Interview with Kamir Aïnouz – Honey Cigar

Selma, 17, lives in a bourgeois and secular Berber family. When she meets Julien, a provocative young man, she realizes for the first time how the heavy rules of patriarchy affect her intimacy. As she faces her own fears to explore the power and dangers of her desire, her family crumbles and the terror of fundamentalism emerges in her country of origin. Selma must fight back to reclaim her body and become a free woman.

Written by Sacreblue!

21 Oct 2021

13 min read

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Can you tell us about how you became a director? About your journey toward directing? 

K I remember being 8 years old and being already drawn to fictional worlds and especially movies. My mother used to go to the movies several times a week and she often took me with her. I was particularly moved by Le palanquin des larmes by Jacques Dorfmann. My mother and I sobbed together. I still remember this shared emotion, which led to my desire to create my own worlds. As it happens, the film was (already) about patriarchy. Without being able to express it clearly, the film resonated in me on an intimate and personal level. My desire of cinema was born out of these emotional shocks I experienced as a spectator. After graduation, I enrolled in a business school in Paris. I found a sense of belonging during my international business school years, it was a very cosmopolitan universe, as you can see in the movie. But I wasn’t fulfilled in this environment. It so happens that my half-brother, Karim Aïnouz, is a film director. I visited him in Rio and I met one of his young women producers who advised me to go to Los Angeles and enroll in a directing program at USC School of Cinematic Arts. Since then, I have never looked back. I wrote shorts and started to learn about screenwriting. I stayed and lived in Los Angeles and when I began shooting shorts, I knew that I wanted to tell stories in my own way. So I enrolled in screenwriting classes at UCLA. I became Laura Ziskin’s intern (producer of Spider-Man and Fight Club) and then I worked at Wam Films, Alain Chabat’s company in Los Angeles. Both experiences gave me the opportunity to understand the structure of a script. I quickly met Lisa Azuelos and became screenwriter on LOL USA. Then I started woring on my own feature film, Honey Cigar and the script was selected at Rawi’s Screenwriting Lab with the Sundance Institute. 

How was Honey Cigar born? 

K I felt the need to write my own stories, nurtured by everything I had heard at home, particularly about colonization and the Revolution. For instance, in my family, we never spoke about “The Algerian War” but about “The Revolution”. There was a gap between what I heard at home and what I saw on television or in the movies. This diverging point of view is what gave me the urge to write my own stories. For Honey Cigar, it all began with an image I had in mind, of a girl laying on a bed. She was half naked and I could feel she had suffered. I knew I was putting myself out there but it was already somebody else’s story. I thought to myself that she was so torn between her two cultures, Algerian and French that her body didn’t belong to her anymore. Therefore anybody could do anything to that body. She could even hurt herself. This violence is shown in the film, for example, through the cucumber scene when Selma takes her own virginity. Her virginity seems so paramount to the people around her that she decides to get rid of it herself, in order to move on. This social pressure comes from her family and from her school friends. The choice of accessory could be laughable, if the violence Selma inflicts herself wasn’t so insane. I’m not only talking about physical violence. I mean, choosing to rip out her own flesh, just to feel “normal”. I am not so much interested in the struggle against domination, which, by the way, echoes the history of colonization. I am more interested in the struggle against one’s own submissiveness. 

Is taking her own virginity a way for your heroine to own her body again, and to reclaim an intimacy she is denied? 

K Exactly. It is an act of liberation, filmed factually, with seemingly no emotion. But I doubt there will be no emotional scars. It is both a hurtful and liberating act. 

A lot of your personal background seems to echo in the film, does it mean it is an autobiographical movie? 

K I wouldn’t say that. We could say it is semi-autobiographical. The opposition to a liberal education and yet, coercive on the subject of sexuality when it comes to the girls of the family, is indeed autobiographical. Selma has loving and modern parents who want to protect their daughter at all costs, yet the exact opposite happens. And it goes the other way too: by setting herself free, Selma also hurts the people she loves the most, namely her parents. To exist as a free woman, I too, had to suffer and inflict pain around me. This aspect is autobiographical. I don’t want to go further into the subject of what was inspired from my own life and what wasn’t. That’s a private matter. Of course, I used personal experiences to create this film but what really matters is what I have made out of it. It is this transformation that is relevant. 

Why did you choose to tell the story from Selma’s point of view, often filmed with the use of close shots? 

K It is a form of revenge. When I was growing up in France, as a teenager, I never saw myself on the screen, whether in the movies or on television. I never felt I was being represented, neither as a woman nor as an Algerian. It also comes form a more intimate feeling because, growing up, even though my female cousins and I spoke and laughed very loudly during family dinners, our family did not quite listen to us the way they heard the boys and the men in the family. So I wanted to show a point of view that was not seen or heard the way I thought it should have been. I knew that if I wanted to make a point, I had to show this young woman’s point of view only, as she is trying to connect to her body. I wanted to follow her every move. She is present in every single scene. 

Which were your directing choices when it came to filming your heroine? 

K We worked with two cameras. One was “alive”, in movement, for the close-ups, and the other one was steady, for ensemble shots. We prepared a lot with the actors but I wanted to be able to catch their spontaneity, no matter what happened on set. You can prepare a shooting all you want, sometimes, the most interesting and even magical things that happen on a set, are actually not prepared. I wanted the camera to adapt to the actors, not the opposite. Jeanne Lapoirie, the director of photography, and I, adapted ourselves to the places we shot and to the movements of the actors, so they felt free while filming. 

Three worlds coexist in your film: the parents’ apartment in Neuilly (a chic suburb of Paris), Algeria and the school, each of them corresponding to a different side of your chameleon-heroine’s personality. How did you envision the circulation between these different places? 

K These three worlds were already pre-existing in the early stages of the script. There is the parents’ world, a warm cocoon, in which Selma feels protected but oppressed as well, since she cannot come and go as she pleases. We worked on the sound to give a quiet feeling, as if cut-off from the outside. At the end of the film, we open sound to the outside world; we hear birds, children’s laughter as they come out of school: all of these sounds circulate like Selma, who is starting to live in the outside world. Sound perception is from Selma’s perspective as well. At school, on the other hand, it is a new and harsh experience for Selma: I wanted the audience to feel stimulated by the colors and the sound, just lie she is. And then, there is Kabylia. I wanted the arrival in this nature to be wild and visceral. This is Selma’s roots. She, and we as an audience, are overwhelmed by all these sensual sounds and this bright light. To me, this is the origin of her desire. We see her eating honey cigars with her mother and the women in her family. I wanted her desire to stem from this sensuous, luminous Algerian universe. In Algeria, we shot almost all the scenes in natural light. It created contrast with the scenes shot in France, which are more oppressive. There is a visual opposition between the green of Algeria’s nature and the honey-colored look of her parents’ cocoon in Neuilly. When it comes to the business school, colors are much colder, bluer. Selma’s character is the connection between these three worlds. This is what we worked on with Zoé Adjani: Selma’s goal is to harmonize all these contradictory influences, within herself. The same goes for Julie Roué’s music which mixes piano, voice and electronic music: in the end, all these textures find a harmony, with a few dissonant notes: it is Selma’s harmony. 

The heroine defines herself as double because of her nationality. How did you translate that feeling into the movie? 

K By actually blending in her two cultures, whether Selma is in France or in Algeria, in image, sound and music. For instance, in her parents’ apartment in France, we hear news from Algeria on the radio or TV. The vibration of music is also key to this duality. Very often, when Selma is in France, Algerian tones will come to mind and the other way around. In Kabylia, there’s electronic music, which is usually more associated with Western music. I wanted to go beyond this Oriental/ Western opposition and music helped. We worked with Tanina Cheriet, the daughter of late Algerian singer, Idir. She has a crystalline voice. It feels like Selma’s inner voice sings throughout the film. We hear it during the opening credits and again at the end. We also hear it when Selma is masturbating while reading The Egyptian by Gilbert Sinoué in Neuilly. To me, it perfectly embodies the desire that inhabits an Algerian young woman living in an apartment in France. Both cultures reconcile within Selma. The film draws a parallel between two battlefields: Algeria, two years after the beginning of the civil war and the heroine’s body, desired, wanted and assaulted, as well as a subject of transaction. 

Is this how you wanted to structure your film? 

K Yes. The film draws a parallel between two adolescences: Selma’s who is fighting an intimate battle to reclaim her body and Algeria’s, which is fighting an inner battle to become itself, because it is still in its teenage years. Algeria became independent in 1962. The film is set in 1993. On the scale of a nation, 30 years is very young. To me, Algeria is going through the violence of an adolescent being assaulted by a powerful outside force: religious terrorism didn’t come from inner Algeria. It came from Afghanistan where extremists were trained, as it is mentioned in the film. I included archive footage, which translates the dangerous reality of the times. 

Why this title, an oriental pastry, loaded with a sexual symbol? 

K I love this pastry and its symbolism has always made me smile. It is visible in the film that Selma’s relationship to food is significant. The film opens on a bulimia of honey cigars. The pleasure she feels is obviously a compensation for something else. Later in the film, after a traumatic episode, she stops eating. This excessive relationship to food, in cultures where sexuality is repressed, has always struck me. 

How did you choose Zoé Adjani? How did you work with her? 

K I saw her in Jérôme Enrico’s movie, Cerise, after its release. I thought she was a natural, so I kept her name in the back of my mind. I met her for Honey Cigar and she talked about the script in a very smart way. She had seen in Selma’s character aspects and feelings that I had not experienced in the same way. She related to the story on a personal level. Zoe is a bright and sensitive young woman. I asked her to do some screen tests alone, and then with her partner, Louis Peres. She was spot-on, touching, moving. I knew right away that she was the one. On set, Zoé is generous, hard working and full of life. 

Can you tell us why you picked Amira Casar, whose character liberates herself throughout the film? 

K Amira is cosmopolitan, smart and classy and I was looking for these qualities on screen for Selma’s mother. She is hypersensitive, which I needed for this character who suffers and never shows it. I wanted the audience to feel that she is boiling inside. Amira has that ability to convey inner feelings. I wanted her to be strong and at the same time to feel a visceral love for her daughter. Amira can seem icy cold and still be this very sensuous and loving person. This duality is also at play in the film and was necessary because Selma couldn’t free herself without the incentive of her strong-willed mother. Mother and daughter liberate each other. It’s a tenuous and unbreakable dynamic. Amira is very bright and explores with great depth and sensitivity her character’s interiority. She goes into fantastic ad-lib on set. She brought a lot to the film and to her character. I wanted to show her as we had never been seen before, with that 90’s haircut. Amira loved her look. 

Why did you choose Lyes Salem to be the father? Did he share a little of his director’s experience with you? 

K I was looking for an excellent actor to embody the duality of being head of such a family: both naturally commanding but also a loving father, doting on his daughter. To play Selma’s parents, I needed two strong actors, to ground the picture. They had to be two walls Selma crashes onto but who also structure her. When Lyes Salem enters a room and sits down, everyone calms down. He’s an instinctive actor, he goes straight to the point, and like his character, he’s into action. He gives everything, but in a very structured and professional way. He also brings a lot on set as a person, with his warmth and generosity. I worked with an actor, not a director. He wears two hats but on my set, he was 100% an actor bringing his talent to the film. 

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