragile.
Guillén: These "making-of" sequences that are within the film—what we here in the States call breaking the fourth wall—were they scripted? Or did they develop out of your conversations with Nouri during the shooting of the film?
Abdelli: No, no, it was not in the script. But when we are making the film, there is a big tension between me and Nouri, a big discussion, and all the time we have some people with camera like this filming, and I tell him, "Okay, maybe tomorrow or after tomorrow, I don't know, when I will say stop. There is some points at some moment I want to speak with you about." He tell me, "Okay, let's speak now." I say, "No. We speak when it's time. Just be ready with your camera and we speak." He tell me, "What you want to tell me? Maybe we write something?" I tell him, "No. We write nothing."
Guillén: So you're telling me those sequences are verbatim discussions you're having with Nouri? They're not scripted? They were filmed and inserted as verité?
Abdelli: It was what I think. It was what Nouri think. And it was surprise for me what Nouri answer for me and I answer for him. He don't know. I don't know.
Guillén: For us here in the United States—and I'm always so apologetic for us because generally we're such ignorant, fearful Christians as a whole and know very little about any other religion except our own, namely Islam—Islam like Christianity or any major religion of the world has many different expressions?
Guillén: In Tunisia, let's say, is there a particular local expression of Islam? Clearly, Making Of is against a fundamentalist approach towards Islam. I'm curious, how does contemporary Islam in Tunisia look upon your dancing?
Abdelli: It's not problem dancing in Tunisia or something like this. They are very open mind, Tunisian and Muslim Tunisian, and Muslim too, on dance. No problem for this. Our problem in Tunisia is with the fundamentalists. We didn't have problem. In our mind we didn't let fundamentalists grow up in our country. You can see Algeria. You can see Morocco. There are a lot of fundamentalists. But in our country we fight for this, Tunisian artists and government, we try to keep them out.
Guillén: Interestingly, there are many who would say that's the exact same problem we're having with Christian fundamentalists in the United States. The separation of church and state is something they are constantly trying to undo.
Abdelli: Yeah, yeah.
Guillén: In the process of making the film then, your objections to Nouri: were they because you were being asked to portray exactly this fundamentalist that you don't personally believe in? Why did you become frightened?
Abdelli: I afraid because sometimes I didn't understand. I want to understand perfectly what Nouri Bouzid want to do with me. It's not like love story, you can say, "It's okay, it's improvisation, you can do what you want, I feel you, nice feeling." No. This is about my religion. We can hurt a lot of people with this film. We can hurt a lot of Muslim. I don't want to do this. "This film," I tell him, "I want me and you, we have to work against the fundamentalists, not against Islam." Because I want to understand what's happen. For this I said, "Stop, now. What we are doing? What are the person talking with me? What you mean with this?" I want to understand because it's so nuanced.
Guillén: Do you think the concerns you expressed to Nouri helped shape the final film? Would Nouri have made the same film had you not been as concerned about these nuances?
Abdelli: I don't know because we made this. I don't know if maybe he's with another actor what he will do. It depends for the moment for the relation between the filmmaker and the actors. Me, I put my energy like in this way. I put my intelligence and my way of thinking to Nouri and I ask him. I don't know if maybe another actor to tell him, "Stop." Maybe he do his job. I don't know. I can't [say].
Guillén: But clearly Making Of did the right thing and expressed the nuance you were concerned about between criticizing fundamentalism and not specifically Islam? Audiences are relating to this film throughout the world. You've said that Tunisians are claiming this film, they're proud of it, it's speaking for them. So you are pleased with the final outcome? Your concerns have been met?
Abdelli: Yes. And I think Nouri is very intelligent because he put this making-of into the film to show some kind of reality for how we are vulnerable.
Guillén: Did you know he was going to do that?
Abdelli: No. He surprise me too.
Guillén: [Laughter.] He sounds like a lot of fun to work with!
Abdelli: Yes, it's very funny to work with Nouri. I tell you, there is no actor work with Nouri [that] didn't have award.
Guillén: One thing I have always wanted to understand about Islam—and not only Islam but in different areas of conflict in the world—is the essential role of women. It's as if the denigration of women, and the categorization of the female body as polluted, serves to create the rationalization for warfare. I was concerned with the scene in the film where you beat up your girlfriend. Can you talk a little bit about what you were feeling during that sequence? And what you hope is actually being said?
Abdelli: I like too much this scene because I think artistically it's very strong moment. It's a moment to show how we can change the way of perception for the girl. In the beginning for him, it's normal, and they indoctrinate him. He change the way to see the woman, you understand? He see her like a prostitute and it's important to show what's the danger, how it's dangerous this kind of thinking, you know? In our country it's easy to see a woman like European, dressing what she like. We [don't] oblige them to have this or this or this. They are free to go coffee. They are free to go dance. They are free to drink alcohol or to smoke. We have this freedom in Tunisia.
Guillén: I think it's so important for us here in the United States to realize that there are expressions of Islam that have these freedoms; that there is a free-minded, free-spirited expression for Muslims in their faith. That it is, indeed, comparable to Christianity.
Abdelli: Islam, it's like all the religions, you do what you want with it. You can take any religion. You can take anything. You can make terrorism with it. And you can take any religion and you can make peace. You can take art and make terrorism with art. You can make peace with art. It depends for the people. It depends for what you want. Some people want to war. Some people want the peace.
Guillén: I understand the reasoning for the film's ending and I thought your response at the film's Q&A regarding the ending of the film was absolutely appropriate; however, suicide is completely forbidden in Islam, is it not?
Guillén: So where does this place this character Bahta? How are we then to perceive this character? Committing suicide, he's not a hero? Not only has he violated family bonds but he has gone against the Muslim faith.
Abdelli: He's not a hero. First, he kill himself because he is not intellectual. He is all the time play with thing, you know? He is like animal. He all the time don't think. He never think. Bahta is not somebody who can be intellectual, can understand what's happen, you know? He's not really good Muslim enough. If he's very good Muslim enough, he don't speak with these people. He understand from the first time that they are fundamentalist. This mean the problem of Bahta too is he is ignorant. He don't know what is Islam. For this, they can change his mind. For this, he can explode himself.
Guillén: Would you say the Tunisian government bears responsibility in any way for Bahta's lack of education and his ignorance? Are they responsible for such ignorance among young people?
Abdelli: Ignorance in young people is throughout the world.
Guillén: So it's the commonality of inexperience more than anything else?
Abdelli: Yes. In America you find lots of ignorant young people. In Tunis. In Paris, in France. Everywhere in the world, the problem. I don't know. All the governments, I think, are responsible, not only Tunisian.
Guillén: You mentioned at the Q&A that—if Bahta would have been allowed to go to Europe to pursue his love for dancing—perhaps there could have been a different outcome for his life. That's a veiled critique of the social pressures upon young people that do not allow them to manifest their dreams. I bring this up because I recently interviewed Mario Tronco, the artistic director of L'Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio, and Agostino Ferrente, the filmmaker who recently made a documentary about the formation of the orchestra. The orchestra had several Tunisian musicians among its company. These were musicians who had emigrated to Italy from Tunisia who were having problems creating a new life for themselves in Rome. Mario had the vision of organizing a multicultural orchestra combining various musical traditions and traditional instruments from each country and his vision became a solution. The orchestra is a beautiful expression.
Abdelli: I did not see this.
Guillén: But there was an example where young Tunisians broke out of the limitations of their lives in Tunisia and found artistic expression and creative development in Europe. Is there anything the Tunisian government can do to further creative expression among Tunisia's youth?
Abdelli: But it's not only Tunisian government; it's people too. Tunisians have to think about children, about these young people. I think the Tunisian government too has to think more about this. We artists have to think about this too. How to help these people? It's not only one responsibility; it's all our responsibility. We have to do something for these young people.
Guillén: Before actually starting the interview, we talked a bit informally about my belief that you are capable of crossing over and becoming an international star if you want to be. Whether you want to be or not, is of course your choice. But you've definitely had such a success with this film—winning seven Best Actor awards to date while the film's been on the festival circuit—and through the film's circulation creating an international profile for yourself. What do you want to do? What do you hope this film will do and where do you want to go from here?
Abdelli: I hope this film [will] make people think with us and to make people believe that we can think and we can do a lot of good things and we can be good artists. This first. For me, I don't know. It's enough for me to do some films like this to push the people thinking. I hope to do more courageous film like this. I don't mind who's the producer or who the filmmaker—Tunisian, Israel or American—it's not my problem; but, I hope for the future I do this kind of films. Not only on terrorism but engaged activist film. I like these kind of movies.
Guillén: From how you have expressed yourself and represented Tunisia, the impression I'm getting is that Tunisia's actually a hip, smart, educated and brave country. Your participation in this project was brave, was it not?
Abdelli: Yes, but we have to do. If we don't do, who going to do this kind of participation? We have to do. We have to make the first step all the time. If you don't make the first step, there is no step, nothing. You are waiting. And we have enough to wait; we have to do something.
Guillén: Is there any director you would like to work with?
Abdelli: Yes, there is some French director, there is some Arabic director, I want to work with. Yousry Nasrallah maybe. He's Egyptian. [Bab el Shams (The Gate of the Sun) screened at the Arab Film Festival two years ago.] I want to work with the guy who has done Omaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building), Marwan Hamed, we are a little bit friends. [The Arab Film Festival co-presented The Yacoubian Building with the San Francisco International Film Festival.]
Guillén: Well, I hope you get to work with such distinguished directors, Lotfi. I know you want to dance and do stage work, but, I encourage you to continue acting in film. Your physicality is eloquent and a distinct voice in cinema. I'm going to look forward to watching what you do in the years to come. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me today and, again, I sincerely hope that your stay in San Francisco will remedy your unpleasant arrival and those bum five hours.
Abdelli: Thank you.