Tunisian filmmaker Ala Eddine Slim attended this week’s Atlas Workshops at Marrakech Film Festival with the rough cut of his third feature film, “Agora.”
The film revolves around three missing people who return to a remote town in Tunisia, where the local police inspector, Fathi, tries to unravel the mystery with the help of her friend Amine. Then a second inspector arrives from the capital. The events of the film develop as if they were taking place in the dreams of two animals – a blue dog and a black crow.
Slim’s previous two films, with minimal dialogue and powerful atmospheric images, have garnered significant critical acclaim: “The Last of Us” (2016), which won the Lion of the Future Prize at Venice, and “Tlamess” (2019), which was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes.
“Agora” is a French-Tunisian coproduction between Julie Viez’s Cinenovo and Slim’s Exit Productions. It has secured 80% of its €623,593 budget ($743,000).
Ala Eddine Slim spoke to Variety about the project.
How does “Agora” compare to your previous two films.
It continues some of the themes explored in my other films, but with many new aspects. It’s the first time that I use more dialogue, although the film still remains very visual.
Is the entire story supposed to be a dream?
For me the entire film takes place in the animals’ dreams. There’s a sequence towards the end where I think that’s clear. Every 15-20 minutes in the film, we return to the two animals who are lying down and talk about what’s going on.
Why did you decide to use this device of the animals dreaming?
I have a particular admiration for animals and this time in this film it’s presented as if it were the dream of two animals. One day I was listening to a podcast about whether or not dogs dream. In the original script I had the presence of a dog and a crow, and while I was writing I changed the script to include the idea of them dreaming. It was a very liberating idea, since it allowed me to experiment and try out some of different forms of narrative and compositions. In my two previous films there was a lot of nature and the forest. This time it’s more in an urban setting, but also showing the nature in the city.
Why is the dog blue?
I like the color blue. I find it to be a very destabilizing color. Once I saw a news report about blue dogs who appeared in Russia because they had been swimming in water with a blue dye. Visually, it’s very beautiful.
You say in your director’s statement that the film is about a place that will be contaminated and cursed, like all places populated by humans. What do you mean?
The animals are living in their primary territory. For example we now see the inhabitants of Palestine being chased off their land, as well as the animals who were there, at the beginning, before human beings. I’m not comparing human beings to animals, but I’m saying that the former inhabitants of these lands are being driven from their homes. I think that human beings have failed somewhere, through some stupidity or cruelty we’re unable to resolve problems. We prefer to resort to violence instead of facing reality.
Why are you interested in the theme of missing people?
It’s true that in my previous films there are also characters who disappear or can’t be found, or their bodies can’t be found. In this film we have three people who have disappeared in enigmatic circumstances and then return. That initially triggers an investigation, but then evolves into a highly conflictual situation, between the people who want to accept the returnees and those who don’t. Each of the three characters correspond to stories of missing people in Tunisia. The first returnee is a shepherd whose throat has been slashed. The character is inspired by a well-known event that occurred a few years ago here in Tunisia, when a shepherd was kidnapped by terrorists who were based in the mountains at the border. He was decapitated but his body was never found, only his head and the Tunisian authorities did nothing about it. There have been other cases like this in the same area. The second returnee in the film is a woman who tried to cross the sea, but didn’t make it, and whose body wasn’t found either. Then there’s a third returnee who’s a factory worker who has disappeared in the factory’s quarry, like several accidents that occur in Tunisia.
Are the returning characters actually ghosts?
No, they’re real people. But they don’t talk, and don’t react to anything. They don’t interact with the other characters. They come back like statuettes, simply staring into space. But they are real. For example, the woman who people thought had drowned, returns with water dripping from her body.
What is the role of the inspectors in the film?
Initially, there are two main characters — a local police inspector, Fathi, and a doctor, Amine, who are trying to understand how it’s possible from a scientific point of view. Then a second police inspector is sent to the town from the capital and also a woman doctor, Dr. Layouni, who comes from the capital, who is a very strong character, very pragmatic, whose mission is to maintain order and not leave room for any rumors or doubts.
Is the film essentially about solving this mystery?
No. As a spectator I don’t need to understand everything when I watch a film, I just need to feel things. For me I think the cinema experience is all about feeling. I didn’t want the film to be an investigation into the return of the lost characters, it starts out as an investigation but then I abandon this to explore other things. But I do hope that the film will generate some debate about the topic of disappeared people.
Is the film about how authorities try to cover things up?
I think this story can happen almost anywhere. Here in Tunisia, for example, on January 14, 2011, many people died from bullets and even now 12 years later we don’t know what happened to them, or who ordered it. This happens in many other countries, too.
What are your expectations from the Atlas Workshops and what are your next projects?
I am still looking to complete the financing for the post-production, and to get feedback from the experts. In addition to “Agora,” I am producing two feature-length documentaries, which are now also in post-production.