Emma Benestan talks to us about her film “Hard Shell Soft Shell”: Dirty Dancing Algerian style

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Emma Benestan is the director of the film “Hard Shell, Soft Shell” (Fragile) which is part of the Screenwave International Film Festival which starts at Coffs Coast today and runs until 6 May.

Emma Benestan Hard Shell Soft Shell

We interviewed Emma Benestan about “Hard Shell, Soft Shell”. Read the interview below.


Your film Hard Shell, Soft Shell (or Fragile, the French title) will be screened at the Screenwave International Film Festival in Australia at the end of this month. How would you describe this film?

I often say, laughing, that I would say this film makes you want to be in love and to eat oysters. So, I would want to say that, quite simply.


Why did you decide to create this film?

As a French woman of Algerian immigrant background, I didn’t’ see enough positive and romantic representations of young people from this diversity, of which I am a part. I was sick of films with social themes which always treated the same problems, and I wanted to make a “Dirty Dancing Algerian Style”. To show girls who are free with themselves and boys who are who are fragile and caught up in their contradictions.

Hard Shell Soft Shell/ film Fragile


You said that Hard Shell, Soft Shellis a reverse love story. The heartbreak is felt by a man, and not a woman, to the contrary of the majority of romantic comedies”. Why did you decide to make a film about a reverse love story?

I wanted to make a reverse love story, where everything that usually happens to the female character happens to a male character because I find that the current feminism must also involve questioning male representations, which I don’t think happens often enough. It’s a real battle to be waged, and there need to be films where the men are also seen differently. Virgine Despentes, a writer, says that the injunction to virility is as strong as the assignment to a certain femininity. It is this injunction that I wanted to poke fun at with Hard Shell, Soft Shell.


Is Hard Shell, Soft Shell the first feature film you’ve written? Has COVID prevented projects?

It’s the second that I’ve written. But the first was really very different. It was a much darker film; it was about intimate issues. But I stopped writing it because it was painful. This was two years before COVID. And I wrote Fragile to go towards something lighter, sunnier and to have fun too. COVID didn’t stop Hard Shell Soft Shell because we shot between two lockdowns.


Are the characters inspired by people that you know? Are there any with similar character traits to you?

Yes, the character of the grandmother is an homage to my paternal grand-mother. Like the role of Az is really inspired by my father. He grew up in a family surrounded by women, he was the only man, and it’s someone who is very romantic and who cries easily. And I always found that beautiful and touching. Far from the usual clichés, the violent or macho North African fathers seen in most French films, which I find deplorable.


film Fragile / film Hard Shell Soft Shell

Why did you choose Sète as the location for the film?

I was born 30 minutes from Sète, I spent my adolescence there and when I went back there while location scouting, it was obvious. Oyster farmers rubbing shoulders with TV stars: only in Sète do you see that!


Hard Shell Soft Shell is your first feature film. Tell us a little about this experience in comparison to your experiences of short-film making.

Short films have allowed me to experiment with my way of working, trying to always be close to my actors, incorporating moments of improvisation and intense rehearsals. It also allowed me to meet my artistic collaborators.


Who chose the English title “Hard Shell, Soft Shell”? Why this title? Especially when the word “Fragile” exists and has the same meaning in English as it does in French?

It was the international seller who had the good idea to conduct a poll with several titles and this was the one that was chosen. I thought it really fit the film. There is the idea of delicacy, of the shell and of softness. I was very happy with it.


Tells us a little about the work that you do with the association 1000 visages? I think that Az’ friends were played by actors from this association?

I’ve conducted workshops with this association over many years with young people from working-class neighbourhoods. This experience was very strong for me because we had a lot of fun, we created lots of things on the stage, we tried things out in a relaxed way, especially with a taste for language, the body and gesture. I met many of the actors in Hard Shell Soft Shell there.

Hard Shell Soft Shell/ film Fragile


Which level of experience do the actors from 1000 visages have and what was your experience working with them on Hard Shell Soft Shell?

They all have different acting experiences, some had already done several professional shoots, others had not. But they all had a strong desire to make the film because we liked the idea of working together. It was a pleasure to work with each of them, and we really created a very close atmosphere during the shoot.


You had already worked with Oulaya Amamra (who plays Lila in the film) on your short-film Belle Gueule but how did you choose the other actors who are in Hard Shell, Soft Shell?

I knew almost all of them because they come from 1000 visages, I chose them because I wanted to film them, and after making short films with some of them as amateurs, it was important for me to continue towards a more professional film.


How long have you been interested in cinema and what made you decide to work in the field?

Every since I was little, through my father, who is a great film lover.


You’ve worked across many cinema domains… Do you have a preferred role? Did you find that working across so many different film-making domains has enriched your knowledge and allowed you to direct films differently?

Yes, of course. Especially my work as an editor. I learnt a lot from watching the dailies of the directors I worked with and that fed me a lot for my future work.


On the flipside, is it difficult to not get too involved in the other aspects when you’re directing a film and someone else is in the other film-making roles?

No, I don’t think so. It all depends on the person you’re working with. I trust the artistic collaborators with whom I work, even if of course, sometimes I am very demanding at these stages, for example with the editing. But Perrinee Bekaert, who I met on Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour has a rare delicateness and rare intelligence, and I love working with her.


Similarly, you’ve also acted yourself. Has your experience as an actor influenced your writing and directing? 

Non, because I only did it once and for a friend who thought that the role was made for me. But in the contrary, I always give.


Do you have any other films in the making?

Yes. I have a fantastic film project in Camargue that I hope to shoot next year and a series project underway.


Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about Hard Shell, Soft Shell?

I hope that people will see it and will want to be fragile too, or at or at least assume it. Jean Claude Carrière said: Yes to fragility, because it brings us closer to each other, whereas strength drives us apart.


We thank Emma Benestan very much for this interview.


Hard Shell, Soft Shell will be shown at the Screenwave International Film Festival on 29 April at Jetty Memorial Theatre.



WHAT: Screenwave International Film Festival, at which there are 13 French films, including Hard Shell, Soft Shell

WHEN: 21 April – 6 May

WHERE: Jetty Memorial Theatre, Coffs Coast, NSW

HOW: Buy your tickets via the festival website


Single ticket prices are as follows:

  • Local 245 $17.50
  • Full $21
  • Under 25 $10
  • Concession $17.50


There are also multi-film passes:

  • 6 Film Pass: $99
  • 12 Film Pass: $179
  • 20 Film Pass: $259



Read our reviews of some of the French films showing at Screenwave International Film Festival:

Beautiful Minds: an uplifting, inspiring film at Sydney Film Festival

REVIEW: Paris 13th District – a black and white story of love, lust and mistaken identity in current day Paris


If you’re interested in watching more French films, take a look at the following articles about French films you can stream at home:

Alliance Française 2020 French Film Festival films to stream/rent online

Melbourne, you don’t have to miss out on the AFFFF 2020 films!

11 French movies from the 2019 Alliance Française French Film Festival to watch on SBS on Demand

13 films from the Alliance Française French Film Festival 2021 to stream

Feel like you’ve watched all of Netflix? Ritz cinemas has 134 French films available for stream rental



Enter your email to subscribe to new article notifications about all things French and francophone in Australia

Soprano Cathy-Di Zhang stars in State Opera South Australia production Bohème on the Beach this weekend

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Soprano Cathy-Di Zhang is starring in Bohème on the Beach, a State Opera South Australia production coming to Glenelg beach for one night only, this weekend. We told you about this production a few months ago (read our earlier article about it here). Cathy-Di Zhang chats to us about the State Opera South Australia production of Bohème on the Beach.

State Opera South Australia

Bohème on the Beach is a one-off beachside State Opera South Australia performance of La Bohème, an Italian language opera set in France. Tell us a little about what audiences can expect from Bohème on the Beach next weekend.

Audiences can expect the full opera experience, but at the beach! It is a perfect opera for opera lovers and newcomers alike. We just started rehearsals and this production by the wonderful Stuart Maunder is full of life, joy and of course, love. Be prepared to laugh and cry! Simon Bruckard, incredibly talented young conductor and composer, will lead the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.


You’re in the role of Mimi in State Opera South Australia’s Bohème on the Beach. Can you tell us a little about this role?

Mimi is a young seamstress who, one magical night on Christmas Eve, meets and falls in love with her neighbour, the poor but passionate poet, Rodolfo. However, their love is complicated and Mimi is tragically ill, but this is a love story till the very end. The score is gorgeously lush and lively but it will also break you heart at the end.


Also, you played the same role in La Bohème for Opera @Stone in Berlin. How does this production differ to the Berlin production you starred in?

That production was also not in a theatre, but in a brewery! It is always a pleasure to revisit a role and to discover new things, in a new production and with new people. I’ve also never sung an opera on a beach before!


How does performing an opera outdoors, such as State Opera South Australia’s Bohème on the Beach, differ to performing in a theatre? Do you have to perform differently?

Of course, there are more challenges to performing outdoors. We are at the mercy of the elements, rain, wind, temperature, noise and so on. I remember doing an outdoor concert in a beautiful part of regional Tuscany in Summer but you couldn’t hear a thing because of the thousands of deafening crickets! We will also be mic’d of course, which is probably the biggest difference. With a mic, it allows you to do more things in a way, as you know you will always be heard, so you can experiment with vocal colours and singing very softly, but at the same time, you don’t have an acoustic to work with. Indoors, every theatre will have its own unique acoustic, which gives a certain character to the sound.

Cathy Di-Zhang
A previous outdoor performance ©uwehauth

When did you first know that you wanted to be a singer, or more specifically a soprano? What drew you to opera?

I always loved to sing, since childhood, but I never really thought about it as a career until later. I sang for myself mostly then, and I sang pop, musicals or church music, not opera. In high school, I enrolled in singing lessons after school and it just so happened that the singing tutor was an opera singer. Though we sang many other genres, she taught classical technique and she was the one who told me my voice was more suited to classical and opera. I have to say I wasn’t sure at first, but she slowly and gradually convinced me over the years to give it a go. I was sold when she took me to see my first ever opera at the Sydney Opera House when I was 20. I was stunned. I was so moved by the storytelling, the sheer power of the voice and orchestra together and also so entertained by all that was going on onstage! She told me early on that I was a lyric soprano, and she was right!


Do you come from a musical family?

Not at all! My dad was in business and my mum is an accountant.


Even though you have a long list of singing credits, you also hold a Bachelor of Commerce from UNSW. Have you ever practiced commerce, finance or accounting? Or is it a fall-back degree?

Well, I didn’t come from a musical family, and although I enjoyed singing and thought about pursuing studies in music, my parents were hesitant and encouraged me to complete a “proper” degree first. During uni, I worked as an intern at Deloitte as an auditor for the financial services sector, where I was then offered a graduate position, and I was also singing as a young artist for Pacific Opera at the same time. I realised singing was my true passion and therefore started my official training in postgraduate studies in London.


As my website is about all things French and francophone in Australia, I noted with particular interest that you undertook the Mozart Residency at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. Could you please tell us a bit about this residency and your time in Aix. Also, did you need to speak French to undertake studies there?

The Mozart Residency was one of the best experiences for me as a student singer. It was in 2013, and I had auditioned in London and then in Paris. They chose 12 singers from all over the world for a 2 week intensive at the Festival studying alongside the best, watching the best and working on all Mozart repertoire! Being one of the best Opera Festivals in the world, it is truly an international scene so it was all in English (but of course most people there could speak many languages). It was wonderful to be immersed in the French culture. Aix is one of my favourite places in the world. I returned in 2019, singing in their new production of Weill’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and spent the best month there! It has to be my favourite Summer Festival.


Cathy Di-Zhang
Cathy-Di Zhang at Solti Accademia at the Verbier Festival, Switzerland

Similarly, you’ve trained at the Verbier Academy in French-speaking Switzerland. Could you tell us a little about that training?

Yes, that was the year after in Summer 2014. I first completed the Solti Accademia in Italy and then we all went on to the Verbier Academy for more masterclasses and a concert. Again, all the best young talent were there studying, and the biggest names were there performing. I saw the most incredible performance of Berlioz: Le Damnation de Faust there. Verbier was completely different to Aix, but beautiful nonetheless, I was mesmerised by the snowcapped mountains. I hadn’t seen anything like that before then!


Last year you sang in two French language operas in Opera Australia’s Carmen and Pinchgut Opera’s Platée. Do you have a preferred language to sing in?

Yes, I did an entire national tour of Carmen for 4.5 months! It is definitely one of my most favourite operas, just so much fun to perform! I first sang in the chorus of Carmen at Glyndebourne as a student in London so I know it quite well! Platée, on the other hand, had never previously been performed here in Australia so it was such an incredible experience bringing that to life. It was a crazy French comedy and one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever done! I definitely prefer singing in French and Italian. The first concert I did coming out of COVID was a French chanson and Piaf concert for the Castlemaine Festival in Victoria, as that was what I was mostly singing for myself at home during lockdown! I love the sensuality of the French language.

Pinchgut Opera’s Platée
Photo: Brett Boardman


You’ll also be returning to Sydney’s City Recital Hall for Pinchgut Opera’s performances of French librettist Charpentier’s Médée. Tell us a little about this role?

Again, this will be an Australian first and I’m really looking forward to it. The mythological tale of the sorceress Medea is so perfect for a grand operatic tragedy and Charpentier’s five-act work is a true masterpiece. It is full of fierce characters, and is incredibly demanding musically and dramatically. I will be singing Princess Créuse, the role of the “other” woman. When Médée discovers her lover’s betrayal, she murders Créuse, and her own two children. It is going to be epic.


Other francophone places you’ve performed in include Nice (Nella for Les Azuriales Opera) and as a soloist in concerts with Ayrton Desimpelaere and the Orchestra of the Opéra de Liége – Wallonie, with Arie van Beek and the Orchestre de Chambre de Genève and with Marius Stieghorst and the Orchestre Symphonique dOrléans. Tell us a little about these experiences.

Singing in Geneva was definitely a highlight. We did an all Mozart programme at the beautiful Victoria Hall. I just stood on that stage, looked around taking in its beauty and almost forgot to open my mouth to sing! In my early days as a young singer studying in London, one of my sponsors and supporters was (the late) Jacques Dessange and his wife Sally. They loved music and I would often go to Paris or their country home with other young musicians and we would play chamber music and soirées for them, their friends and family and guests. They organised the concert I did with Marius for the Rencontres Musicales de Chaon Festival. Singing Nella in Gianni Schicchi was also memorable as we performed in the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Nice, an idyllic location. It was my second Schicchi, and in a different role, the first being Lauretta. With the Orchestra of the Opéra de Liége – Wallonie, I did two concerts in Belgium, in Namur and Brussels, as part of winning a competition there. I sang arias from bohème and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette!


You’ve also won prizes in France and in French-speaking Belgium: 2019 Grand Prix in the Concours International dArt Lyrique de Namur”; and the 2016 Audience Prize in the Les Azuriales International Singing Competition. How did your entry in these competitions come about?

Competitions and auditions are often a very important part of every young singer’s journey. They can be terrifying and seemingly torturous experiences but they really help you build nerve, teach you about dealing with and performing under pressure, and it’s a good opportunity to sing for industry figures. So I did many competitions in my student days anywhere and everywhere! I had a great experience in Namur, Belgium. I stayed with a host family there, and I still keep in touch with them till this day. They spoke very little English, so I learnt some French whilst I was there and of course, winning was a great outcome! As I progressed through the different rounds I think my host family were more nervous than I was about it all! The Les Azuriales Competition was in Nice, and the beautiful location actually took the stress out of the competition! Maybe that’s why I won the audience vote, as I was just so happy and relaxed to be there!


What’s been your career highlight so far?

Probably my last production, Platée. It was the most challenging role I’ve performed to date and it was in a completely new style for me (French baroque). But I completely fell in love with the music and we had a luxurious 6 weeks to work with the brilliant Neil Armfield and create the madness that was the show!

Cathy Di-Zhang
Image: Diana Domonkos

What sort of training do you do in the lead-up to a performance? Do you have a pre-performance ritual?

Obviously, the preparation starts a long way in advance! All the practise and vocal and musical preparation is all done before the first day of rehearsals. On a show day, I don’t have any particular rituals as I want to reduce stress as much as possible. I try to have a good long sleep the night before, and have a quiet day to conserve voice and energy. I like to revise the score and the production in my head so I feel as prepared as possible and maybe I’ll do some gentle stretching/yoga so I’m feeling physically relaxed and ready for the night ahead. A little meditation or breathing exercises to calm the nerves. I normally don’t have a heavy meal beforehand, just something light but filling, but I always go through a fair amount of sugary treats!


Who is the State Opera South Australia production Bohème on the beach best suited to?

Everyone really! La Bohème is a favourite for seasoned opera fans as well as a perfect introduction to first-time opera goers. It is such a great tragic love story that everyone can relate to and Puccini’s music alone will break your heart!


Why should people come to see State Opera South Australia’s production of Bohème on the beach?

Glenelg is such a stunning location, and with the water and the sunset, it will be an evocative backdrop for getting lost in 1930s Parisian bohemian life. There will also be giant screens capturing all the action so everyone will have a great view. Fireworks, a fantastic cast, full chorus and children’s chorus, all accompanied by the brilliant Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Definitely a unique night out to remember!


Anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks for having me!

We thank Cathy-Di Zhang for this interview.


WHAT: Bohème on the Beach by State Opera South Australia

WHERE: Glenelg Beach

WHEN: 26 March 2022

HOW MUCH: Ticket prices start at $30 for general admission tickets and go up to $160 for Premium tickets. Children under 16 years of age enter free.

Premium; $160;

A Reserve; $130;

B Reserve: $100;

C Reserve: $60,

Under 30s: $30, and

Children under 16: FREE

Corporate and Platinum packages are available via State Opera Suth Australia

HOW: Buy tickets via this link:


DURATION: 2h 30m (including 15 min interval)

Have you ever attended an outdoors opera performance before? Have you seen previous productions by State Opera South Australia?


Enter your email to subscribe to new article notifications about all things French and francophone in Australia