Commitment and Denunciation 100 Years of Tunisian Cinema

in 34th Carthage Film Festival

by Henda Haouala

The defeat of 1967, or the Six Day War or even the Palestinian Nakba marked a great turning point in the history of the Arab world. The idea of a huge pan-Arab territory dissolved, and nationalist and individual political regimes proliferated in these countries.

From then on, cinema became a tool of struggle offering topics in sync with the ideologies of the people and not those of autocrats. Young Arab filmmakers such as Algerian Mohammad Lakhdar-Hamina and Egyptian Youssef Chahine are inspired by Godard, Rossellini and Bergman, denouncing colonialism and the defeatism of Arab peoples. Nouri Bouzid even spoke of “a new aesthetic, the aesthetic of defeat”.

Tunisian cinema, for its part, has a fairly unique history. The first Tunisian films all had a political message on liberation, Tunisian resistance, feminism, ideals of success, immigration. I’m quoting, “Mokhtar” by Sadok Ben Aicha (1968), “Dawn” (El Fajr) (1966), the 1970 “Fellagas”, “Sourakh” (1972) both by Omar Khilifi, “Such a Simple Story” (1970) and “Sejnène” (1974) by Abdelatif Ben Ammar, “And Tomorrow…” by Brahim Babai produced in 1972, “The Ambassadors” by Naceur Ktari produced in 1975, “Fatma 75” by Salma Baccar.

These films demonstrate political maturity and raise ideological awareness. Since then, cinema has oscillated between an attempt at awakening and activism and a new awareness which fits with the socio-economic constraints of a country where art bows entirely to the directives of the regime in power. Making films in the late 80s and 90s under the Ben Ali regime was no easy feat, yet these years are considered the first golden age of Tunisian cinema. Films from this period took political risks due to the dictatorship in power which prevented any criticism. Tunisian filmmakers subtly bypassed screenwriting and directing to implicitly talk about critical subjects at the time. Female emancipation, the condition of women in a society structured by the patriarchy, taboos relating to the body, Tunisian cinema denounced during this period social dramas such as rape, pedophilia, adultery, prostitution but also political subjects such as the Tunisian leftist movement, political opposition, the abuse of power masked by a fragile social fabric. “The Man of Ashes” (1986), “Les Sabots en Or” (1988) by Nouri Bouzid, “Silences of the Palais” (1994) by Moufida Tlatli are but a few examples.

The years 2000 are the years of democratization for Tunisian cinema with the arrival of new technologies relating to cinematographic production and particularly filming. All kind of advancements facilitated the production of mainly documentary films. A much more intimate and more personal cinema started taking place, a trend of documentary films which did not betray the idea of commitment.

2011 was the year of the fall of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, a fall which was contagious in other Arab countries. These events have explicitly and openly shaped Arab cinema in general and Tunisian cinema in particular. From then on, a new wind began to blow over Tunisian film productions outlining a decade of rich and eventful stories.

Tunisian filmmakers did not direct the lens of their camera towards the great figures of the revolution but rather towards ordinary people who were fighting in their own way to finally find a place in this post-revolution Tunisia. Telling the stories of ordinary people would, perhaps, be a way of finding a certain balance between the great history of Tunisia, that of the revolution, and the little stories of Tunisians.

Young directors have marked their difference through the flow of “social” films. They had their say in transgressing old social and political codes to tell us about a reality that had remained hidden for a long time. Like their predecessors who marked the history of Tunisian cinema, the post-2011 new generation has “reshaped” the cinematographic landscape according to another socio-political context, certainly free, but still restrictive. A new generation of Tunisian filmmakers moved on to directing feature films in the aftermath of the revolution, thus bringing about a real change in the treatment of subjects, marking the second golden age of Tunisian cinema.

Kaouther Ben Hania, Mohamed Ben Attia, Youssef Chabbi, Hamza Ouni, Erige Sehiri, Mehdi Hmili, Mehdi Barsaoui, Alaedine Slim, Hinde Boujemaa, and many others offer new cinematographic approaches and sign films which appear as a form of opposition, focusing on subjects of injustice, corruption, the lost dream, love, family etc. These directors denounce an implicit balance of power inflicted on Tunisian citizens which has generated an unbalanced social model, oppression, all leading to suffering.

All the characters filmed over the last decade have had the desire to tell their experiences from their own point of view, to think about their present as they wish. These characters want to change their world into one that is more just in terms of law, freedom and equity. These characters have nothing intrinsically heroic; nevertheless they embody both the anguish and the hope of changing the present moment.

Through their films, each Tunisian filmmaker expressed an opinion on each of these aspects and disrupted certain cinematographic, aesthetic, and moral codes. They all told disturbing stories, disrupting the long-established (aesthetic and political) order, implicitly claiming a true desire for disruption.

Fiction or documentary, these directors never turned injustice into a spectacle but a reflection where the human being is an experience, a life, an emotion. Each of them has desecrated certain symbolisms linked to men, women, family structure, prohibitions and commitment.

Henda Haouala


in 34th Carthage Film Festival