[Fantasia 2022 Interview] Karim Ouelhaj for MEGALOMANIAC

Karim Ouelhaj, the Belgian writer, director, and producer, came to Fantasia Film Festival with his fourth feature film MEGALOMANIAC, which we reviewed here, and left with the festival’s top prize in the Cheval Noir competition. 

The festival jury, led by screenwriter and producer C. Robert Cargill (The Black Phone, Sinister, Doctor Strange) awarded MEGALOMANIAC the Best Feature prize and called the film, in a statement, “the very sort of film that festivals exist to share,” describing it as “an astonishing, brutal piece of art that challenges the audience while simultaneously saying something deeply profound.” 

Nightmarish Conjurings’ Dolores Quintana spoke to Ouelhaj about the meaning of MEGALOMANIAC, his outlook on filmmaking and our society, and his thoughts on evil, art, and the ghosts of the past.

The film gave me a lot to think about. To me, it really posed the question of who really is the megalomaniac to the viewer.

Karim Ouelhaj: Maybe it’s all of us. Maybe we are all making the same mistake again and again and we can’t get out of the evil circle. The snake that eats its own tail.

You mean the ouroboros?

Karim Ouelhaj: It is very important to me. We can’t afford to forget and humanity has a tendency to forget things. When it is a little case or big global drama, we have a tendency to forget. To forget that we are making the same mistake over and over again. For me, it is very important to say it.

I didn’t go as into the personal responsibility that we all have, but I believe that, to me, the megalomaniac is the patriarchal system that we’ve allowed to be set up, that rules everything, So it’s not just men doing horrible things to women, but that women are trained to not resist or not object as well. Was that something that you intentionally did because of the ugliness of the subject matter? The film’s imagery really reminded me of the paintings of the High Renaissance. Was that your decision as a writer to emphasize or offset the horror and the ugliness?

Karim Ouelhaj: If I had made the film with a more realistic style, it would be too hard to watch when it is too realistic. I did it on purpose also for that reason. I don’t forget that I am making cinema and I have to work within cinematic structures. The second reason is that it is my own style. I came from photography and the history of art. The painting is very important to me. I am very happy because you nailed that fact because it is pretty rare [that someone does]. My inspiration that comes from paintings is always there, in all of my projects. It is very important to shoot the ugliness of humanity in a frame like the old painter did before. The Nightmare of Fuseli, Delacroix, Velázquez, Flemish painters. Making cinema is like composing everything in a frame. It allows me to create the story into the art.

I think the film has a fairy tale feel as well, especially with the house, it seems like an old Gothic or fairy tale story. It also seems like you are pointing out the cyclical nature of the sick system that we are all involved in. It’s never going to end, unless we stop it ourselves.

Karim Ouelhaj: Life is a perpetual circle and the question is “what are we doing inside the circle?’ Here, in MEGALOMANIAC, who is the evil, who is enlightened. I am giving shape to the evil circle in the movie. Yes, why not in the Gothic manner? What is very interesting to me is the texture. I need to feel the texture. I need to feel the soul of the wall. It could have been shot with IKEA furniture but it would not be the same. It is empty. It is empty of depth.

Are you using the history of a place to help add texture and depth to the film or as part of his cinematic language?

Karim Ouelhaj: I was very lucky to find this house, and specifically, the house that I used as the indoor section of the house because there were two houses, the house that was on the outside was not the same as the house from the inside. The house that was the indoor location has a nice story because it’s the first place in Belgium, in Wallonia, where people made beer. He put some detail into it with the furniture to get what he wanted but it was very easy because it was very full of history. It wasn’t very difficult to find the soul in it.

Do you believe that cities or old houses have souls?

Karim Ouelhaj: I have filmed a lot of streets and bridges and I think that not only do they have a soul, but there is also the ghost from the past that you can feel in the dust of the world. You can’t see them, but you can feel them. I think that we don’t look and we don’t feel and we don’t smell things like our grandparents used to do, like when our ancestors could find something in the silence.

Like maybe our ancestors were more connected to the world and everything around us than we are now.

Karim Ouelhaj: Yes, this is it. For me, my job is to catch the lost soul because they have things to say.

Since the subject matter is so distressing, what was it like working with the actors as a director?

Karim Ouelhaj: When I gave the script to the actors, everything was very precise in it. When things are clear and established then the trust can be there. We can avoid useless questions and we can go to the essentials. Especially for the very tough scene, especially the scene of the rape, I only have two takes there. Because we had a lot of preparation and because we had a lot of trust in the cast and between the cast and myself, it allowed me to walk in trust and not make the cast and crew suffer for nothing.

During the film, my sympathies swung wildly to places that I didn’t think they would go. It was astonishing, so I wondered if you could elaborate on why you did that.

Karim Ouelhaj: I wanted to avoid the cliche and avoid things just being obviously good or bad and there’s nothing in the middle. I wanted to avoid that. That bad people can be good and good people can be bad. I really wanted to push that.

The film doesn’t spoon-feed it to you. It makes you go through the experience and think about how you feel about it and then makes you question why you’re feeling that way. So it was very, very successful. What do you have in mind for the future? Where do you want to go as a director from here?

Karim Ouelhaj: I really like making genre films but am open to any genre and any style. This is the story that is the most important for me. I really want to go to any forbidden territory where no one goes anymore.

Dolores Quintana
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