Behind the Scenes: Sabrina Bellaouel & Sarah Al Atassi talk about “Arab Liquor” video

In a nightclub somewhere between “The Matrix” and “A Thousand And One Nights”, Sabrina Bellaouel is partying with her female harem. Sabrina wrote the track about her experiences working as a waitress in a London Shisha Bar, and the video director Sarah Al Atassi flips the focus on female empowerment, intimacy and the free expression of femininity. A futuristic harem freed from societal shackles.

© La Main Productions

Sabrina, Sarah, in the video to Sabrina’s song “Arab Liquor” that you both worked on together, we can see numerous nods to Matrix-influenced sci-fi. In the Matrix, it is revealed that the life we think we know is actually based on codes written by those in control. Are the both of you, in your respective art forms, trying to rewrite those codes?

Sabrina: One hundred percent. That reference has many levels. First off: I am a huge fan of the Matrix, all of the movies – right down to the anime spin-off. Secondly, I also am a coder, and in the movies, there is this theme of being „awakened“: There is a program, an entity controlling everything, but you have the ability to unplug yourself from it once you have awoken. That idea feels incredibly real to me.

Sarah: For me, creation is visceral in nature since art is essential to humankind. It goes beyond everything, starting with our very existence on earth and all the codes – of virtue or vice – built by humans over time to condition it. And as an artist, I cannot create but by inscribing my work within my actual condition. My projects are based on concrete issues directly connected with the system that governs our civilized societies. This is how I proceeded to get into “Arab Liquor”. As for my other works, I first approached the collaboration with Sabrina by taking into account these codes of social reality but considering them in relation to the personal intention she wanted to share through this music video dear to her heart. When I grasp the essence of her own desire with a conscious distance freed from mundane shackles, I fully immersed myself in it too, and instantly began my reflexion on filmmaking taking care to take a step back – or rather forward! – from these regressive codes to honor Sabrina’s message as faithfully as possible (designing, among other directing considerations, the aesthetic universe of the video in line with her retro-futuristic and favorably progressive vision).

More broadly, I would say that I try to act without focusing on the obstacles but rather on the possible virtues. Whoever is in command of authority, I like to question the moral sense of the limits set by law, especially through my work as a filmmaker. And this is precisely such an approach that allows my life journey to free itself from predefined and imposed codes which are, to say the least, toxic towards the equality of rights between wo·men.

How did you end up working these themes into the video that we can see today?

Sabrina: The video is a fairytale of a futuristic club where Arabic women like ourselves are free to enjoy themselves, our culture. We wanted to portray a different type of awakened women.

Sarah: I worked out the story following Sabrina’s editorial line and wrote the plot like a movie script as a point of encounter between Arab traditions and an otherwise modern, even anticipatory, perspective. I wanted to place this contemporary observation in the direct continuity of the ever-changing oriental history and culture. By focusing primarily on the emancipation of women in all their diversity. In my opinion, women of Arab origin, whether Muslim or not, are first and foremost human beings who should unconditionally enjoy the same rights as any man. The imaginary “Arab Liquor” nightclub thus represents a proposal for feminine freedom designed to give pride of place to entertainment in complete privacy. A shisha only reserved for women in favor of their emancipation. Where the laws of the virilist harem version have given way to those of the female hammam. Long live Girl Power!

The world of the “Arab Liquor” video for you two is a vision of a possible utopia, then?

Sabrina: Yes, maybe. Because we are trying to break the codes, we are trying to create a new program. We all know the codes of the club: alcohol, dancing, drugs, lights. But the girls with me in the video are my tribe, my sisters, and we are living our future.

Sarah:  I wanted to create an unreal but welcoming space:  A safe place of leisure that every woman could identify with, beyond time, geography and any restriction of freedoms. To design such a haven of peace, I worked on the representation of inter-feminine solidarity and kindness that Arab female communities come to seek when they meet in the hammam, this cosy and intimate cocoon. By using warm colors and a vaporous atmosphere, I wanted to show how body care is the basis of healthy soul. The veil of smoke that immerses the party girls in a soothing cloud thus symbolizes their modesty and signs their desire to preserve self-privacy. In this sense, the video aims to thwart the clichés of domination linked to patriarchy so as to stage a chic pajamas party in the Matrix atmosphere style but in an oriental way in which sorority rhymes with equality and where women make themselves beautiful for none other than themselves.

The video is packed with those details and codes, some that are obvious and others that are only recognized if you know what they are referring to. How did you get those details right?

Sabrina: We carefully selected the brilliant people working with us. The styling was done by Leila Nour Johnson, a young French-Afghani designer. She’s a boss, on point. The clothes she designed for us are traditionally men’s clothes from the region around Afghanistan, the Salwar Kamiz, and she turned them into women’s clothes. She worked with fine materials like silk, material that is close to the body yet flowing. They are sensual clothes, not sexual clothes.

The long coat I wear, a mix of denim and a Djellaba, a tradition North-African dress, was made by Algerian designers (Pickloz brand) and is also such a clever mix of the traditional and the futuristic.

Not to mention the stunning jewelry.

Sabrina: Exactly. The original and unique creations jewelry were made by Berberism, also from Algeria, Kabylia: she mixes her own, new design with old materials, items and symbols. I wanted to very clearly represent the cultures we are representing. I wanted everyone to know. But I also wanted them to know that we are not only representing those cultures.

We also just wanted to shout out some of those young designers creating exciting these new visions. We wanted to make a point of awakened sisters supporting each other, working together, starting something together.

Sarah: Like Sabrina, I’m more than proud to work with diversity artists and, for Arab Liquor, I did not hesitate for a single second to bring together the precious team that has been involved with me since „Fist“ („Prends mon poing“ in French), my first meaningful movie released in 2017. So now I see the quality of a successful collaboration essentially based on the skills, more authentic than purely technical, that each contributor invests in the creation of such a collective work. My dear post managers such as (to name a few of them), DOP, script supervisor, costume supervisor, makeup artist and head decorator are all powerful women! On the „Arab Liquor“ set, the team was consequently made up with a majority of women of over 80%. As a direct consequence, I owe the professional legitimacy of my work as a filmmaker in part to the loyalty and talent of my core female team!

Sarah, I would like to know more about some of the specific symbols and practices of the harem in the video like lokums, incense, shisha. What was your twist on how they are represented?

Sarah: Although I am of French nationality, I grew up with a lush mixed cultural heritage due to the French-Syrian union of my parents (my father left his native Middle East territory at the age of 21, bringing with him a baggage full of faith and history which clearly influenced the education he passed on to my brothers and me). And as an independent, queer, and punk artist, I wanted to revisit the codes inherent in my father’s culture in order to adapt them to my openly inspired personality but nevertheless marginal compared to certain traditions associated with Arab woman figure. That’s why I transposed the customs you mention through an offbeat aesthetic, tailor-made to match the futuristic DNA of Sabrina’s vision. Among other works, I was inspired by the visual aesthetic of Nicolas Winding Refn’s cinema, which gives the narrative background a dimension outside of space-time.

So Sabrina, it sounds like you had a moment of awakening like Neo did in the Matrix in your own life.

Sabrina: I actually did. It came right after I started studying astrology, which opened up a new kind of metaphysical thinking for me. I found out about eternity – that the end of our physical bodies is not the end of our lives. That gave me a new perspective, a new sense of faith.

I have my own philosophy, one that transcends all religions that I have encountered. There is a uniting philosophy, an order to the universe of god. Or, if you will, a code. And maybe like in the Matrix, our life is a series of tests, and when you pass them, you get to move on, to unplug. In order to succeed, you have to learn. If you don’t, you try again.

And your mission in life, now that you have awakened, is the journey of music?

Sabrina: Exactly, and it’s about my influence on others, on following generations or even on young girls. Of course, I have to question my message before sending it out, and that’s what we did with this video. I wanted to positively influence others to listen to their own voices, to find their own truth. You can create your own program that a lot of people can subscribe to

Sarah, I know that you had a moment of awakening yourself – the moment you decided to work as an independent film maker. Can you tell us more about it and how has that moment led you to creating this video?

Sarah: When Sabrina and her label formalized my participation in the “Arab liquor” adventure, I was delighted and even more stimulated by this collaboration given the position of Sabrina, aware and resonant, towards the rights and social issues of women today, especially those from an Arab background (whether Muslim or not) who ended up assimilating Western values alongside their native north African or Middle-Eastern culture. As a self-taught filmmaker, I made myself on my own.

To answer more precisely, I would say that I gained self-confidence in early 2018, when the quality of my work was praised by the cinema industry (via the selection in official competition of “FIST”, my first funded movie project, in the prestigious Clermont-Ferrand short film festival).

Consequently, how much of your own empowerment do we see in “Arab Liquor”?

Sarah: Since I seized the right to express myself on the same basis as other male directors in this competitive sector, I fully assumed my vision of art and deployed my personal style unconditionally! Using cinema as a militant duty to speak about unusual — but nevertheless major — themes through a striking and openly hybrid signature. This same intention guided my work on “Arab Liquor” as well. I drew my inspiration from Sabrina’s will as an opportunity to highlight women empowerment by enhancing their authentic and sensitive strength. On a personal level, I came out stronger after this unique (and epic!) experience made of the collective passion and conviction.

Sabrina has spoken about an evolution from her Muslim upbringing to a personal awakening and a new sense of religious self. Is that something you can identify with yourself? Is that aspect of your life visible in the video you created together?

Sarah: Coming from a poor neighborhood in the south east of France, my mother has modest and mixed roots (her blood being more Italian than French), as for my father’s origins which were just as disadvantaged to him. Like a cliché of the foreigner who immigrated to Europe for higher studies but quickly aborted his life plan because of his precarious situation unsuited to his aspirations. I grew up accordingly, in the middle of the countryside, a conservative region near Tours. When I was young, it was not easy for me to assimilate the deep and shining meaning of my fatherly origins. It’s not so much that I didn’t see their value, but rather that I barely accepted them… Not easy to build yourself in a pro-white and narrow-minded environment regarding foreign cultures (failing to speak of “immigration”, especially Arab immigration from Middle East). But today, I am proud of the values my father passed on to me, including those in line with his faith in Islam. My atheism of yesteryear has turned into a spirituality dear to my life and art journey. A dimension that goes beyond everything and without which I could not have braved so many obstacles. So I hope that the faith I invest in my work is perceptible by sensitive souls, whether they share it or not. In conclusion, “Arab Liquor” has definitely left a significant mark on my committed career. I’m grateful for this. May this vivid and vibrant video find its audience in peace and love!