TIFF 2018 Interview: WHEN ARABS DANCED director Jawad Rhalib

“The film is an alarm signal that I urgently draw. But also a sensual ode to Arab Muslim culture and freedom. They are artists who resist and refuse to remain silent in the face of the increasingly violent Islamist threat.” Director Jawad Rhalib on WHEN ARABS DANCED which screens at TIFF 2018.

Congratulations on your film playing at TIFF! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?


This is my first TIFF! Not the last I hope. It’s an honor to be here and to be able to present my film to an incredible audience. I will be present at all screenings except the press and industry which will be managed by our publicist Ryan Bruce Levey. I will be there for the public screenings on the 13th, 14th and 15th of September. It’s very important for me to be there so I can talk to the public.

So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.


I was born and raised in Morocco.As I say in WHEN ARABS DANCE, I fell in love with cinema by discovering Egyptian films of the 60s. At 18, I had the chance to study at the university in Belgium. I first study communication and then production and cinema. I think I never wanted to do anything but movies. I am passionate about many things, but my work is mainly focused on human rights, globalization, women, freedom, and more recently on the issue of Islamization.  “When Arabs danced” is my twenty-second documentary. I have also made two fiction feature films and am currently preparing for the next one.


How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!


This project started from a personal reflection, little I suffered from the great freedom of my mother who was an oriental dancer and who did not care at all about the conveniences; I then asked myself about his own point of view as an artist, then I wanted to give the floor to today’s artists who fight every day for their freedom of expression but also to stay alive. We shot in Egypt, Morocco, Belgium, France, and Iran. I think the most stressful shoot was Iran. The Iranian actress sachli Gholamalizad that you will find in the film had to stress more than once. There are also quite a few incredible archive footage in the movie, finding them was not always easy. It should be known that many images were bought by a Saudi group, which is not very inclined to disseminate them. All these archives are rather sensual images, and unfortunately it bothers them that they are diffused, because they totally reject their cultural heritage.


What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?


I think first of all about the love and passion of my job as a director. Then, every time I get stuck in a subject that becomes the theme of one of my films, I feel as if I have a mission. Before shooting I do not sleep, I think, my brain is in full boil. Then comes the shooting and there is adrenaline, but also anxiety and stress. When we make a film, we always aim for an idealized perfection. Personally, although I can be proud of my work, I am never satisfied. That’s why I tirelessly continue to make films.

What was your biggest challenge with making this movie, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?


In making this film, I was aware that it was going to generate criticism from the extremist Muslims (they will probably define themselves as conservative). I say critical, but in fact it is rather threats. You know, when a European or an American does not matter but a “non muslim person” criticizes Islam, well it’s a “non muslim person”, it’s almost acceptable but when it’s someone from the Muslim Arab culture that criticizes then it’s worse, it’s a betrayal. It is necessary to underline the courage of the artists present in the film. They all had the courage to speak, to say aloud what many are saying in a whisper.

I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the look/visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.


Jawad Rhalib Director: We shot with an Arri Amira, my DOP François Schmitt has been with me for many years and he is in the best position to talk about it, so I give him the floor.

(Adds François Schmitt, Director of Photography:)


Jawad and I like to approach projects with creative flexibility, so necessarily technical. While it was decided to use the Canon 7D cameras, optics, accessories in our possession, the co-production of the documentary allowed us to attempt shooting in Arri Amira, PL mount, cinema optics. The shots in Egypt, however, required the use of Canon cameras for their discretion. The result, whether it’s a visual rendering, is under your eyes. The cutting, editing, calibration sculpt all, make it homogeneous, but there are differences between textures, angles, vibration images. A light and reduced camera will give something other than a heavier and more cumbersome model. But all this matters little and fades if the story captivates, ultimate goal. I think that these variations contribute to mark the track taken by the documentary, that of the differences, rules not to necessarily respect.


What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie in Toronto?


To meet the public. For me, making a film makes sense when I can then present it and exchange, debate with the public.

After the film screens here in Toronto, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals? Any dream spots?


The film is released in theaters in Belgium on September 26, in France and in Switzerland in 2019. It will still make some festivals, Göteborg film festival in Sweden has already selected the film. We are still waiting for feedback from other major festivals. Then the film will continue its route in TV broadcast. Regarding the dream, well it would be an Oscar nomination, the ultimate consecration.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?


Believe in yourself, no matter the means, do it!  Yes actually three things not one!

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?


It’s very difficult as a question, there are so many. I think my favorite movie will remain Ken Loach’s “Bread and roses”.

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