Frédérique Cournoyer Lessard is a circus artist and director. Her documentary, Rue de la Victoire (2017), was shot in 2014 and 2015, in Tunisia and France.
How was your experience of witnessing Mohamed’s family life and capturing intimate moments in a Muslim family?
It was easy. In fact, it was the most rewarding part of the whole process. I was completely alone during the first week—the director of photography and the producer weren’t there yet. The bond between Mohamed and me is genuine. We’ve really become friends. When I first met his family, I tried to put aside all my prejudices and preconceptions about his culture and simply experience it, and only afterwards form an opinion about what I had experienced. I developed close ties—especially with his mother, Leila.
That’s one thing I noticed. The scenes with Leila are very beautiful.
They really are! We developed an almost mother-daughter relationship, and this gave me a better understanding of Mohamed as a person. Once again, I was surprised to see how natural it all was. In terms of family relationships, when we talk about a mother-son relationship, it’s often the same regardless of religion or culture! With them I felt like I was with my own family, and that was the most rewarding part—to see how much of it is the same.
Did you encounter other surprises or feel unsettled in other ways during your time in Tunisia?
Being there was a humbling experience. In fact, it’s only in retrospect that I can talk about it. My previous films were fiction, and even for this project, I had the idea of writing a fiction film. When I met this family, without a camera—because the first week, I didn’t take my equipment out at all, I was there as a human being, to get to know them—I had a reality check. Who am I to write a story about them? Their life, their reality is so strong and rich. It unsettled me—or maybe that’s the wrong word… It shifted my point of view. I really wondered, who was I to write a fiction film about them, to claim to pass judgment. In documentary filmmaking, there is also a point of view, an appropriation of the subject, but documentary is very engaged on an intimate and personal level. I told myself that if were to make a fiction film, I would be appropriating something that doesn’t belong to me.
At that time, we didn’t talk as much about cultural appropriation as we do now. This idea was not so present in the media. I’m glad I felt it without thinking about it. I called Catherine to tell her that I couldn’t make a fiction film about a Tunisian who had just lived through a revolution, in a sociocultural and religious context that I didn’t know. All I could actually identify with and understand was a passion for the circus arts and the familial relationship with Mohamed. I decided to make a documentary, because, ultimately, reality is much richer. I felt that famous saying—reality is stranger than fiction—in the first 48 hours I spent with Mohamed’s family, sleeping in my small bed, waking up, eating eggs with Leila… Living through the shock of being on the brink of cultural appropriation is what destabilized me the most. It was a huge lesson and a humbling experience.
As a matter of fact, I was going to ask you if you learned any lessons or something about yourself by making this documentary.
As artists, we tend to get carried away with our art projects, and that’s not necessarily what’s important. I learned a lot from Mohamed and Leila. When we travel and are faced with the other, we already have some ideas of what is right or not, based on our culture, education, and values. Entering into a Muslim family as a woman, it’s easy to show up with your own ideas, about feminism for instance. When I first got there, I tried to put aside the feminist aspect in me and fully experience the situation, and only later return, or not, to these values. For example, on many evenings, Leila and I would cook dinner, then all the men would go to the café for shisha and tea and we would stay to do the dishes. Of course, given my values and education, I could have expressed my prejudices and objected, trying to convince Leila that it’s not her job to do the dishes. But rather than imposing my ideas, I wanted to be more like a sponge and absorb the experience. It taught me to understand the other as a whole and fully experience the differences, as well as to listen, rather than trying to impose my own values. That’s the big lesson. I felt it with Mohamed too. I would tell him to send his resume around… In practical terms, I was trying to give him my tools to advance his career, but in fact these tools—my values and ways of doing things—could not work for him in the professional environment. The whole concept of the relationship with the other was a big lesson for me.
This was your first documentary project, having made fiction films before. Are you keen to continue in the same vein?
It really made me want to make more documentaries, or at least to loosen the division between fiction and documentary and integrate documentary elements into my fiction films. For example, my next feature film is a fiction project about the circus. It’s not a documentary, but really fiction expressed through circus and dance movement. I want to breach the genre codes between fiction and experimental art film. In my work, the boundary between fiction, documentary, and art film is quite blurred.
Would you do anything differently?
On an artistic level, I’ve learned a lot of things. This is my first feature-length documentary. The final product has some artistic awkwardness, but I think that’s okay, because the important thing is the human experience. I’m glad that I respected Mohamed and his family throughout the process. The artist and director in me sees a lot of things to improve, that’s for sure, but I’m at peace with this. I don’t pretend to make perfect films, and that’s cool because it’s what makes me want to make more.
You met Mohamed in 2012, right?
It was in January 2012, just after the revolution. He had just left Tunisia and was in Dole, in the Jura region in France, for a first creative residency with the Farouche circus, still in shock from the huge social and political changes.
He must have been quite vulnerable and raw. What inspired you to make him the subject of your documentary?
We were so different: our education, the places where we lived, our religion… What struck me, despite our differences, was that we felt the same thing; we had the same visceral passion for the circus. We clicked on a human level and shared similar values. We encountered each other through difference. What interested me was the complexity of his situation, his strength, courage, and dedication. His passion had to be strong! To follow his passion for the circus was a gut instinct, and I was really impressed by him. I admire his journey so very much—he really had to fight to follow his heart.
Are you still in touch with him after all this time?
Yes! The film follows Mohamed until 2015, just after he felt ready to return to his family. He then did a great deal to revive contemporary circus arts and culture in Tunisia. The post-revolutionary context was not easy, and things didn’t work out as much as he’d hoped. He took various approaches: he tried to revive the national school in Tunis, which more or less worked. Afterwards, he set up an educational program for young people in schools. For a month, circus classes would be given rather than physical education. His idea was to make people aware of the circus arts from a young age so that they would be more integrated into the culture, which I find very honourable. Instead of imposing a national school when there is no culture to support it, he turned to education. I really admire his approach. However, once again, the implementation was full of pitfalls, especially in terms of organization and administration, and the project did not continue. Afterwards, Mohamed worked in luxury hotels, creating circus shows for tourists. I think it fulfilled his need to do circus, but it didn’t live up to his artistic and creative expectations, compared to what he had experienced in France. Then, his life completely changed because he met a woman, fell in love, and now he has a family. He is back on Rue de la Victoire with his family and parents, and he is expecting his second baby this fall.