|'Hedi the character makes it impossible to enjoy the strong work to be found elsewhere in Hedi the film'.|
Hedi's original Arabic title actually translates as "We love Hedi"; there's a temptation to think that Mohamed Ben Attia shortened it for the film's international release after realising how many people would respond to the statement in the full title with a resounding "No, we don't". Directing from his own script, Ben Attia apparently wants us to see his title character as a downtrodden dreamer whose life is perpetually controlled by others, most of all his overbearing mother Baya (Sabah Bouzouita). The problem is, the director never gives us much of a reason to care about Hedi (Majd Mastoura), who comes across as little more than a wet blanket throughout the opening act and makes for a particularly limp and unengaging protagonist.
At around the point at which Hedi meets the fun-loving Rym (Rym Ben Messaoud) we see a transition in the character as he starts to break out of his listless personality and begins a passionate love affair. There's a section near the start of the second act where Hedi actually becomes bearable as the infectiously upbeat Rym rubs off on him, but it's all too brief. Before long, Hedi becomes unlikeable once again, his character going too far in the other direction and coming across as recalcitrant and self-centred.
To be fair, it's likely that Ben Attia does this on purpose. Hedi and Rym discuss the Tunisian Revolution and what it meant to them at a few points throughout, the director positioning Hedi's transformation as a journey of self-discovery following the country's sociopolitical upheaval. However, whilst the context explains the reasons behind the character's conversion, it doesn't excuse his newfound selfishness. It might work if Hedi was a teenager, but he isn't. The image of a grown man shedding all responsibility without any thought to the consequences for others is antipathetic no matter where you come from, and it's hard to see Hedi's decisions being driven by anything other than self-serving egotism.
In fact, there are few people in Hedi's life who remain unscathed by the decisions he makes, not least his bride-to-be Khedija (Omnia Ben Ghali). That Ben Attia essentially positions her as collateral damage in the title character's narrative sits uncomfortably with his presentation of modern Tunisian society breaking free from its anti-democratic past.
The cast are strong, with Ben Messaoud in particular giving an appealing and authentic performance throughout, providing the sole character within the film to feel genuine affinity towards. It's worth noting that Mastoura is also fine despite his deeply problematic role. Ben Attia's decision to use a handheld style throughout works well, only occasionally becoming distracting when the director opts for some unnecessary 'shaky cam' moments. But, in the end, Hedi the character makes it impossible to enjoy the strong work to be found elsewhere in Hedi the film. Perhaps more disappointing than a comprehensively poor film is one which contains commendable elements which are continually dragged down by an unavoidable fatal flaw; unfortunately Hedi emerges as a prime example of the latter.
The 30th Leeds International Film Festival runs from 3rd-17th November 2016 at thirty venues across the city, including Hyde Park Picture House and Leeds Town Hall. Tickets and more information are available via the official LIFF website.