This month saw the release of Roman Polanski’s Carnage in cinemas across France. The film is a black comedy based on a play by French playwright Yasmina Reza and produced by Tunisian producer Saïd Ben Saïd.
Starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, and Christoph Waltz the film, which received standing ovation at the Venice and New York Film Festivals earlier this year, tells the story of two bourgeois couples who, behind closed doors, attempt to settle a dispute between their respective children. The cordial exchanges soon give way to confrontation as the characters’ personal and collective frustrations gradually rise.
Saïd Ben Saïd, whose impressive filmography includes Chicas by Yasmina Reza, Lucky Luke by James Ruth, The Great Alibi by Pascal Bonitzer, and Le Tueur by Cédric Anger, kindly agreed to speak to Tunisia Live about his career
Tunisia Live: If my information is correct, you were born in Tunisia and moved to France at the age of 18. Tell us a little about your background and how you got into the film business.
SBS: My passion for cinema goes back to my childhood. “The Carthage” theater played a big part; film clubs met there every weekend and I attended religiously.
After my secondary education in Tunisia, I came France to study engineering. During my studies, I took a test to enter the Femis film school in Paris, but I wasn’t admitted. So I worked as an engineer for four years before being recruited by French network M6, where I stayed one year. Then I joined the UGC group [a production and distribution company based in France] as a producer, and produced a dozen films before starting my own production company: SBS Productions.
Until I entered M6 as an intern, I didn’t know anyone in the film industry. When my application was rejected by the Femis, I enrolled in a Master’s program specialized in media through the ESCP Fongecif, a French organization that funds training for employees. That year the ESCP allowed me to meet professionals from the television and film industries, which led to an internship, then a job at M6, where I became Acquisitions Manager.
Tunisia Live: In one sentence, can you describe the work of a film producer?
SBS: It seems to me that the producer is to cinema what the real estate developer is to architecture.
Tunisia Live: While in Europe the popularity of cinema has remained resolute, in Tunisia theaters are closing down one after another. Nonetheless, Tunisia has a strong and acclaimed cinema tradition. What are your expectations in relation to arts and culture in the new Post-Revolution Tunisia?
SBS: Literature, painting, theater, and film, all teach us to live. Instead of being reduced to mere victims of human drama, we become, through art and culture, smarter spectators of life. “Universal access to the bread and the book,” said Peguy[a French intellectual from the beginning of the 1900s]. Literature is the love of language, and language is the instrument of self-knowledge and of the world. Without it the picture is meaningless. That’s why when I hear Tunisian politicians say that Arabic language is a priority, I can only approve. Fluency in a language forces us, through the mastery of words, syntax, and the ability to construct an argument, to replace our volubility and the roughness of French-Arabic dialect with rigor.
I must also say a word about the new theater movement in Tunisia, brought to life by Fadhel Jaïbi, Jalila Baccar, and Masrouki Habib, which played for me a formative role throughout my adolescence. I remember reciting, together with many people my age, dialogues from “Ghasselet Enoueder” by heart. In fact, I continued thereafter to go and see their plays during my school holidays in Tunisia.
For me, the enemies of culture are the illiterate devotees and the prejudiced unbelievers.
Tunisia Live: One can only be impressed by the plethora of films to your credit, and with the number of renowned directors you have worked with - such as Téchiné, Reza, Veber, Polanski… How do you select the films you produce? What do these collaborations entail? Have you ever collaborated, or wish to collaborate, with Tunisian professionals?
SBS: I work with filmmakers whose work is close to my sensibility. For those projects that grasp my attention, I try to deliver a tailored and cost effective production model. I generally step in during the writing and editing phase. These are times when I try to bring contradiction to the directors. Even in those cases where they are not ready to support my vision, I think my point of view helps them specify their own.
As far as Tunisians are concerned, I worked with scriptwriter Mehdi Ben Attia on André Téchiné’s Unforgivable, and would very much like to work with director Abdellatif Kechiche, whose work I admire a lot (Abdellatif Kechiche is a renowned actor and writer, and whose most famous works as a director include Vénus noire in 2010, La graine et le mulet in 2007, L’esquive in 2003, La faute à Voltaire in 2000).
Tunisia Live: Carnage was released in France last week, where it has been appraised by both critics and the public. The film is set in New York but was entirely shot in France. Is that right?
SBS: We shot the film entirely in a studio in Bry-Sur-Marne near Paris. It is, I believe, the first film in the history of cinema of which the story unravels in real time without any ellipse.
Tunisia Live: Do you know if the film is scheduled to be released in Tunisia at all?
SBS: It has already been successfully distributed in Italy, Germany, Spain and France and will be distributed in 50 other countries in the coming weeks. I hope it will also be distributed in theaters in Tunisia.
Tunisia Live: What other projects are you currently you working on?
SBS: Brian De Palma’s Passion, Cherchez Hortense by Pascal Bonitzer, starring Jean-Pierre Bacri, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Isabelle Carré, and Claude Rich, Jouvet by André Téchiné, and Al Fitna Al Koubra based on the novel by Taha Hussein (my first film in Arabic).