Damascus, March 2011. In the midst of the rumblings of revolution, Nahla, a young woman of 25, is torn between her desire for freedom and her hopes of leaving the country through an arranged marriage with Samir, a Syrian who has emigrated to the United States. However, Samir prefers her younger and more docile sister, Myriam. Consequently, Nahla grows closer to her new neighbour, Madame Jiji, who has just moved into her building in order to open a brothel.
Gaya Jiji is a Syrian filmmaker who has been based in Paris since 2012. She has made several short films, including Matin, Midi, Soir…et Matin (2011), which has garnered nominations at several festivals throughout the world. During the 2016 Festival de Cannes, she received the Young Talent Women in Motion Award, as part of Kering’s programme. My Favourite Fabric is her first feature-length film. This year it was selected for Un Certain Regard and the film was also in the running for the 2018 Camera d’Or. During a meeting with journalists, she reflects on the idea behind the film, choice of actress, and the situation in Syria.
Why the title My Favourite Fabric?
Because the film is about the senses. Fabric touches the body. My Favourite Fabric refers to the heroine Nahla’s desire that her body be touched by a particular fabric, a desire that is a choice. Her choice. My story concerns this girl’s relationship with her body. Everything stems from this. It is a sort of affirmation, a way for her to say to herself and others, “this touch is the one I truly desire!”
What was the situation in Syria, in Damascus, at the time when your film takes place?
When I began to write the film in Damascus, at the end of 2010 through 2011, the civil war was beginning. Writing had become my only escape from the overwhelming fear that gripped us all. I participated in the very beginning of the revolts. It was clearly impossible to gloss over this context, to sweep it under the rug. Unconsciously, the violence of the war, the oppression, the rebellion—all had a bearing with the inner violence which I chose to commit to paper. This film became my intensely personal interpretation of the beginnings of this terrible conflict. It’s not about a documentary vision, but is well and truly my interpretation, my reflection upon this situation that we see, for example, through the character of the soldier. Personal history and political history cannot be separated. It was necessary to show that life went on, but at what price?
What was the genesis of the story in this film?
My personal experience, along with that of my girlfriends led to my thinking on this subject.
What were these forbidden or impossible dreams that led to My Favourite Fabric?
My dream was to make films, which is very complicated in Syria. I felt that I didn’t even have the right to dream these grand dreams, even less to express them, to proclaim what I felt like saying. Even on a political level, one does not have the right to an opinion. And I am extremely interested in politics! The same is true of religion. There is not much that can be said. This was really difficult for me to stomach within my family, with my mother—above all with my mother. That is what I’ve recreated in the film, this relationship which is demanding, and paradoxically tender as well, so quite complex. It’s a love-hate relationship.
Nahla certainly has a strong personality. Is she dissatisfied?
She has a rather tiresome job. Things are complicated with her family, the rapport between these women. The father is dead. It’s a very closed, very feminine world. Then she is “presented” to a potential husband. She thinks to herself, “fine, perhaps this will be a way out.” But, deep inside, she knows that it makes no sense, that it’s not by participating in an “arranged” marriage that she will find freedom. So she seeks another way. Once again, she feels she has nothing to lose, so she should follow through on her wild ideas, face herself, her demons, her fears. The heroine is trying to find her place within her family, and, by extension, within her country. She is a woman who wants freedom, and, even more, she wants power! And this manifests by having sex for the first time, without any romantic overtones. Furthermore, there is even a certain malaise during this scene. In this case, this young woman is also manipulative, but this is necessary.
Why did you choose to have your story take place in a world of women?
I come from a milieu where women have a great deal of authority. They are a major presence. In fact, this is part of the schizophrenia of Eastern society—within the family, women have a lot of power, they make decisions, and yet, at the same time, they are deprived of many things, namely sexual freedom.
Consequently, I was always surrounded by strong women. Men were present, but on the periphery, in the background. Everything was based upon decisions made by the women. In the film, each character in this family is defending something. The mother defends tradition. The little sister is the revolutionary of the family, a tomboy who articulates a very overtly determined discourse, whereas the heroine, Nahla, seeks to define herself in a more intimate manner. In the end, all of these characters are representative of Syrian society at the time, victims who rebelled on various levels against the totalitarian regime, but also against a suffocating family structure. Each one is persuaded that they are making one of the others happy. The three male characters in the film merely gravitate around this maelstrom of feminine desires and power.
There is also Madame Jiji, the upstairs neighbour, who also manifests a certain authority but is a free woman. What is her role?
I created a personality completely opposite to the mother. This is a woman who has created a space where everything is permitted, everything is possible. I wanted her to be a neighbour in order to create a link between the two worlds, a world above and a world below. When Nahla goes upstairs to Jiji’s, she crosses a threshold in terms of who she is, her being, her sexuality. As she mounts the stairs, it is like she is crossing a border. It is also a crossing over on a psychological level. She says to herself, “this is the moment where my true and inner personality, of which I as yet know nothing, will come to the surface and express itself. I am in search of adventure and the discovery of myself.” She is trying to liberate herself from her family, her country, her fears, in order to be reborn as her true self.
In opposition to Madame Jiji, a symbol of freedom, you created the character of the suitor. What is his significance?
He is a character that I know all too well! This character again comes from my reality. I have experienced this situation—several times even! I have found myself before a potential suitor, a Syrian from America, who had come over to find himself a “good” wife in his country of origin. Each time, I’m struck by the fact of how much these men, who left very young to live in freer countries, with more liberal mores, have remained so narrow and confined in their little worlds. Also, even though things have evolved somewhat in Syria since they emigrated, they always arrive thinking that things have remained the same for the last 20 years.
Did you wish to show that this character is also not free?
Yes! These men are prisoners of tradition. They come to Syria looking for a wife that they imagine will be virginal and docile, because they have no desire for a liberated woman. In the film, this somewhat young man is also oppressed without realising it. He is trapped in the past, he is also a victim of sorts. What I mean to say is that Middle Eastern men are victims of how they think their virility should manifest itself, based upon the image that our society imposes upon them. They are no freer than the women. The suitor in my film, with his mind full of archaic principles, despite his youth, develops a fascination with Nahla. She does not correspond at all to his expectations, and he is afraid of her. He is also taken aback by her, and tempted by her way of being, to the point of entering her world, even if only temporarily, because he does not possess the same courage as she. In this aspect, I find that women as a rule are more courageous than men.
More than a women’s film, wouldn’t My Favourite Fabric be considered more of a film with a feminine bent?
Yes, in the sense that it’s a film that cannot exist without men. They are very important. Also, in the way that these women’s rapport with their bodies is shown, one might perhaps say that it’s from a feminine perspective. Then the sentiments—once again Nahla’s relationship with her skin, the way she explores it with fabric, then with a man, but also with the rejection of this man, that she doesn’t know how to love, and who, in the end, does not choose her. Finally, there are the relations between the women themselves, touched with rivalries, deep love, and a tinge of hatred. I think that a woman would describe this paradox and this particular brand of violence without any filter, without embarrassment, but rather with a direct approach.
Tell us about your choice of Manal Issa for the role of Nahla, a Franco-Lebanese actress, rather than a Syrian actress?
It was very difficult to find a Middle Eastern actress for this role, notably because there were scenes of nudity. Even at the writing stage, I had asked myself, “what Middle Eastern actress would accept this?” Moreover, the film really doesn’t stand up without those scenes, it has no meaning. Subsequently, all my attempts at casting Syrian actresses fell through. No one wanted to perform those sex scenes. However, I do live in France and I met Manal Issa. She is a true actress and a real professional who gives her all. Manal completely owns her work. She possesses a true understanding of her métier and she was ready to jump in, and not only regarding the question of nudity.
And your use of colour?
In terms of colours, the family apartment is consciously done in dull colours to reflect the dullness of this family life, the sense of holding one’s breath in a permanent state of hold. At Madame Jiji’s, the colours are more varied, joyous, stronger. The sound is also quite particular—such as the rubbing of the fabric, which gives the sensation that we too are touching it. From the moment I began writing the screenplay, the sound took on a life of its own, it is a character in and of itself. I needed to convey to the audience the illusion of senses that are not generally cinematographic, such as touch and smell. In this case, the touch of the fabric as it’s caressed. Sound was an ideal tool to accomplish this. As was the use of silences to underline the difficulty of living in a family apartment where no one expresses themselves. We also did a lot of work to create ambiance.
Do you miss Syria?
Terribly. It’s like my heroine when someone tells her “you never loved this country!”—she does, in fact, think of leaving it. This is what I did, because a part of me always hated that place. I always knew that my life would be lived in a country where women had more scope, but this was also with the knowledge that I could return when I wished to. Now, this is impossible. I can no longer return to Syria, I cannot revisit the places of my childhood, and since I’m someone who is very nostalgic, my memories, my Syrian recollections give me pain, because, in a sense, the civil war has laid waste to my past. This is a very disturbing feeling.