Imagine a choose-your-own-adventure video game in which every option available to you is a dead end in a nightmarish labyrinth. That's what Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani), the protagonist of the Tunisian film Beauty and the Dogs, experiences after she is raped by police officers on the street as she leaves a party on her university campus.
The film opens in the direct aftermath of the incident; from there, a barrage of physical and psychological abuse will follow Mariam as she desperately attempts to report the rape over the course of a seemingly endless night. First, hospital employees refuse to treat the rape as an emergency, due to the lack of visible harm to Mariam's body. Then, they refuse to treat Mariam without her I.D. card, even though it was lost during the rape. The hospital workers maintain that Mariam must first obtain a special certificate. Problem is, she has to get it from the very police station where all of her attackers work. And so it goes—dismissal after dismissal, humiliation after humiliation. To call Mariam's experience Kafkaesque would be an understatement; the post-Revolution Tunisian bureaucracy is dictated by oppressive moral codes and corrupt men in power.
Director Kaouther Ben Hania based Beauty and the Dogs on the French book Guilty of Having Been Raped, itself based on a true story. (The film is a French co-production.) The film unfolds in nine chapters, each filmed in a single take.
Hania caught up with No Film School ahead of the film's theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles to discuss how she engineered these impressive long takes, why she decided not to show the rape itself, and more.
No Film School: Why did you decide to shoot this film as a series of one-takes?
Kaouther Ben Hania: This is a real story that touched me. I had a strong feeling about it from the beginning. Then, I thought about how to tell it—what is the best aesthetic way to translate how I feel about this true rape story?
I asked myself what interests me the most about this story, and the answer was obvious. It was the night, after the rape, and all of the institutions [the victim] had to deal with. I decided to tell the story in fragments, with every fragment in real time. But there are gaps between the fragments, and the biggest gap is the rape. We don't see it.
"In reality, I shot the movie three times before the actual production."
NFS: I thought that was an interesting and provocative choice, not to show the rape. It reflects the complexity of these incidents in reality; there are no witnesses. It's he said versus she said. Can you talk a bit about how you came to make that choice?
Hania: It was an intuition in the beginning. I asked myself, "What will showing a sensational rape scene add to this story?" Rape has been a lot filmed in cinema. But in all the rape cases in life, like you said, nobody sees it. When a victim reports a rape, it's what she tells the police [versus] what the rapist says. It's always a matter of telling what nobody saw, so we always doubt the victim's version.
I also wanted to go directly to the rape aftermath and the difficulty of reporting it. This kind of violence—ordinary violence, the violence of institutions—is not very spectacular, like a rape scene. But it's what interests me the most.
Rape and revenge movies are mainly junk. Watching other moves about rape confirmed my desire to not show the rape.
'Beauty and the Dogs'Credit: Oscilloscope
NFS: Let's talk a bit about how you pulled off these highly orchestrated one-takes. How did you choreograph blocking the actors and camera?
Hania: It was rehearsed a lot. Since I had all these constraints, I knew I couldn't fix anything in the editing, so I edited the film before I shot it.
When I started rehearsing with the actors, I would notice when the scene was not working, and I would ask the actor to do the scene again without that part. When you see a movie, you think the actors are great, you know? But I know from experience that they can be average and you can make them better [in the editing]. So I told the actors, "You don't have this in this movie. You are totally naked with your acting. You have to give your best." The actors had to be very precise but, at the same time, to have this palette of emotion.
"When I have a problem or I don't see clearly what the truth is in a scene, I always ask myself, 'What is the core or the heart of the movie?'"
And then we rehearsed on the sets. There, I could make the actors' movements precise, rewrite scenes, take into consideration the [locations], and also make lots of shot lists within the one-take—when the camera should go to close up with actors, when the camera should pan, when the camera should move behind the character, and how to motivate the camera movement in the story.
In reality, I shot the movie three times before the actual production with Johan [Holmquist, the DP] and the lights. Before that, I shot the film with my own small camera to see if things were working. I gave my camera to Johan so he could see this version with an amateur camera. In the rehearsals, it was important to make sure everybody knew where to hide or to move at which part of the filming. Then we shot the movie with the camera crew, the Steadicam, and the sound engineer.
'Beauty and the Dogs'Credit: Oscilloscope
NFS: You mentioned finding ways to motivate the camera. One thing I found really interesting about the film is that the focus puller is doing a lot of the storytelling. That must have been something you thought a lot about.
Hania: Yeah, exactly. I knew that I should be moving the Steadicam from the beginning to the end. But with the Steadicam, you can be easily be drawn into showing off. You can do many things with a Steadicam—things that are impossible to do with a tripod or even a hand-held camera. I really wanted people to be attracted to the story, such that they don't even notice the technical work. I needed to have justification to move the camera; I didn't want the common audience to notice any movement. If we pan, for example, the camera should follow the character's eyes to discover what she is looking at. I wanted this relationship between the camera and the main character.
I worked with a very talented Tunisian focus puller, Wafa Mimouni. It was challenging work because it was the first time that she did such long takes. She had to follow us, too. But with her, I discovered that you can tell a story with focus to guide the audience's eyes.
Every step of filmmaking has its own creative dynamic. As a filmmaker, you always have to make decisions to motivate your choices. You always have to ask yourself, "What do I want to say?" When I have a problem or I don't see clearly what the truth is in a scene—when I get lost—I always ask myself, "What is the core or the heart of the movie?"
NFS: I know that you didn't have an editing process for picture, but you must have had a pretty extensive sound editing process.
Hania: Yeah, exactly. I knew that the sound would be very important, and the music, too. I worked with such a talented musician named Amin Bouhafa. Music is always tricky. I wanted music that we don't notice—more like an atmosphere. I think that sound in cinema has a connection to our subconscious. It gives another dimension to images.
We did three months of sound editing, which is huge for a movie like this. And at the end, at Cannes Film Festival, we got this new award for sound. It was the first year they launched it: Best Sound Creation.
'Beauty and the Dogs' continues to open at select theaters across the country. For a full listing, click here.