As a child, Karin Albou was always encouraged to be an artist: She did dance, singing ... For two years after high school, Karin studied different fields, such as literature, English, dance and drama class, without really knowing what to choose. Then she enrolled in a film school in Paris in order to become a screenwriter and discovered during her studies that she wanted more than anything to be a director. She made her first short film "Chut" right after school, which confirmed her vocation. Then she spent a few years working on a documentary about Tunisia, where she lived. There, she also made her second short film "Aid el kebir", which is a love story that takes place in Algeria, her family´s homeland.
"Little Jerusalem", her debut, won Best Screenplay at Cannes in 2006 (Critic´s Week section), and was twice nominated for the French Academy Cesar. It was also shown at the Jewish Film Festival Berlin in 2007.
"La Petite Jerusalem" reflects on the lives of two women living in an orthodox Jewish enclave in Paris.
"The Wedding Song" is her second feature film and has already won several prizes in French festivals and abroad.
It tells the story about Myriam (Lizzie Brouchere) and Nour (Olympe Borval). The two girls are friends from early childhood – but one is Jewish, the other Muslim. Now they are 16 and they live in the same courtyard.
Although they don´t have the same religion, they share the same fate: they both are forced by their families to marry.
Nour is engaged to her cousin Khaled (Najib Oudghiri) whereas Myriam is being forced to marry the wealthy and much older Doctor Raoul (Simon Abkarian).
It is 1942 in German-occupied Tunisia. Jews have to pay huge fines in order to stay in the country. Miriam´s mother Tita (Karin Albou) – a single parent – has to face the cruelty of the Nazis...
The friendship of the two girls is put under pressure as a result of the occupation and their different backgrounds. Will it survive?
AVIVA-Berlin: During your studies in a film school in Paris, where you were studying to be a screenwriter, you discovered that you wanted more than anything to be a director. Why?
Karin Albou: Because I studied how to direct a movie and I understood that it was what I really wanted to do: I learnt how to write but I also realised that I had all the images of the film very alive in my mind, so it would have been frustrating not to complete the whole process of creation. And I also knew how to work with actors because I studied acting when I was young. So in a way I had all the tools to become a director.
AVIVA-Berlin: Karin, congratulations - "The Wedding Song" ("Le chant des mariées"), your second feature, has already won several prizes in French festivals and abroad.
I think, your film is great and I like it a lot!
Please tell us something about how the audience of the 15th Jewish Film Festival Berlin (JFFB) reacted to it?
Karin Albou: It was quite full. People liked it a lot and responded very well, and it was a warm atmosphere. It was good to see it here from the centre.
AVIVA-Berlin: You took part in the JFFB in 2007, showing your film " La petite Jerusalem", those two films of yours are different, aren´t they.
Karin Albou: They are linked to each other in my way of portraying femininity, so they are cousins in a way.
But they are very different in their context: one portrays an 18-year-old Jewish girl in an orthodox family that lives in the outskirts of Paris.
The "Wedding Song" portrays two 16-year-old girls who live in Tunisia in the forties during World War II.
You could also say that the main link is childhood facing suddenly the reality of life and how one becomes an adult facing this ordeal, in a very short time, a few months, how one´s life and identity can completely change.
AVIVA-Berlin: In your work you often deal with Algiers, which is where some of your family come from originally, and the struggle/conflict of women - In "La petite Jerusalem" you show the situation of Sephardic Jewish women in the context of religious conflicts. What, do you think, are the main conflicts for these women next to living in a male-dominated role in a religious context?
Karin Albou: There is a gap between what is written in the Halakhah and what happens in reality: usually women stay in the kitchen, taking care of the children while men are studiying the Torah.
The Halakhah stresses that woman don´t need to pray as much as men because they are closer to God, which is a beautiful idea of femininity and when one reads it, one can even have the feeling that the Halakhah is feminist in a way. It also says that women don´t need to do the Mistvot related to time because they are naturally linked to time with their periods. This is also beautiful because it gives a positive note to the periods. But in reality, I mean in orthodox families, you see that women don´t really study because they have to cook and take care of their ten children´s family… and the worse is that they usually don´t complain, and say they are happy to live like that.
AVIVA-Berlin: And the way you live?
Karin Albou: I don´t live a religious life, but I know all the Halakhah rules very well.
AVIVA-Berlin: After directing "La petite Jérusalem" in 2005 (shown at the Jewish Film Festival 2007) and "Le chant des mariées" (Europa "The Wedding Song") it seems that you love to show microcosms in detail – what do you love about that especially?
Karin Albou: Details – oh, I don´t know, I think this is the way I see life, these little situations are very intimate. And above all, I think that art in general is all about details. When I make a movie, I need to think about many details as the colour of the walls, the costumes, the sound etc.
AVIVA-Berlin: You were also playing the role of Tita, the mother of the Jewish girl.
What were the biggest challenges about that?
Karin Albou: The main challenge was to give this monstrous character (she sells her daughter!) a large scale of emotions, in particular to show her fragility because I didn´t want her to be a caricature and just mean and selfish. I had to enter into her inner logic.
The second challenge was to act and direct but it was easier than I thought. I had a good team that helped me to deal with these two jobs. And in a way it helped me to finish the writing of the character Tita. Strangely in the script she was not so important, even if she had two or three more scenes than in the final editing. But she didn´t appear in the script as a major clue like in the film. In a way I finished writing her while I was acting. The fact that I embodied the role of Tita, made real and alive some of her links with other characters, especially with her daughter, and deepens all the thematic ramifications of the story.
AVIVA-Berlin: I think she has a lot of power, this Jewish mother. What did you love about this special role?
Karin Albou: I don´t love her very much. She is very far from me. I am not a mother and I would never do what she does to her daughter. But I was very interested in creating a character that does not look like me. And I think this is the all point of acting!
Tita has more links with my own family. My mother got me when she was 16, she was a very young mother like Tita. And she got married when she was a teenager, just like Myriam.
And with my grandmother too, during the Second World War, my grandmother in Algeria could not find work because she was Jewish, like Tita in the film.
She also wanted to be an actress and when she was in Paris for her studies, before the war, she got an opportunity to play an Egyptian woman in a film. She always told me when I was young that unfortunately World War II broke out and the shooting of the film was cancelled! She always told me: "I still have the contract," and has kept this contact at home until her death
AVIVA-Berlin: You tell a great and moving story about friendship and betrayal in difficult times. The scene in the Haman where Nour saves her friend Myriam is just heart-breaking, one doesn´t dare to breathe… What personally impresses you in this special scene and what will you always remember from it?
Karin Albou: I built the story in a way that Myriam knows very early (even before Nour herself) that Nour is going to betray her. Because Myriam has a sense of tragedy she sees this tragic story unfold in front of her eyes, and she is a part of it. She understands very soon that the reality of war is going to crush both of them.
But maybe what she didn´t plan was this Hamam scene where Nour saves her.
AVIVA-Berlin: The scene is both beautiful and also hard to watch – the moment, when her hair is epilated in preparation for the wedding night.
I believe it is very important to show those details in order to make people see how girls and women are mistreated.
Karin Albou: Yes, it is important that the audience suffer with the character and feels how painful it is for her because it was imposed on her by tradition, Raoul and her mother, it is as her body does not belong to her anymore.
On the other hand, I shot that scene as a defloration scene. It was very important to show Nour watching this scene because Myriam also watched the defloration of Nour on the roof. So everybody watches everybody … they are so close that they even live these intimate moments together.
AVIVA-Berlin: Tita, the loving, beautiful and hard-working mother of Myriam, offers her daughter to the wealthy doctor Raoul, a much older man, to save their lives because Tunesian Jews are only allowed to remain residents if they pay a huge fine.
How did you feel playing this scene/role?
Karin Albou: I felt like an actress who has to play a role that does not look like her at all. I entered the logic of the character and how she feels deep inside herself.
I was very happy to receive a prize of interpretation for that part that is so far from me!
AVIVA-Berlin: Why couldn´t have she married him herself?
Karin Albou: Because the story does not take place today. Tita is 40 and at that period men wanted to get married to young and fertile women in order to have many children and to raise a family.
I tried to build this ambiguity in the shooting between Tita and Raoul, that one can feel that she is in love with him and that is why she is giving him her daughter. I tried to put in the spectator´s mind, that same question you are asking me in order to stress the unfairness of this wedding.
AVIVA-Berlin: Even the situation is rough, you choose a beautiful light and setting, when the German soldiers are entering the room threatening Tita, she is hiding her daughter under the bed. You can only see her feet.
This is much more frightening for the audience, than if the violence had been seen.
Karin Albou: Because all the film is viewed from Myriam´s eyes and point of view. So there was no reason to show a complete image with a large shot.
And I think this breaking-up or splitting up (in French morcellement) of the reality is closer to what would happen in real life in such a situation. It is more frightening and makes the spectator feel that Myriam does not understand what is going on.
AVIVA-Berlin: What are you working on now, what are your future projects?
Karin Albou: I have several projects in mind but first of all I will show my film at several film festivals all over the world now.
AVIVA-Berlin: Do you plan to show it also in Tunesia?
Karin Albou: I would love to!
AVIVA-Berlin: Thank you very much and I wish you all the best and success for you and your projects!