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‘Four Daughters’ Producer Habib Attia Talks Upcoming Projects & Challenges: “Tunisia’s Post-Revolution New Wave Has Matured”

Kaouther Ben Hania will make history for her native Tunisia on Sunday with its first Academy Award if her hotly tipped nominated work Four Daughters triumphs in the Best Documentary category on Sunday.

The director belongs to a generation of Tunisian filmmakers who emerged in the wake of their country’s so-called Jasmine Revolution, which ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in early 2011.

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Habib Attia, who is one of the original producers on Four Daughters, has been an integral part of this movement too.

The Tunis-based producer has cinema in his blood as the son of late producer Ahmed Bahaeddine Attia, whose credits included Moufida Tlatli’s 1994 breakout The Silences of the Palace, starring Tunisian-Egyptian star Hend Sabry in her first major big screen role.

On finishing his high school studies, Attia headed to his mother’s native Italy to study engineering in Milan, rather than immediately following in his father’s footsteps.

“I was going to be an engineer,” recounts Attia, a fluent Arabic, French, Italian and English speaker.

He eventually returned to Tunisia in 2007 to take up the reins of his father’s company Cinétéléfilms, following his early death.

Attia has kept the banner alive with a steady flow of award-winning local films, including a number of works reflecting the revolutionary period such as Hinde Boujemaa’s single mother drama It Was Better Tomorrow; Murad Ben Cheikh’s documentary No More Fear, capturing the protests and exploring their legacy, and Sam Tlili’s Cursed Be The Phosphate, exploring an early 2008 social disobedience movement against Ben Ali in the mining city of Redeyef.

More recent credits, alongside the films of Ben Hania, include Meryam Joobeur’s 2018 Oscar-nominated short Brotherhood, and Mehdi Barsaoui’s A Son, for which French star Sami Bouajila won Best Actor in Venice’s Horizons competition in 2019 and the 2020 French Césars.

Attia also works regularly with non-Tunisian Arab filmmakers, producing Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi’s Laila’s Birthday (2008) and Falestine Stereo (2013) and Moroccan filmmaker Hind Bensari’s Hot Docs winner We Could Be Heroes (2018), about compatriot shot put Paralympian Azzedine Nouiri, and taking a co-producer credit on U.S. director Nathan Lotfy’s Harka set in the lead up to the Tunisian revolution.

He suggests that Tunisia’s filmmakers have moved on from the immediate political concerns of the 2011 revolution to tell other stories about their country and society.

“What we’re living is historic. Tunisia’s post-revolution New Wave has matured,” he says.

“This New Wave which initially captured with urgency what we were living in the street, has matured and is moving more and more into fiction.”

Attia is accompanying a number of Tunisian directors in this move.

He has just kicked off the shoot of Leyla Bouzid’s third feature Under One’s Breath. It marks his first collaboration with Bouzid, whose previous credits include As I Open My Eyes and A Tale of Love and Desire.

The film is a coming-of-age story about a young Tunisian woman living in Paris who returns home following the death of a beloved uncle on her mother’s side.

“She discovers he died in mysterious circumstances with his body found in the tourist resort of Sousse half naked. Through her quest to get to the bottom of what happened, the film explores fault-lines in Tunisian society,” says Attia.

He is working on the film in co-production with lead producer Caroline Nataf at Paris-based production house Unité Films.

He is also finishing post-production on Aïcha, his second collaboration with Barsaoui after A Son.

The drama revolves around a woman who tries to reinvent her drab life after she is involved in a road accident in which she is believed to have died.

She heads to the Tunisian capital of Tunis under a new identity, but it is not long before her subterfuge catches up with her.

Attia presented the movie at the Doha Film Institute’s Qumra event last week, aimed at nurturing projects and talents that have received the support of its grants program, in its picture lock showcase.

He is producing the movie with Marc Irmer at Paris-based Dolce Vita Films, in co-production with Marseille company 13 Prods and Italy’s Dorje Films.

In the backdrop, Attia is also working on The Return of the Prodigal Son by French-Egyptian-Palestinian director and producer Rani Massalha.

The production, which took the $100,000 top prize at the project market of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival last December, is inspired by the real-life slaughter of 300,000 pigs in Egypt in 2009.

The film revolves around an estranged father and son, who are reunited in their quest to hide and keep their livestock alive.

Attia is hoping to shoot next October and is currently figuring out locations, with a preference for Egypt but other potential destinations including Jordan or possibly Italy, if extra backing could be sourced there.

He is producing the movie with Paris-based Les Films du Tambour, headed by Massalha’s partner Marie Legrand. Other partners include Dorje as well as Egypt-based companies Mad Solutions and 26one1.

Attia and Ben Hania’s collaboration goes back a decade, kicking off with her first 2013 film Le Challet de Tunis, the docudrama about a slasher harassing women on the streets of the Tunisian capital.

They also worked together on Canada-shot documentary Zeinab Hates The Snow (2013), Cannes 2017 Un Certain Regard selection Beauty and the Dogs and Venice 2020 Horizons title The Man Who Sold His Skin, which made it to the final nomination stage of the 2021 Oscars in the Best International Feature Film category, losing out to Another Round.

Four Daughters – about Tunisian mother Olfa Hamrouni who lost two teenage daughters to the Islamic Republic after they were radicalized and ran away to Libya – took six years to bring to fruition.

Attia, who was involved in the project from its early stages in 2016, says it was surprisingly difficult to get off the ground despite Ben Hania’s growing renown on the back of The Man Who Sold His Skin.

“Despite that brilliant career, Four Daughters was extremely hard to finance” says the producer.

He suggests that initial attempts to find partners were hampered by perceptions around the story at the heart of the film work.

“It was classed as one of those stories coming out of the Middle East and North Africa about ISIS, but the story of Olfa Hamrouni is very unique and her character is much bigger than that,” he says.

The project started to gel after Ben Hania revisited her screenplay during the pandemic lockdowns and came up with the hybrid structure, mixing documentary and dramatized re-enactments to retell the story of Hamrouni and her daughters over the arc of a decade.

“It was the turning point for the financing,” says Attia, recalling how they relaunched the project at the Cairo Film Festival’s Cairo Film Connection project market in late 2020.

Despite the award-winning credits and growing international footprint of Arab cinema, Attia says the business of getting indie film productions financed out of Tunisia and the wider Middle East is not getting any easier.

He acknowledges that grants schemes run by the Doha Film Institute and Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Foundation are a boon, but says the cinema financing situation in his native Tunisia is “a disaster” with funding stagnating at the same level as a decade ago.

“It’s astounding really when you see how well Tunisian films are doing locally and internationally and not just in festivals but also in cinemas,” says the producer.

“This is the best ambassador for our culture and our identity. Our institutions, the Ministry of Culture and the National Cinema Centre have to follow this dynamic and evolve the laws that govern the sector.”

He suggests there also needs to be more joined up thinking across the Arab world to create the sorts of co-production alliances that are commonplace in Europe.

“The Tunisian government and the other countries in the region need to create south-south funding mechanisms,” he says. “We have so many subjects in common and it would strengthen us as producers.”

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