Venice 2023 review: Backstage (Khalil Benkirane & Afef Ben Mahmoud)

“A profoundly moving and evocative drama that tests the boundaries of the art form in several creative ways.”

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” – this oft-quoted remark has been overused to the point of exhaustion, but it does bear a lot of resonance, being as relevant today as when it was written centuries ago. Existence is performance, and we are all engaged in a perpetual production that seemingly never ends. One of the most interesting examples of this concept comes in the form of Backstage, in which directors Khalil Benkirane and Afef Ben Mahmoud (the latter in her directorial debut, and she also plays one of the central roles) travel to a small town somewhere in Tunisia, following a dance company that is forced to seek out medical help. Their star has been injured by one of her collaborators – possibly by accident, perhaps intentionally – and the entire group travels by bus to find a doctor, only to face unexpected obstacles that stand in their way throughout an evening. A strange but hypnotic film that is built on a very simple premise around many fascinating subjects, this represents a radical departure from the traditional narrative structure that we may expect to find with such a story. A striking film that is adamant in its refusal to justify even its most unusual choices, Backstage is a beguiling voyage into the trials and tribulations of an artistic collective, crafted by a pair of gifted filmmakers who have a firm grasp on the cultural pulse, and are certainly not hesitant to explore a range of ideas in their effort to create something enticing and enthralling, as well as deeply provocative in unexpected ways.

While most filmmakers tend to strive towards authenticity (which usually results in the overt conflation of realism with quality), some stories are best suited for more eccentric, off-the-wall interpretations, which is the guideline that Ben Mahmoud and Benkirane followed when constructing this film. Backstage is driven by a sense of intense theatricality, which is logical considering it is set within the art world, but which is also applicable to other areas of the film, particularly in how it conveys certain themes. The film is a picaresque journey through the physical and psychological world inhabited by these characters, existing at the perfect intersection between reality and fantasy, blurring the boundaries of logic that are normally preserved in similar projects. Art means something very different for the directors as they undergo the process of putting this film together, since there are several incredible choices made that may be unexpected, but reflect the sincere desire on the part of the filmmakers to do something different and more profound. Even the simplest choices bear enormous relevance – the fact that the first spoken language we hear is approximately ten minutes into the film (the words “curtain call”) makes it quite obvious what this film intended to do, which was primarily to build itself out of a few vague narrative concepts that are sewn together with a precise attention to detail, while avoiding the impulse to explain what it all represents, or offer any relief to those looking for some clear and concise meaning, which intentionally never arrives.

Not at all nonsensical, but rather resistant to common logic that seeks to restrict a certain kind of narrative freedom, Backstage achieves something much more intriguing, and the further we venture into this film, the less we desire the answers to pressing questions since the atmosphere that emerges from this ambiguity is alluring. The formal side of the film is where many of its ideas manifest with the most effective results, and not only are Ben Mahmoud and Benkirane terrific storytellers, but they also have a strong directorial eye, and the construction of this film on a visual level is just as impressive as the thematic ideas that occur alongside these unforgettable images. The camera moves with fluidity, refusing to be static – it often feels as if the camera is adapting itself to the actors, rather than the other way around, serving to capture every intricate detail of their movements, which results in some of the starkest and most unconventional dance sequences in recent memory. This artistry collides with the natural world, with the blinding glare of the spotlight being traded for the eerie glimmer of moonlight poking through the trees, the well-trodden boards of the stage replaced with dewy grass, this mysterious environment becoming the stage for the actors as they participate in a very different kind of performance. The dances are mostly done without music, and instead are set to the rhythmic sounds of nature that create a beautiful and haunting cacophony. Every directorial choice made throughout this film has meaning and contributes to the overall narrative, which carries much more weight than we may initially have imagined.

Few films in recent memory have been this steadfast in exploring a particular subject with this level of stylistic detail and reckless disregard for orthodox structure. Backstage is both a freewheeling experiment in terms of form, and a deeply captivating examination of the process of self-expression and the challenges that come about when art begins to impinge on different aspects of the creator’s life. Arguably, the film does occasionally make a few inexplicable choices, and some of the ambiguities can be frustrating – but everything ultimately falls into place, and we can begin to make sense of the curated chaos incited by Ben Mahmoud and Benkirane, who cobble together a unique film that dares to work its way through several complex themes without any hesitation. Whether by exploring the art of movement as a means of telling a story (the choreography of this film is exceptionally beautiful), or in its overall depiction of the world of art, where it peers behind the proverbial curtain that separates the audience from the performers, Backstage is a fascinating film. The silences that populate this film sometimes speak louder than the words we hear, which conveys a deeply haunting message about human nature. This all comes through in the combination of a tremendous cast, a strong screenplay that allows for the actors to have some flexibility, and the masterful direction by the two talented people at the helm, who set forth to make a profoundly moving and evocative drama that tests the boundaries of the art form in several creative ways.