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Essential Viewing: Five Tunisian Films from a Postrevolutionary Perspective

[Still from Moufida Tlatli's [Still from Moufida Tlatli's "The Silences of the Palace"]

It is impossible to watch a Tunisian film today from an exclusively prerevolutionary perspective. The present historical juncture will stealthily thrust itself to center stage. Besides, the value of film does not reside solely in its appropriateness to its own historical moment of production, but equally in its relevance to other, yet to come, historical moments. It becomes highly productive, not to say inevitable, that we rethink postcolonial Tunisian film through the lenses of the revolutionary and now postrevolutionary moment. When we do, it will have become clear that several Tunisian filmmakers had creatively evaded censorship and charted a counterintuitive genealogy of rebelliousness that cannot possibly be overlooked in our effort, scholarly or otherwise, to understand the provenance, scope, and significance of what happened on January 14, 2011.

There are at least a dozen Tunisian films worth watching or re-watching after the revolution, but I will restrict my comments, in accordance to the instructions of this schematic review, to a handful of them that I believe to be fairly representative of the diverse but cohesive critical ventures of postcolonial Tunisian cinema into the broad questions of nationhood, Arabness, Islam, modernity, and democracy, as well as class, gender, and sexuality. The films listed here — Nouri Bouzid’s Man of Ashes, Férid Boughedir’s Halfaouine, Moufida Tlatli’s The Silences of the Palace, Mohamed Zran’s Essaïda, and Moncef Dhouib’s The TV Is Coming — chart a subtle genealogy of dissent from normative representations of Tunisianness in mainstream media, history, and state rhetoric. The crucial importance of these films lies in their ability to challenge the sociocultural status quo and form the basis for challenging the governmental and political state apparatus itself. The obsession with the body in Tunisian cinema bespeaks an allegorical obsession with the body politic. Dissidence is contagious: once you practice it somewhere, chances are you will practice it elsewhere, even in the realm of everyday or grand politics. This had been practically unheard of in Ben Ali’s Tunisia, until Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation and the popular uprising that broke out in Sidi Bouzid and spread across the country, and now almost everywhere in the Arab world. 

صمت القصور  The Silences of the Palace. Directed by Moufida Tlatli. 1994. 

Set in beylical Tunisia (the Hussein Dynasty of Beys 1705-1957), technically part of the Ottoman Empire but in reality a French protectorate, The Silences of the Palace travels back and forth (through the cinematic economy of the flashback) between Tunisia on the eve of independence and postcolonial Tunisia, ten years after, in order to compare and contrast the fate of the nation and that of its male and female subjects, particularly Alia, the film’s protagonist. The aim of Silences is not only to reclaim the lived experiences, and expose the unspoken sufferings, of women servants (who were practically slaves) under the beys, but also to assess the extent to which the independence of Tunisia from French colonialism has intersected with their emancipation from patriarchal bondage.

The fervent and enlightened nationalist Lotfi (Sami Bouajila) had already assured the young Alia (Hend Sabri) of this promissory future before she eloped with him on the same night that her mother died trying to abort the child resulting from her recent rape by the evil-bey-character, Si Bechir (Hichem Rostom). “You’re as indecisive as our country. One word thrills you, the next scares you,” Lotfi reproaches the young Alia, before he reassures her: “Things are going to change. A new future awaits us. You will be a great singer. Your voice will enchant everyone.” 

In the very manner that many are now questioning whether anything significant has really changed after the January 14 popular revolution in Tunisia, the adult Alia (Ghalia Lacroix) goes through that same process of questioning in the 1960s, only to find out that postcolonial Tunisia does not offer her a fate any different from that of her mother, Khedija (Amel Hedhili). After all, Lotfi proves to be more conditioned by the patriarchal constrains that sealed Alia’s fate as an illegitimate child than by his idealistic vision of a free Tunisia uninhibited by the past.

After presenting the viewer with a series of extended flashbacks that recapture Alia’s story in screen memory style (oscillating comparatively between past and present), the film ends ambivalently, with Alia finally apprehending the extremity of her mother’s suffering and addressing herself to her mother in a moving inner monologue, expressive of both Alia’s entrapment and her defiance: “I thought Lotfi would save me; I have not been saved. Like you, I’ve suffered, I’ve sweated. Like you, I’ve lived in sin. My life has been a series of abortions; I could never express myself; my songs were stillborn. And even the child inside me Lotfi wants me to abort. This child, however, I feel has taken root in me; I feel it bringing me back to life, bringing me back to you. I hope it will be a girl; I’ll call her Khedija.”

Alia’s decision to keep the baby can be seen as a signal of a better and more fruitful future, different from the abortive past she had, but it is simultaneously a future past in the sense that it is in the end nothing but a reenactment of her mother’s past, insofar as her mother brought Alia up as an illegitimate child. Alia’s choice not to obey Lotfi, however, is not something that her mother could have possibly chosen, let alone exercised. Here it becomes clear that Alia’s childhood rebelliousness against her mother’s obeisance to the beys has served her well in her subsequent rebelliousness against Lotfi. Not only that: her courage to break the wall of silence regarding what’s going on outside the palace and sing the forbidden national anthem in the midst of Sara’s engagement party is at once a vindication of national and female self-determination. 

ريح السّد  Man of Ashes. Directed by Nouri Bouzid. 1986.  

Film plays for Moufida Tlatli the same role as music in The Silences of the Palace plays for Alia: a means of expression and empowerment. Alia’s scream after she witnesses Si Bechir rape her mother comes to us muted, not because it is less of a scream, but because in order for a scream to be a scream it needs to be heard and acknowledged. The muted scream puts the viewer on the qui vive for any signals or instances of injustice that might go unnoticed because of lack of vigilance and empathy on our part, and not necessarily because of the lack of a means of expression on the part of the originator of the scream. The organizing principle of narrative in Silences is the following question: Does a scream that was not heard count? This very same question was also broached by Nouri Bouzid in his directorial début, Man of Ashes, as the protagonist of the film searches in vain for an empathic ear capable of listening to the story of his childhood rape by his master carpenter.

Man of Ashes is about two childhood friends, Hachemi (Imad Maalal) and Farfat (Khaled Ksouri). The former is about to tie the knot while the latter is kicked out of his father’s house following the swirl of rumors, gossip, and street graffiti that call his manhood into question. When they were apprenticed youths, Hachemi and Farfat were molested by their carpentry mentor, Ameur (Mustafa Adouani); they both grew up indelibly marked and bound together by this secret trauma. Now that this traumatic and tragic episode has come back to haunt them, they find themselves frantically scrambling for a final exit. There follows an account of their obsessions with and anxieties over their virility, masculinity, and manhood within an allegedly heterosexual community they can neither desert from nor reintegrate into.

Bouzid shrewdly broaches the question of homosexuality in Tunisia (and in the Arab Muslim world more generally) through the crime of child molestation. The film not only exposes the naturalized hypocrisy and moral vagaries of a society in which homosexual panic overrides pederasty, but also distinguishes unequivocally between masculinity and manhood, on the one hand, and between homosociality and homosexuality, on the other. The bond between Hachemi and Farfat is homosocial and not homosexual. Bouzid is interested in raising the question of homosexuality in order to challenge sexual heteronormativity, but he is also interested in underscoring the extent to which homosexual panic has come to undermine homosocial bonds in Arab societies. In the brothel scene at the end of the film, for instance, homosocial desire quickly gives way to homosexual panic which, in turn, gives way to the reassertion of normative heterosexuality, best illustrated by the rivalry between Farfat and Azaiez (Mohamed Dhrif) to sleep with one of the prostitutes.

While Tlatli’s film straddles colonial and postcolonial times, Bouzid’s film situates itself squarely in postcolonial Tunisia and in the post-1967 Arab world, where the culture of defeat (and defeatism) became rampant. Bouzid’s main interest is to examine how Hachemi’s and Farfat’s generation was penetrated by adult violence and its enduring psychic demarcations in the very same manner that Palestine was raped and dispossessed by Israel following the 1967 Six Day War. By staging broken and defeated individuals to Tunisian audiences, Bouzid not only makes it possible for viewers to identify with and distance themselves from those individuals on the screen, but also — and simultaneously — to offer viewers an opportunity to immunize themselves against the psychology of defeat and the state apparatuses that perpetuate it. In the final analysis, the cinematic tendency to grapple with and visualize the experience of defeat becomes, indirectly, the basis for fostering strategies of empowerment.

عصفور السطح  Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces. Directed by Férid Boughedir. 1990.

Toward the end of Man of Ashes, Farfat kills Ameur, exacting a long overdue vengeance on the man who “initiated” him sexually and professionally. Interestingly enough, however, while the plan to kill Ameur was premeditated, it is only carried out following Farfat’s sexual encounter with one of the prostitutes in the brothel. After raising the question of homosexuality, the film seems to settle for normative heterosexual practice as the midwife to Farfat’s manhood, revenge, and freedom from the trammels of the past. Farfat has at last become what he wanted to be at the beginning of the film, “a rooftop bird”: at the very same time that he is portrayed in the film’s finale running away from the police, jumping in front of a moving train and hopping across rooftops, the graffiti that called his manhood into question is shown being erased. While the film ends with Farfat’s ultimate conformity to a conservative and patriarchal apparatus of manhood, its goal is to expose and critique it rather than to reenact and reinscribe it. The same can be said about Férid Boughedir’s Halfaouine, where the rituals of becoming man in patriarchal society are unraveled in greater detail and in a far lighter register than in Man of Ashes.   

Halfaouine is the story of Noura (Selim Boughedir), a boy going through the trials of puberty and trying to reconcile the demands of his body to those of the social body, and vice versa. Not infrequently, he gets confused about what he wants and what is wanted from him by those around him, and thus he finds himself attempting to reconcile irreconcilables. For instance, his impatience to join the club of men is matched only by his eagerness to retain the privileges of childhood, namely accompanying his mother to the women’s hammam to gaze at local beauties and satisfy his growing sexual curiosity. Boughedir assembles an inventory of the different steps involved in Noura’s becoming man, which include circumcision, the banishment from the women’s hammam, and, above all, sex. Little wonder, then, that Noura’s first sexual experience with an orphan-girl servant leads immediately to his revolt against his father, Si Azzouz (Mustapha Adouani), which is a signal of his triumphant resolution of the oedipal struggle and mastery of the fear of castration — really, his ascension to manhood (qua masculinity/virility).

The importance of Halfaouine from a postrevolutionary perspective lies not only in Noura’s ability to break through all the spatial and gendered boundaries that regiment the private and the public (which is never more to be desired than in the political life of a police state where secrecy is of the essence of governance), but also in his exposure to political dissidence as an indispensable component of responsible manhood. Noura witnesses the arrest of Salih (Mohammed Driss), an unmarried cobbler, playwright, and musician and a public opponent of Habib Bourguiba’s obsolete dictatorship, particularly in the 1980s, when Bourguiba’s health deteriorated and his neurotic obsession with power bordered on psychosis. It bears mentioning here that the scene in which Noura asks Salih, “When does one become a man?” is followed immediately by a scene in which Noura helps Salih to stand on an overturned bucket in order to cross out the graffiti on the wall that reads, “Our Leader’s idea is all that matters,” and to write above it, “Our idea is all that matters and without a Leader.” This is an apt and prophetic qualification of the recent Tunisian revolution.

السّيدة  Essaïda. Directed by Mohamed Zran. 1996.

Mohamed Zran’s directorial debut, Essaïda, delves into the living conditions of a popular neighborhood (Essaïda, part of the bidonville around Tunis) to expose the sociopolitical reality of Tunisia in the mid-1990s at a time when it entered de facto into the global economy by signing an association agreement with the European Union. The neoliberal restructuring of the economy, however, aggravated rather than resolved the problem of unemployment and fostered a culture of corruption, crime, and cronyism that affected all Tunisians, except the very few at the top who were its beneficiaries. The film starts with a chance encounter in downtown Tunis between Amine (Hichem Rostom), a painter in search of a source of inspiration, and Nidal (Chadli Bouzayen), a wretched youngster begging for money. Nidal’s gaze, which condenses Essaïda’s (and Tunisia’s) many stories of poverty, pain, and suffering, captivates the attention of Amine such that he offeres Nidal money to draw portraits of him. Eventually, Amine moves on to live in Essaïda in order to experience firsthand life in a popular neighborhood where poverty, crime, and unemployment prevail. As if immersing himself completely into the world of Nidal and Essaïda would not be complete simply by relocating there, Amine breaks up with Sonia (Myriam Amarouchene), his fiancée, who drives a fancy car and lives in Carthage, insulated from the everyday actualities of the lives of the majority of Tunisians.

As an engaged filmmaker, Zran finds in Amine the painter a mouthpiece for the expression of his own cinematic preoccupations and, in his portraits (especially his final portrait of the entire neighborhood), an apt metaphor for his own socialist realist portrayal of Essaïda in the film. By making Amine descend from his Carthage ivory tower where he lived with his fiancée, Zran is not only advocating that art should return to social reality, but also decrying how out of touch artists, not to mention the politicians in Palace Carthage, have become with what is going on both at the margins of the capital and also at the margins of the coastal cities, in the interior and southern parts of Tunisia, where the latest protests that led to Ben Ali deposition started.

Zran’s Essaïda takes us on a disturbing journey through the life of Nidal, a downtrodden youth, chronically beaten by his father and ostracized by his peers, as he begs, steals, and eventually kills to make money. There is nothing special about Nidal, Zran seems to suggest: he is every Tunisian youth insofar as he dreams of a better life. Nidal might be a bit eccentric to aspire to be smuggled into the United States rather than into Italy or France (both of which he thinks are full of Arabs already), but we cannot fail to read in his gaze the bitterness and adversity of life in Essaïda, life in Ben Ali’s Tunisia.  

This bitterness is best captured at the end of the film. Chased by the police for murdering a cabdriver, Nidal deserts his motorbike and climbs up a tall, high-voltage steel tower and starts screaming out loudly at the crowds pleading with him to come down: “I’m fed up with you, do you not hear me? I’m going to die here in front of you and you will all be relieved. I want to live. I’m fed up, fed up.” In the end, Nidal shows compliance with his pleading father and starts descending from the tower, only to accidently fall (or deliberately jump) to certain death. Zran’s Essaïda paints a bleak vision of Ben Ali’s Tunisia which, needless to say, has proven prophetic in the wake of Mohammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Sidi Bouzid. Even while the film had prophesied and cautioned about Bouazizi’s suicidal protest through Nidal’s, it is tragically ironic that its full lesson had not been learned. It is disturbingly ironic that that lesson has still not yet been learned in postrevolutionary Tunisia, and that several young men have already committed suicidal acts to protest against the practices of an interim government that keeps wheeling out the tools of the past (all the practices of Ben Ali’s police state) in order to thump popular insurrection and grievances.      

التّلفزة جايّة  The TV Is Coming [La télé arrive]. Directed by Moncef Dhouib. 2006.  

Moncef Dhouib’s The TV Is Coming came out in 2006, the very same year that Tunisia was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its independence from France. While a celebratory mood runs throughout the film, the main thrust of director Dhouib is clearly to poke fun at the rosy rhetoric of state nationalism and the ways in which mainstream media (here, TV and radio) has become the vehicle (and as such the engineer) of a false and fabricated reality that boasts of democracy, stability, and prosperity. Not even a remote village in the interior of the country by the name of El-Malga (where the film is set) is immune to the poison of simulated happiness, overall festivity, and enthused consent to support and serve the powers-that-be in Palace Carthage. 

The satirical unfolding of the plot of the film is set in motion following a phone call, from a top official in the capital, informing Fitouri (Ammar Bouthelja), the leader of the village’s cultural committee, that a German TV crew would be coming for a visit within a month. We later learn that the German crew is coming to make a documentary about the mortal scorpions of North Africa in the hope of finding a vaccine, but Fitouri thinks that they will be making a documentary about the village. The entire film hinges on this miscommunication, which is not revealed to viewers until the very end. The scramble by the cultural committee to primp itself for the imminent visit, however, becomes symptomatic of the ways in which the official rhetoric of postcolonial Tunisia dissimulates its moral bankruptcy and simulates colorful images of stability and prosperity for both local and foreign consumption. In no small measure, this is the poison for which Ben Ali’s Tunisia did not bother looking for a cure, instead letting it spread to the entire country until it had gone out of control and taken Bouazizi’s and many other innocent lives.  

When, at the beginning of the film, a Tunisian official makes a visit to the village on National Tree Day, he is presented with various kinds of bribes, which he declines (to the dismay of the villagers). The German crew, however, is served differently: they are presented with a version of Tunisian history that is friendly to euro-sensibilities and therefore sanitized from any forms of offensive authenticity. Hence, a Sufi group is, for instance, instructed to clean up its act and not follow its own singular path of dances and trances, and the owner of a local café full of jobless villagers is instructed to host fake book and newspaper readers in order to give a good and positive impression about El-Malga (and by implication Tunisia) to the Europeans.  

The film is saturated with jokes and comic encounters, but its ultimate goal is didactic and critical. It exposes how Tunisian officialdom was able to produce and disseminate a totally falsified image of Tunisia to both Tunisians and non-Tunisians alike while unemployment, corruption, and national disillusionment were briskly pushing the country to the brink of insurrection. The satiric comic register has commonly been used by playwrights and comedians in postcolonial Tunisia to evade state censorship and deliver sociopolitical critique. Dhouib’s film is no exception. The risks attached to this register are common: neither the message nor the messenger would be taken seriously. Both, however, were dead serious. Tunisia’s future rulers (or servants) should know better now.

[Editors' Note: Building on our "Essential Readings" series, "Essential Viewing" asks contributors to choose a list of must-see films and videos related to a variety of topics. These are not meant to be comprehensive lists, but rather starting points for further viewing.

Nouri Gana, who has authored this list for us, has published widely on modernist, postcolonial and comparative Arab literatures and cultures; Arab film; comparative ethnic, Muslim and Arab diasporas studies; narrative poetics; and psychoanalysis and deconstruction. Links to his work on Tunisan, Palestinian, and Arab Canadian film can be found here, here, and here.]

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