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1st Tunisian actor to snatch Berlin award: We have a right to be happy

Al Arabiya English’s exclusive interview with Majd Mastoura, who snatched a Berlin award, previously been won by Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio

Rua’a Alameri

Published: Updated:

In only his second silver screen performance, Tunisian actor Majd Mastoura snatched the prestigious Silver Bear for Best Actor award at the Berlin’s international film festival last week.

Mastoura won the award, which has previously been won by Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio, for his lead role in “Inhebbek Hedi” (I love you Hedi).

The movie, which depicts the story of a young Tunisian man’s struggle for happiness, became the first Arabic-language film to participate in two decades and win in the Berlinale 2016.

“Inhebbek Hedi”, by Tunisian director and scriptwriter Mohamed Ben Attia, also won the award for the Best First Feature Award.

The movie follows a young man named Hedi (played by Mastoura), who falls in love with a woman while his mother arranges his wedding to another woman – finding himself in a difficult position, having to make difficult choices.

In an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya English, Mastoura talks about his role in the movie, his personal struggles for happiness, traditions and social expectations and the future of cinematography in the region.

1) The film ‘Inhebbek Hedi’ highlighted the issues of the right to happiness, did you relate to this and how?

As Majd and as a Tunisian I participated in the movie at a time where I was in my own pursuit of happiness and in my own struggle for choosing what I want in and doing what society or family probably expects you to do.

And also as a Tunisian young man who, like many Tunisians, is still in the struggle of making choices that will give me happiness.

2) The character you played in the movie was torn by his love for a girl and his family, would you say you have anything in common with the character?

Probably not that much, I wouldn’t say I had a lot in common with the character, I would say what we had in common was the struggle for freedom from traditions and family - Every human being goes through that personal struggle.

3) What has been your personal struggle?

The movie came in the middle of my personal battle of making the choices that I want and that I believe will make me happy.

I was a computer science student for three years, which is funny because two months after finishing the movie, I went to France to study drama.

And the funny thing is that in the movie Hedi wanted to go to France with the woman he loves to pursue his passion – and I actually went to France to pursue mine.

4) What made you make that change from computer science to drama?

I always wanted to do something in cinema or theatre – but my parents weren’t really supportive of me doing anything related to arts or literature – so I guess I didn’t have the courage to make the choice.

But after a few years of doing something that I don’t really like, I realized that it’s just meaningless to do this – knowing that I have a lot to give in the artistic field. It took me a few years to make this decision but I’m happy that I did it and I’m happy that my choices are confirmed by the success of this movie.

5) What was your reaction to winning the Silver Bear for Best Actor award at the Berlinale?

Winning was completely unexpected especially coming from Tunisia, the Arab or African world.

Arabs or Africans are not used to getting prizes in big festivals whether in cinema or other fields, in the scientific or artistic world – we are just not used to big prizes.

This prize is not only for me or for the film – but I think it’s a good way to send a message to every person who identifies themselves with us (African or Arabic) – that nothing is impossible.

6) Do feel this has changed things regarding cinema in the Middle East and North Africa?

I think it’s too early to judge but I hope that the rest of the world will give more attention to Arabic, African and Tunisian cinema.

I hope it gives a message to the world and, Tunisians also, that nothing is impossible and it is not always a matter of money – this movie was not made with an exceptional amount money – it’s a matter of will, passion and hard work.

7) The media has described the film as having 'unusual sexual scenes to come out from Arab cinema,' what do you make of this?

This expresses ignorance of Arab and Tunisian cinema for me. We have seen a lot of love scenes and nudity in Tunisian cinema, in Moroccan cinema, and Egyptian cinema since the 50s - so this is absolutely not the first time that we see love scenes, nor they are the most provocative in our movie.

[Regarding ‘Inhebbek Hedi’] I don't think that there's anything exceptional in terms of nudity comparing to other Tunisian and Arab movies – it’s a love story. I think it is normal to represent two people in love with each other and I think it is normal to see them kiss each other. There are intimate scenes that portray innocent romance – nothing pornographic. And that just goes back to the ignorance about what is really going on in cinema in this part of the world.

8) In what areas do you think the cinema industry in this part of the world needs to grow?

I think what lacks is that we don’t have a cinematographic industry yet, so we have a few long features that are being produced each year and that’s not enough to talk about a mature cinematographic experience in Tunisia for example.

I think the government should take the responsibility towards cinematography and I hope this movie will get the government to pay more attention to cinema because it has a lot of importance for the country; artistically, economically, culturally - and it contributes to the representation of society.