:On Cinema and Friendship
A Conversation about the Collective Film Babylon
This conversation is part of the series Notes on Collectivity, funded by Mophradat
In November 2021, we met filmmaker Ismaël as he was preparing for a new film he was shooting in Lebanon. We discovered he was the initiator of multiple collective experiences. Apart from ATAC [Association Tunisienne d’Action pour le Cinéma], he was involved in the collective Politik | سياسات [which organized independent contemporary art exhibitions in Tunis] and co-directed two collective films: Babylon [co-directed with Ala Eddine Slim and Youssef Chebbi] and Black Medusa [co-directed with Youssef Chebbi].
During this first conversation, he spoke about the dynamics between the collective and the individual. Ismaël noted: “I gravitate towards collective projects and practices as a counterpoint to my inherent solitary personality. Maybe it’s a way for me to get out of my comfort zone.There is no risk in working alone; the risk lies in being part of an association or a collective, in making a film with many people. The starting point for each experience is an unexpected encounter with someone. Although I am often the instigator of the collective endeavor, I am usually the first to leave. These encounters are not premeditated. We meet at a precise moment of our journeys and we walk part of the road together…”
The next conversation with Ismaël was conducted in April 2022 via Zoom (from Beirut and Oslo) and was centered on the journey of the collective film Babylon. We were particularly interested in ways in which friendship and cinematic practice intertwine and how the relationships are organized and handled.
From the series There Babylon, by Ismaël
Carine. Let’s start with this question: what does it mean to make a “collective film”? The three of us know a little bit about this kind of experience. We collaborate closely together, but the projects we work on are not co-directed. Mira and Nour are filmmakers, and I co-write and edit their films. Was it clear for the three of you from the start that Babylon was a collective film, that it would be authored by three people? How were the shooting and editing organized?
Mira. In fact, what was the process, or the methodology?
Ismaël. To sum it up, we had almost none. To talk about Babylon, and to understand how this film was made on a practical level during the shooting and post-production, I think it’s interesting to see where the three of us came from: Youssef Chebbi is a producer, and Ala Eddine Slim and I are filmmakers. I knew Ala from a while ago. Together with filmmaker and film editor Nadia Toueijir and others, we co-founded what was called at the time the Independent Collective of Action for Cinema (CICA), which became the Tunisian Association of Action for Cinema (ATAC) after the revolution. We were very close at that time. We experienced the revolution together. A month and a half after January 14th 1 On January 14, 2011 the president of the Tunisian republic Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (in power since 1987) fled to Saudi Arabia following several weeks of continuous demonstrations and a general strike spreading throughout the country, Youssef Chebbi arrived from Paris. At that time, I had already spoken to him once or twice. Ala was close to Chawki Knis, who was the producer at Exit Productions. The meetings of ATAC were held at their offices. We spent an evening together, drinking and talking about the revolution, cinema, and our projects. Youssef and Chawki started talking about what was happening on the margins of the revolution, in the South of the country, on the border between Tunisia and Libya. They talked about the massive influx of immigrant workers who were fleeing the conflicts in Libya, arriving in Tunisia from the West and in Egypt from the East. Instinctively, one of us said: “Let’s take cameras and go there”. All three of us were up for it. The next morning, we met Ala at Exit Productions. He was also willing to join us. So the four of us decided to go to the border together.
From the series There Babylon, by Ismaël
Ismaël. Before our departure, we had to organize ourselves. As a producer, Chawki had the mission of obtaining a shooting permit because we were not going to cross the country heading to the border with our cameras and beards – we were all bearded then! – without a shooting permit. Especially after learning that the camp was being turned into a refugee camp managed by the army. The army was therefore going to be our institutional interlocutor. In Tunisia, requesting a shooting authorization requires a lot of paperwork. For a documentary, you need to have a treatment already written, a title, and you have to specify the members of the technical team and include their professional card, etc. So, out of the blue and in only a few hours, I wrote a treatment. Ala and Youssef had the task of gathering equipment, cameras, and microphones… Since we couldn’t ask for a shooting permit without a title attached to the project, we had to come up with a title. We were going to a place where many nationalities and languages were converging, so Chawki and I thought: why not call it Babylon? We wrote Babylon on the application for the shooting authorization, without any other idea of what the film was going to be. It was just a hunch. The next day at 6 am, we went to the Ministry of Culture to get the permit but the paper was not ready. Chawki had to insist. Finally, he came out with it and we took the road with our cameras and our microphones, without the slightest idea of what we were going to do.
Carine. Did each one of you have a camera?
Ismaël. No, we had two cameras. It was an eight-hour drive to get to the border. It was the first time we had the opportunity to talk so much, and soberly, let’s say. When we arrived, we had no intention of “making a film”. We only wanted to be there to film, but nothing was really clear or decided. On the first evening, we walked around the camp. We went to the border posts which were a few kilometers away on the frontier between Tunisia and Libya. When we returned to the camp, it was chaos, tens of thousands of people were there. 500,000 people maybe. Youssef went down with the camera and started filming immediately. It really marked me; I was completely lost. It wasn’t until three days later that I took a camera to film for the first time.
About 50 kilometers away from the camp was a town that would become our headquarters. We spent evenings and nights in the camp, but to recharge our batteries, change our clothes, and watch the rushes, we went to Chawki’s parents’ house in that town. Things were done in a very free way. The film was made, as the three of us often say, in contact with the reality that was in front of us and that we shared with these people. We had no rules, there were no real constraints. Whoever wanted to film something, filmed it. Sometimes there were two of us filming, sometimes one filmed while the other went for a walk, took a little nap in the car, or talked with people. This freedom characterized the first days.
Then, at a certain point, we started to watch the rushes. Every two or three nights, we would watch what we had filmed. Each one of us discovered his images while discovering those of the others. And we would talk about it – and smoke a lot! I think that these discussions allowed the film to begin to build itself little by little. We had some ideas which guided us. For example, we were focusing on the town, rather than on one or more characters. We didn’t say “camp” anymore, we said “city”. We realized that we were witnessing the emergence of a real city, with its markets, its mosques, its conflicts, its police force, etc. And in contact with this city under construction, the film was also being constructed and ideas were being formulated. This lasted two weeks before we ran out of money and started to get tired. We had amassed a large number of images, sounds, and photographs as well – since it was not yet clearly a film project. Then the four of us returned to Tunis and Youssef went back to France.
From the series There Babylon, by Ismaël
Ismaël. Ala and I looked at the rushes, and it seemed that certain elements were missing. More formal and precise things were beginning to emerge. For example, the decision not to use subtitles, or the idea of a film that tells the story of a city that is born out of nowhere, that builds itself up and reaches a kind of peak and then dissolves after several conflicts and ruptures. So, for this story to hold together, we felt that elements were missing. Three weeks later, Ala, Chawki, and I were on the road again. This time we only had one camera. This second part of the shoot was very different because we did everything together. The first impulse had become, in the meantime, a film. We defined specific ideas we wanted to pursue this time around. It was “more organized”, “more professional”, or less random so to speak. On the last day, we followed a route filled with waste that led us to a large dump. When we filmed this long sequence – that ended up becoming the film’s ending – we said to ourselves: “This is it, we have everything we need. We can go back”.
Nour. Did you immediately start editing? And did the three of you edit together?
Ismaël. In Tunis, we were in contact with Youssef, but he wasn’t physically there. Ala and I started editing. We edited together around 80% of the time, talking, watching, and sometimes arguing. It sometimes required weeks and weeks of discussions, of intellectual and formal arm wrestling to place one image after another. That’s why the editing took a whole year. But we weren’t there every day. In the meantime, Ala produced other films and I worked on other projects on the side. Youssef came back from France twice. He would look at what we had edited and would respond to it. The discussions were even longer when there were three of us. When we were two (Ala and I), we managed to get by, but it was more complicated when we were three. Each one of us would get stuck on his ideas and that deadlock could go on for days. But in the end, it was an interesting process because the discussions often led to a fourth idea that was agreed upon. And what we see in the film was born out of this divergence of views.
At a certain point, Youssef went back to France one last time. Ala and I finished the editing without having started the rest of the post-production. Ala met Lebanese programmer Rasha Salti – this was in June 2012 I think – and she asked for him to show her fifteen minutes of whatever film he was working on. He chose the last fifteen minutes of Babylon. She loved it and recommended it to Jean-Pierre Rehm, the director of the Marseille International Film Festival, FID Marseille. Even though they had already set the festival’s selection, he asked to watch a cut of the film. We sent him the film and he wrote us the next day to say that he would like to include the film in the festival’s competition category. So we had only three weeks to finish the film. We had to be much more organized, working from 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening to finish the post-production. We finished the film just in time. The screening copy wasn’t ready until only a few hours before our flight to Marseille and we had to transport it to the festival ourselves! [Laughs]
Mira. It’s a very interesting process because it’s not a matter of compromise, but rather a three-way dialectic. We don’t feel these divergences at all in the film, we feel that it’s one vision guiding us through.
Carine. Yet you talk about arguments, arm wrestling, days and weeks of discussions, etc.
Ismaël. Maybe I should choose my words better. The memory I have of the process is that it was sometimes violent. The editing took a year because we could disagree so much that we had to let months go by before we could see the images together again. We couldn’t start working right away, we had to do other things, and then come back to the film. I remember, for example, that for a very long time, practically the whole time of the post-production, I wanted the film to be in black and white. Ala and Youssef did not agree. It took me a long time to drop this idea. I kept coming back to it and I wrote long emails trying to convince them. I love writing long emails, the others hate it. They were annoyed to receive ten-page emails defending the black-and-white theory!
From the series There Babylon, by Ismaël
Carine. Did it ever get to a point where it was not possible to continue anymore? Did it ever occur to you to abandon ship?
Ismaël. No, never. As much as the discussion could get heated, I don’t think any of us got that idea. None of us saw the film without the others. At least that’s what I felt. Despite our divergences, at no time did any of us see this film ending without the others being on board. I think that if one of us had left the ship, the film would never have been finished by the other two. Chawki was part of the adventure as a producer, but he didn’t intervene in the shooting or the editing. I think it was something that was born between the three of us and it couldn’t end otherwise. What also helped us, perhaps saved us, was the absence of constraints until the moment the film was selected at the FID Marseille. We could have continued editing for another ten years. We were all very conscious of the shift that had occurred during the first two weeks of shooting. During these first weeks, it had become clear to us that we were in this collectively. And from that moment on, we knew that the three of us were going to finish the film together. That was the rule of the game, and we all had to put in a piece of ourselves to make it happen.
What also saved us had nothing to do with cinema, it was our friendship. It’s a very important thing, I think. At that point, our friendship was very solid and strong. It should be said that we were also living a revolution together, which created momentum for [our] collective work. We were in our thirties and it was the first time in our lives that we felt we could build things with others – something we had been deprived of before. There were still a lot of demonstrations and a strong revolutionary impulse that carried us. We all thought that we had to hold on a little longer to reach the version of this country that we wanted to build together. I think that also played a role.
Mira. I think that we only quarrel so tenaciously with our friends and with people that we respect. It’s interesting, this idea of friendship, which is at the origin of this collective project.
Ismaël. It is also important that you know that our friendship was not altered by the work process. We could have a very heated discussion about the form of the film, the editing, or the rhythm, and then just close the subject and go have dinner together. Today, our friendship is no longer the same and that’s quite natural. We get older and we each go our own way. But this strong friendship continued for several years after the end of the film.
Nour. In the process of making a film, there is already a certain form of collectivity that is experienced when working with the crew. But that said, a film crew is not a collective because when making a film, even if we do work together, everything is ultimately at the service of an experience that the filmmaker is trying to communicate. I’m talking about experience and not vision, as what I find interesting in your case, is that the three of you experienced a place in which there was so much going on. A circulation of cameras, images, and sounds took place during the shoot. And it was your three bodies that experienced and recorded that place. So this bodily experience is both individual and collective.
Ismaël. The question of the body is very important. In the film, we see and hear all three of us. Our bodies and our voices are present in the midst of these people. Sometimes we film each other filming. It is a game of gazes. There is a scene in the middle of the film that I like very much. A scene in the dark, where we share dinner in the tent of a group of Nigerians who were taking the bus to the airport that evening to return to Nigeria. At one point, Ala asks me if I want to film. I didn’t feel like it, I just wanted to share this moment with these people before they leave. So he takes the camera and films Youssef and me talking with them. All of a sudden, everything became intertwined in a very complex way, that was not at all thought out.
To come back to the question of violence, I think that when you are a director, even if you collaborate with people and make films, you rarely make films completely alone. That can happen but it’s the exceptions that confirm the rule. Usually, there are at least two or three other people with you, if not two or three hundred. But regardless of the number of people, the director, or possibly the producer or the distributor, are always those who have the decision-making power. So, let’s say that it’s the director who will have the final say. When we are three directing a film, we have to force ourselves to share this coveted position of having the final decision. And this is very difficult. In our case, this “violence” was mostly experienced during the post-production phase. The shooting took place in a very smooth way, everyone did what they wanted. Here we come back to the importance of editing. I believe that directors should edit their films themselves and I don’t see myself handing this task over to someone else. In my opinion, it is the most important part of writing a film. It is what will give the final meaning to the work. So imagine being three to do it! [Laughs] It was both a very hard and a very formative experience because you learn a lot about what you’re willing to share or not with these people who are your colleagues, who are your friends, and with whom you share common struggles.
From the series There Babylon, by Ismaël
Translated from French by The Camelia Committee, edited by Lama el Mawla
- 1On January 14, 2011 the president of the Tunisian republic Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (in power since 1987) fled to Saudi Arabia following several weeks of continuous demonstrations and a general strike spreading throughout the country