• First Film Competition



Nader Ayache

Nader Ayach is not afraid of putting his body to the tests of film. He proved this in La guerre des centimes, where he boldly rode his bike through Paris, camera in one hand, handlebars in the other. Here, it’s as a human camera with tripod legs and lens eyes that he embodies Fadhel Messaoudi’s double, an oud master between life and death after the accident that brutally begins this film. After this opening in media res, the director propels us into an afterlife à la Chris Marker, where we meet the musician’s double as though “awoken in a different time and reborn as an adult” (La Jetée). Saddled with a virtual reality headset, he’s sent back to Earth by a curious ferryman wearing large dark glasses, a secular figure played by the filmmaker Jilani Saadi. With great economy of means, La Renaissance borrows from Saadi’s films a touch of their insolent grace, and from video games elements of their grammar. He thus sets up a fictional approach full of ruses, fuelled by tinkering and making do, updating how portraits are written with subjective vision, evolving levels and an avatar. The avatar chosen by Fadhel for his double is Abu Huraira, a character from a novel by Mahmoud Messadi, which tells the story of a great departure into the unknown. The adventure, prosaic here and made up of rugged images of journeys on the metro and walking across a cold, dreary Paris, gives the opportunity to tenderly retrace Fadhel’s tragic path and his obstacles as an exile since arriving from Tunisia. Exile is also something experienced by the director, who, relieved of the finery of fiction, reveals in a reflection of his character what seems to be at the heart of this Renaissance: a tribute to an artist, a gesture of love, and the possibility of reinventing oneself through film.

Louise Martin Papasian

Could you tell us about about your meeting with Fadhel Messaoudi? Did the idea of collaborating on a film occur to you in the aftermath of his accident?

I first met Fadhel in 2019, during the Fête de la Musique, which hardly seems like a chance meeting, right? We crossed paths on the set of Jilani Saadi’s film (Jilani plays the glasses-wearing smuggler in La Renaissance). Fadhel played the lead in this film, and I was the director’s assistant and prop maker. It was a wonderful adventure, and we stayed in touch. Unfortunately, Fadhel was hit by a car on December 16th that same year. We began shooting the film just a few days after the incident occurred. 

Fadhel’s resurrected doppelgänger is Abou Hourayra, the eponymous character from Mahmoud Messadi’s novel. Who is he? And why did you chose to portray this figure? 

Mahmoud el Messadi’s Thus Spoke Abou Hourayra is first and foremost the tale of an encounter with a reader who embodies the characteristics of Don Quijote. It is also the tale of a departure into the unknown at dawn, which represents the universal journey of migration. As for Fadhel, he’s a sort of real-life Don Quijote. As a young reader, the novel left a strong impression on him, it was truly his bedside book, as is exemplified by the quote we’ve chosen to use in the film. 

This is how we came up with the idea of associating the fictional character from the novel with the subjective point of view of the film. It is Fadhel himself who names his doppelgänger Abou Hourayra quite early on in the film. However, this character differs from his literary self. The man in the headset is a fully-fledged entity, shaped both by Fadhel’s personal story and my own imagination. 

The film is designed like a playful and dreamy videogame experience. You start out by spatially representing the afterlife, before putting on a VR headset to embody Abou Hourayra. Could you elaborate on this device and its effects on your relationship to Fadhel and your overall filming process? 

The truth is, every element combines to create a whole. The idea of shooting a film with a VR headset is a project that I’ve developed over the course of my academic thesis at Paris 8 University, and that began taking shape a few months prior to Fadhel’s accident. I was researching quantum physics, and I decided that Schrödinger’s Cat theory was an efficient means to express this state of overlay, of being neither truly dead nor truly alive. This is the meaning of the astral space where Fadhel finds himself as the film begins. He receives a proposition to return to Earth to fulfil a mission, and the headset is the device which enables him to do that. 

As for me, however, the headset is a camera. Soon enough, we had to invent a character able to investigate and interact with his environment : he wears gloves and a red-striped sweater that I’d recovered from the shooting of Jilani’s film, and a joystick enables him to grab the objects around him. As time went on, we also had to equip him with an Oud, a telephone, and so on. When one is shooting with a headset on, one can grab objects, move around in unusual ways… it creates a very different shooting experience. We had to improvise the script as we went along, reacting to what was going on around us, while always coming to work the next day with a few leads on where the story should go from there. Because we were in a video game, we had to make do with real-life events whilst always keeping several storylines open. For instance, going to pick up the Oud, coming back to the bedroom, and then opening other hidden spaces interspersed throughout the film. As COVID came along, we had to grow even more inventive. 

I know that Fadhel must have thought it was odd to watch me shooting with a VR headset whilst telling him that I played the part of his doppelgänger. I also got him to try on the headset so I could catch his reflection in a mirror. We actually did that on the subway, which was quite an amazing experience. Fadhel did great, and I’m very grateful for the resulting shots, a real man on camera … 

At the end of the film, you appear without the headset. In your final dialogue with Fadhel, you speak as a cinematographer rather than in character. Why? 

The film is plastic, which means I can shape it according to its nature, twisting it again and again until it reaches its final form. I originally had no intention of making an appearance in the film. Fadhel would wear the headset and whenever a reflection or a mirror appeared, I would hide my hands using light-up gloves. When we were editing the movie, I altered my voice beyond recognition. My goal was to tell the story of Fadhel’s and his alterdimensional doppelgänger, even though it was obvious that someone was behind the camera. 

Only at the very end of the editing process did it strike me that I could physically appear in the film. This is due to the letter that Abou H finds halfway through the movie’s runtime, hidden between two pages from M.M.’s book. It’s a fictional letter, but it nonetheless relates an element of truth. I originally intended to have Fadhel write and read it, but this didn’t work out. The words wouldn’t come, and we were stuck. I believed it was an important sequence, and some of the storyline had been arranged in order to fit in with this letter. So I got to work coming up with other routes and possibilities. I obviously couldn’t write it in Fadhel’s stead, so I mixed in both of our personal histories, and the little things we share in the context of immigration and exile : our dreams, our work, our encounters with the system : the prefecture, the paperwork, the threat of deportation, etc .

La Renaissance also deals with bureaucratic absurdity and the many hinderances Tunisian immigrants must overcome in order to successfully establish their livelihoods in France. 

Yes. This is why Abou H had to be a fully-fledged entity, complete with this mixture of voices, of faces and histories. Thus, my own voice became that of Abou H, and through his figure, that of all exiles. Just like Fadhel is the face and image, the very embodiment of these bodies in exile. Throughout the film, we discussed personal topics which were nonetheless common to many people, we navigated between the field of the intimate and that of the collective. In the beginning of the film, Fadhel’s accident and his physical state, his injured body, his plastered arms and legs, his cry of pain and suffering, are also a reflection on exile and this aspect of the history of immigration. Hence, my apparition at the end of the film is a direct result of all these components. When Fadhel removes his headset, we interrupt the process : we open up another dimension. When he decides to come back towards the screen in order for me to make him wear the headset again, we are past the point of going back to the skin and fiction of Abou H, the film draws to a close. This was one of the last sequences that I edited, and I’d forgotten how I’d reacted on the spot. It’s only then that I discovered why I’d wanted to create this film : to pay tribute to Fadhel, to his journey and dedication. I hope I’ve at least partially succeeded in doing so. I can’t thank him enough for accepting to join me on this cinematographic adventure and I hope that this will be the first milestone in a new beginning for him. 

Interview realized by Louise Martin Papasian

  • First Film Competition

Technical sheet

France | 2023 | 55’

Rights holders
Don Quichotte Films
Elora Bertrand

Nader S.Ayache