Interview with Mabrouk El Mechri
21 October 2022
During IFFR 2022: Return of the Tiger, our IFFR Ambassador Sammie Sedano sat down with director Mabrouk El Mechri to discuss the themes of strength, resilience, and family in his film Kung Fu Zohra (2021), as well as what went into creating a storyline that combines elements of reality and fiction with a hint of the fantastical and the violent.
Speaking to Sammie about his personal vestige in creating Kung Fu Zohra, El Mechri brings up his youth as a young immigrant who saw his parents fighting – “socially, not only in the household” – and the process of writing a film that combines the topics of domestic violence and sociopolitics with action and comedy.
Mabrouk El Mechri: The thing is, you never try to chase comedy. You let it come. You don't refuse it. But you don't try to make people laugh, the way you don't force it with emotions [like] sadness. There's like a natural little spark that comes along in the movie. Take it! I mean, who doesn't need levity? At the same time, I think that with the topic of domestic violence you are speaking to someone’s dignity. I wanted to work on that limit. That was the objective of the film, with a teacher [who says] "you need to recognise when it's enough".
“Does this make him a monster? Or a person that doesn't need to get redeemed or re-encouraged to come back to something?”
Sammie Sedano: When I watched the movie, I really liked Omar at the beginning. He was like a cool guy. I really went through different emotions, till the point where you basically hate him, an abusive father, but you do underline an effort to see the complexity of such an antagonist.
MEM: He's still a father… and I never thought of him as being purely bad or good. It's just those flaws, the irreparable bullshit, and the things you shouldn't do. Touching somebody else's integrity physically is a big fucking deal. And you shouldn't do that ever, but does this make him a monster? A person that doesn't need to get redeemed or re-encouraged to come back to something? If a possible redemption is not addressed, it's just hate and hate and hate, it doesn’t make sense.
SS: How did you write your main characters?
MEM: I love the pleasure of writing, of discovering what's going to happen as you're writing and not forcing it because you have to do your climax or whatever; it keeps the process organic. Characters are made from all the people you can meet all over, throughout the process [of writing]. And at some point, something sticks, a logic and emotional logic to a character that makes them stand for something.
“I knew that the drama was taking place while they were fighting, not afterwards.”
SS: How did you make those fight scenes? Are you working with instructors?
MEM: I worked with two beautiful guys who were stunt coordinators. One did his stunt school in Japan, so he had all those references and influences, and they both are from that YouTube generation, you know, they know when to make the camera go fast. There’s a difference between the way we shoot violence at least in France where, nowadays, every movement has to be a cut. For Kung Fu movies, the way I see it, there are about five movements in one shot. You get to stay with the character in the frame, see their face, their expressions. I wanted that, so I needed two guys who could understand that, too. We prepared that together with all the references I had, from “Raging Bull” to Kung Fu movies and moves.
We did the whole fight scene in three days, because we were ready. We did a lot of rehearsals first. You don't want to have an extended period, because one: the insurance company doesn't like it; and in France usually, when you have a stunt scene, you have to shoot them at the end of the production. But I wanted to do the opposite on this one, because I wanted the fight scene to set the tone for the crew on how fast we were going to be and how energetic.
“We were all raised with Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, and, when I was 13/14 years old, we started watching all the Yuen Woo Ping movies with Jackie Chan, like "Drunken Master"”
SS: What is your personal relationship with Kung Fu?
MEM: I always loved Kung Fu. I was always into martial arts cinematically and also in real life, because of my friends and because I did Kung Fu and Thai boxing myself. For me, Kung Fu is really attached to my home country, Tunisia, too, and you can see it in the movie. When I was looking at those Kung Fu tapes in the little shop, it was funny, because it's like a universal language. You can see it in any culture. From Wu Tang to wider hip hop culture, for example, everybody raves about Kung Fu culture.
SS: There is a lot of action in your movie, is that something that you want to include in your next projects, too?
MEM: Stories all ask for their own kind of storytelling. It just happened with the story… But the next one I hope to make doesn't have that feeling for action. I haven't seen a fight in a long time, at least in France, where you have like six or seven minutes of a fight in which you can express the character through the fights and the moves instead of words. There's no punch line. It's just about the way Zohra fights. I really do believe that cinema is made of movement. And you can see early on, you don't have to say a lot to mean a lot, and I love that kind of movie. I wanted to do something close to that.
IFFR collaborates with Rotterdam-based creatives to promote the festival and reach different and new audiences. The IFFR Ambassadors participate in (festival) events and use their creative competencies to produce IFFR-related content for a diverse, local crowd.
Rotterdam-local Sammie Sedano is a writer and musician whose work focuses on the search for identity as a young creative in the big city. Inspired by nightlife and the sounds of the city, he guides the listener through the mysteriou and confrontational world of Rotterdam. Traces of Outkast, Dwele, Curtis Mayfield as well as Kempi, Flink Namen, and The Opposites can be heard in Sammie narrative-based music. His next record ‘Parels van de Nacht’ is filled with live instruments and lyrical texts that form intriguing stories.