The Arab Faces of Hafsia Herzi By Rui Pedro Tendinha

in 5th Dubai International Film Festival

by Rui Tendinha

Hafsia Herzi is an actress with vast potential. It is almost as if one can see the whole Arab world just by looking at her face. At this year’s Dubai Film Festival she was the actress that captivated us because of two films that she excelled in: Française, by Souad El-Bouhati (2008) and Dawn of the World (Aube du monde), by Abbas Fahdel.

She was initially recognized for her portrait of a rebel teenager from Marseille in The Secret of the Grain / Couscous (La Graine et Le Mulet/Couscous), by Abdellatif Kechiche. The film, as we now know, became a huge phenomenon and, out of all the cast, she was the one who grabbed our attention the most. Herzi’s performance was so strong that she won many prizes (Lumière, César, Etoile D’Or and the Venice Film Festival kudo for best promise) and she is now about to represent France in the Shooting Stars (an initiative of European Film Promotion) section at Berlinale 2009. It is through these two examples of the new Arab cinema that her talents are unveiled completely. It is a true pleasure for any film critic to come across an actress with such strong intensity within her, and, it’s really all a matter of intensity. In Française we don’t see her belly dancing as in The Secret of the Grain / Couscous, but she reveals a true feminine soul, trapped in a self dilemma: to be Arab or to be French. Her performance is a transformation with an erudite gravity. Every time there is a close up of her face the film gains gravitas. Can an actress save a film? Française needs no salvation, but Herzi’s untamed expression is a tour-de-force on its own.

Later, in Dawn of the World, she portrays a young bride from the countryside. A girl turned into a woman in a landscape of war and despair. Her part is filled with striking justice, as if she had the soul of an Arab woman. All is engraved with subtle emotions, transmitted only by her intense and profound gaze. That an actress with Maghreb blood can achieve such a vast collection of feminine feelings is a true miracle that cannot be mistreated, a miracle with a draft tragedy larger than life. The other miracle: a close-up of her face, beyond all unspeakable tragedies, bears a unique cinematographic beauty. A beauty which carries all truths. When she screams, she does it without pretence. When she cries, she cries together with a nation and when she smiles we truly believe in it. Everything, but actually every thing, leaves us with no doubts about the dramas of these two women, two examples of filming a feminine force with an Arab twist. And, after co-acting alongside Alain Delon and Jean Paul Belmondo in Un Homme et Son Chien, it’s good to know she will continue to explore the paths of the new Arab dame in The Flowers of Kirkut.