Last night in Cannes, Tunisian producer Dora Bouchoucha stood with her contemporaries on the film festival’s famed red carpet. The occasion was the premiere of the feature her company, Nomadis Images, co-produced, Weldi (Dear Son), directed by Tunisian Mohamed Ben Attia. Hailed as a “quietly absorbing tribute to the power of human resilience,” the film explores the a family’s turmoil as their son escapes to Syria.
Originally printed in the February issue of Vogue Arabia, in her own words, Bouchoucha looks back at her life’s career as her journey in cinema continues to rise.
“We live in a world of paradoxes and contradictions. Cinema is perceived differently around the globe. Glamour, celebrity, and wealth are usually associated with it and we see parents pushing their children to line up for auditions and castings, hoping their lives will change. However, others also see it as a den of deprivation and sin. I have been involved in this field since I was a teenager and became one of the first women to take on a man’s job: film producer. There were, of course, some female directors but very few producers. Even in France, production only became feminized in the last two decades. As I produce films, I realize that when I make choices, I unconsciously gravitate towards stories that touch me personally. Perhaps, this relates to a feeling of guilt that I have carried with me since I was a child.
I was born sixty years ago, in a rural area just outside Tunis called Manouba. At the time, it seemed very far from the city to me. There were only hospitals, a military base, and fields. My father was the director of a hospital and my mother ran an orphanage. Consequently, I was confronted with the misery of the world since I was a child. Whereas, I had both my parents, who were not rich, but in comparison with the outside world seemed well off, the people I mingled with were either poor, sick, or orphans. My first notion of guilt stemmed from that environment.
I attended a strict primary school and was later enrolled on account of meritocracy at Le Collège Sadiki, which was the most renowned boys’ school in the country. There were very few girls—maybe ten or twelve for some 4000 boys. Meanwhile, my two elder sisters went to the French school. They were allowed to wear makeup and their hair loose whereas I had to wear a pinafore and tie my hair up. The school was quite far away. I chose to wake up early and take two buses rather than be chauffeured by my father’s driver. I was afraid that the boys would make fun of me. The school environment was a total shock to my system. I was the center of everyone’s attention. Everyone looked at me. Very soon, all the tables were etched with hearts and arrows surrounding my name. They are still there now because most of the school desks were never replaced. I was very afraid my parents would see this. I felt ashamed—as if I had done something wrong. I felt as if I had to hide myself from everyone. I was only 11-years-old and the gnawing guilt persisted. But what a fantastic school of life it was. I learned a lot, I must admit.
As a teenager, I worked as a volunteer at the oldest festival in Africa and the Arab world. A great decision since The Carthage Film Festival gave me access to all the movies. And I did that for years. Those films were a window onto the world. However, I was a fan of reading even more than movies. As a kid, I used to swallow books. Eventually, after school, I went to England to study English literature and then returned to Tunis to finish my studies. I realized then that I could not live away from Tunisia. As a student, I started translating subtitles into English for friends and for Channel 4 in England. That’s how I became involved in cinema—and scriptwriting. I then met the film producer Ahmed Attia who asked me to read scripts for him. This was a turning point. Unconsciously, he influenced me a great deal and instilled in me the desire to accomplish something interesting.
In 1994, I worked on the feature film The Silences of the Palace by Moufida Tlatli. I was involved in everything—costumes, production, location. It was all still a hobby. I had yet to envision what becoming a producer meant. I always say today that if someone had explained to me what production was then, maybe I would have picked another career. But I decided I wanted to choose stories to tell to the world. I founded my production company Nomadis Images in 1995. I am immersed in the scriptwriting and the editing and I work hand-in-hand with the directors. How can you persuade people to invest in a story if you are not involved in the story as much as the director? When I am convinced by a script, I can convince anyone.
When I am convinced by a script, I can convince anyone.
Before the revolution, few documentaries were made in Tunisia because of the dictatorship and the lack of freedom of expression. The only way one could make subtle criticism was to use the texture of fiction. Today, I have produced four documentaries since 2011 and I am producing three others now. Manca Moro is the story of Sicilian communities that emigrated to Tunisia in the last century and returned either to France or Italy in the sixties after the independence. The female director Rim Temimi, born to a Sicilian mother and Algerian father, was raised in Tunisia and reunites with her Sicilian relatives who talk of their lives in Tunisia and always say manca moro—“I miss the moor.” On the Crossbar by Sami Tlili is a reflection by the director on an eventful two years in the history of Tunisia, 1977 and 1978 when the country was in turmoil and on the brink of a revolution. At that same time, the Tunisian national football team qualified for the first time to play in the World Cup. It was the first time an African team qualified. The successful journey of the team managed to save the regime from its worst crisis since independence. Railwaymen is the third documentary and is the most challenging to me as it is still unfinished today, despite being in production since 2013. The first-time director has found it difficult to find the structure, direction, and intention of her documentary and it has been a real challenge to close.
In the past, whenever I received a script, my two daughters Kenza and Malèke were my first readers. They would give me their opinions. I also used to take them on the sets. I have always been a workaholic (often stuck on my phone), and I do think they suffered a little. I was speaking to Malèke about this… the feeling of guilt that I have harbored since childhood and which creeps up on me again. Today, working women are the example, the thing to be. Guilt about being an absent mother or having a career at the expense of children is a thing of the past. But I’m from this past generation and it was tough to go against the trend. Sometimes I wonder if I missed anything. We didn’t bake cakes together in the afternoon but we shared other things that grew between us.
Despite the many books I read throughout my life, one I read as a young woman struck me in particular. The short story To Room Nineteen by Doris Lessing. It is the story of a woman who worked in advertising and was very successful. She had a handsome husband and she was beautiful and they were well off. They had children and she decided to stop working to take care of them. They seemed happy, but of course there was a twist and it turned very dark. Another story of guilt that spoke to me. With Lina, we wrote to Mrs. Lessing when she was still alive and asked to buy the rights of the story—but we were not rich. She said, ‘Write the script and send it to me. If I like it, we’ll see about the price.’ It was very difficult. I can edit scripts, but I am not a scriptwriter per se. In a way—there was a link between it and my guilt. That feeling of guilt, that I have known since my early days, which has transpired in other ways. And yet, because of it—I am who I am.”
1957 Dora Bouchoucha is born in Tunis, Tunisia
1983 Marries Kamel Fourati and has daughters Vogue Arabia cover star Kenza and Malèke
1995 Founds her production company, Nomadis Images
1997 Founds Sud Ecriture, a screenwriting workshop that has since mentored over 200 filmmakers
1997 to 2016 Produces 6 feature films, 6 documentaries, and numerous short films, with selections in Berlin, Cannes, and Venice
2008, 2010, 2014 Heads the Carthage Film Festival
2016 As producer, wins Best First Feature Award for Inhebbek Hedi by Mohamed Ben Attia at the Berlinale Film Festival
2017 Is part of the Berlinale international Grand Jury
2018 / 19 – Will release three documentaries, Manca Moro, On the Crossbar, Railwaymen, and feature Weldi by Mohamed Ben Attia
Originally printed in the April issue of Vogue Arabia