Cannes, Venice, Paris, Tunis… Québec-born film director Monia Chokri, jury favourite in the “Un certain regard” category, spends several months of the year living out of her suitcase—for enjoyment and for work. Here’s our talk with a nomad flirting with the idea of settling down.
Monia Chokri has travelled since childhood. Since her father is from Tunisia, she spent every other summer in the North African country. At 18, she decided to branch out and see other things. She didn’t go back to Tunisia for another 18 years, when, in 2019, she decided on a whim on a short stay that ended up affecting her profoundly.
You’ve not always been as comfortable talking about your Tunisian roots as you are now. What changed?
I hid my background for a long time because it handicapped me in my work, at the beginning. I didn’t want it to colour the way people saw me. La femme de mon frère (A Brother’s Love) helped me accept my identity. Depicting a Mediterranean father made me realize that being different was a strength, not a weakness. I’ve come a long way on this subject this year. I decided to visit my father who lives in Tunisia during the winter, and I finally understood something really important about my identity: my family is Berber, not Arab. It’s a bit like being Indigenous in Québec. The Berbers are free people, nomads. Learning that freed my mind and changed my entire relationship with film-making.
What did you think of the Tunisia you rediscovered?
I was surprised because I really expected to see that Tunisia had changed after the revolution, but it was still the Tunisia of my youth. I walked in the streets amid the same smells; the people had the same culture, the same mentality. I found my reference points in a matter of seconds.
What is your favourite part of the travelling?
What’s great about travelling is that we live more in the present moment, which we don’t experience very often. The trip made me happy because I was fully in the moment, always exploring, seeing new things.
Does travelling so extensively influence your work as an actress and director?
My trade is based on constant observation. For sure, spending lots of time in Paris, for example, influences my acting. Their way of acting is different from what we do in Québec. I bring a little bit from here to there and vice-versa.
You have worked quite a bit in France and Belgium, as well as in Québec, of course. Do you think you’ll settle overseas one day?
At one time in my life, I wanted to live in France. I’ve been going back and forth over the decision for 10 years. For now, I spend about four months a year there, but in short stays. I’d love to stay for longer periods, not exactly six months, but around there. If I write a film in France, I’d have to live there for several months. Since it’s all about the details, we need to understand the culture to transfer it to the big screen. It’s a lot of work.
What are some things that make a hotel stay memorable for you?
There are four really important things for me in a hotel: the bed, the robe, the products, and the relationship with the people in the lobby. I like boutique hotels that are on a human scale.
You were born in Québec City. Do you get back there often?
Several times. My parents and my sister still live there. For me, Québec City is family; it’s my childhood and teen years. Every street corner holds a story. That’s where I experienced all the emotions tied to building my personality and my affective psyche. Sometimes it’s heavy, sometimes it’s exhilarating.
What are your favourite places in Québec City?
The new section of the Musée national des Beaux-Arts du Québec (the fine arts museum) is exceptionally beautiful. For restaurants, I discovered Le Renard et la Chouette last fall. I was really jealous when I was there, thinking it was exactly the kind of restaurant I’d like to see in Montréal.
If you could make a film anywhere in the world, where would you choose?
If there weren’t any restrictions and I could speak the language and had a strong story, I’d go to Rome. Rome at night is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. It’s the ultimate expression of beauty and elegance. It’s incredibly romantic.