British-Tunisian filmmaker Claire Belhassine’s feature The Man Behind The Microphone revolves around her discovery in her 30s that her grandfather, Hédi Jouini, had been one of Tunisia’s most revered popular singers – a sort of intellectual, Tunisian Frank Sinatra.
Belhassine was never told of her grandfather’s illustrious past, and a family rift following his death meant summertime trips to the country ended abruptly when she was a teenager. The filmmaker only became aware of Hedi’s fame by chance while sitting in the back of a taxi in Paris after she asked the driver about a piece of music playing on a North African music station: and told her it was Hédi Jouini.
She was on route to an appointment with a French producer to discuss another project. Unbeknownst to her, he was also half Tunisian. "I told him what happened in the taxi. He looked surprised and said, ‘I’ve been to your grandfather's house. I made this film about your father for an arts and culture programme in the 1950s’,” recalls Belhassine. “He went out back and returned with a tape. It was first time I had seen my grandfather perform.”
From 2009 to the present, Belhassine travelled between Tunisia and the UK to research and do interviews for the film with friends, family and artistic collaborators. The result is a rich tapestry of old family movies, fresh interviews, archive footage of his performances and of Tunisia over the past century.
As well as charting Houni’s life (1901–1990) — from his difficult childhood in Tunis to involvement in the city’s intellectual scene in the 30s and rise to fame after World War II — it also delves into the complex family story. “It started off as quite a traditional biography about my grandfather, but as I started to interview family members about his professional life, personal stuff crept in. It became apparent as I talked to people about the project what interested them was my personal connection to the story,” she explains.
In the end, Belhassine decided to also bring in her father’s estrangement from his mother and five brothers and sisters and decision to quit Tunis for London, and her own place in the tale. She also decided to do the voiceover herself. “One of the hardest things was personally narrating the story. It was a real challenge to get the balance between his story, my story and my father’s story,” she says.
The resulting film goes beyond the realm of straight music documentary. On one level, it follows the personal journey undertaken by Belhassine as she gets to grips with her roots. On another, it is rich family saga complete with impossible love affairs, family splits, regrets and, in the end, reconciliation. It is also a portrait of Tunisian history over the past century, from French rule to the Arab Spring – which the country kicked off – told through its entertainers and intellectuals.