The story of an Arab stuntman in Hollywood

When he retired from stunt work after an on-set accident, Ben Azouz said he elected to continue his cinematic career by directing documentary films.
Sunday 16/06/2019
Breathtaking journey. Former Tunisian stuntman and director Nejib Ben Azouz in Cannes, last June.  (Courtesy of Nejib Ben Azouz)
Breathtaking journey. Former Tunisian stuntman and director Nejib Ben Azouz in Cannes, last June. (Courtesy of Nejib Ben Azouz)

TUNIS - Nejib Ben Azouz is a member of an elite community of 500 stuntmen. The Tunisian stuntman specialised in automobile and motorcycle stunts for nearly two decades in front of the camera but gave up the dangerous work in 2005 and became a stunt trainer and coordinator. He has also directed several documentaries.

Ben Azouz has lived mainly in France since 1985. As a young man, he studied to be a pilot at the Aviation Academy of Borj El-Amri in Tunisia and in France. He studied film directing at the French National School of Fine Arts.

He gave up his job as a pilot to focus on his passion for work as a stuntman and body double for actors. He did that from 1985-2005, switching to directing stuntmen and working on documentaries.

“In reality, a career in aviation wasn’t my goal right from the start but perhaps I had studied for it because it was kind of very close to stunt work because of the risk factor involved,” Ben Azouz said.

“My only and unique love was stunt work and doubling so I did not complete my studies in aviation, even though I worked as assistant pilot for two years. I chose to stay on the ground for my work and soar high in cinema. This is how I blended my passion with my work.”

Cinema is a family tradition for Ben Azouz, 60. An uncle was an assistant director at the Office of French Radio and Television. Another uncle, Salih Wiza, was among the pioneering directors at the Tunisian Radio and Television in 1966. “They were the ones who ignited my love for cinema,” Ben Azouz said.

“I remember my first pay as a stunt double was in 1985 for doubling French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo in the film ‘The Professional’,” Ben Azouz said. “It was about 19,000 French francs (about $2,000) at the time. My last pay as a stuntman was 130,000 euros ($147,000) in a film directed by German director Frank Mayer for my work as a stunt coordinator for some world famous stuntmen.”

Ben Azouz, who specialised in car and motorcycle stunts, said stunt work was probably the most difficult job in cinema. Of 500 stuntmen worldwide, seven were killed on the job and many suffered serious injuries during filming.

“The stunt double definitely spares a certain death to the actor and ensures the success of the film,” he said

Ben Azouz said one of the conditions in the contract of any stuntman stipulates that neither the stuntman nor his family can sue the production company for compensation in case of death on the job. This clause is the same worldwide and an agreement to that effect is signed at the beginning of each filming. Stunt performers have medical insurance, though.

“The production of action films in our Arab world has been limited, except perhaps in recent years with the emergence of new faces such as Ahmed El Sakka, Mohamed Ramadan and others,” Ben Azouz said.

“So naturally, as a stunt double, I found my chance in international cinema. I did stunt work in films like ‘GoldenEye,’ from the famous James Bond series and which starred Irishman Pierce Brosnan. I worked also in Oliver Stone’s 1986 film ‘Platoon’ and I doubled for international film star Robert De Niro in ‘The Mission’ in the same year and in many other international films.

“In Tunisia, I participated in the TV film ‘The Spider Web’ by Mohamed Rached Belghith and in the television series ‘Ghada,’ directed by Mohamed Haj Slimane, plus some other works.”

When he retired from stunt work after an on-set accident, Ben Azouz said he elected to continue his cinematic career by directing documentary films.

He directed “Hadiqatu al-Jannen” (“The Gardener’s Garden”), “Naqshat Hadida” (“Tatoo”), “Laji’i al-Sutuh” (“The Refugees of the Roofs”) and “Al-I’aqa Imenun bi-Nafs” (“Disability is Self-assurance”) about the personal experience of a Tunisian with a disability.

He is completing a documentary film with the working title “Amazigh.” He also co-directed the musical opera “Ghanni Lil Hob Wa Assalam” (“Sing for Love and Peace”) by Tunisian artist Mokdad Shili, which was presented at the 2017 Carthage Summer Festival.

Ben Azouz said he intends to participate with “Ghanni Lil Hob Wa Assalam” at the second Tunisian Film Festival at the Culture City of Tunis.

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