Cinema, Revolution and Other Issues

in 23rd Carthage Film Festival

by Khalil Damoun

On your way to Tunisia, after the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ as Tunisians want to call it, many questions come to your mind, especially if you have lived this revolution only from some distance away through the media channels. Things heard are not like things seen in situ as it is said. Things that you watch on TV in vitro may be different from those that you see in vivo.

As you get off the plane and step forward onto the ground of Carthage airport, where the deportation plane of the former president Ben Ali took off, you find yourself really at the heart of the revolution. As you are heading towards your hotel, as a first reminder, a voice-over comes out from the radio: the frame of reference of the broadcast discourse has changed. It is no longer November 7th but January 14th. At this very moment, you become convinced that you are breathing a fresh air in Tunis. As you cast your eyes around and you see the roads and buildings you notice that many statutes have been demolished and others are still in the process. The graffiti scrawled on walls glorify the revolution and freedom and bear witness to the spirit of the deceased Bouzizi whose image haunts peoples’ imagination more than anything else, to the extent that the date of revolution has become a matter of controversy: is it the death of the martyr Bouzizi or the day of the departure of Benali? This very question was frequently raised by the persons interviewed in Mohamed Zirn’s documentary, The Nation Wants (Aluma turid); the film that he presented at the 24th edition of the Carthage festival, the first post-revolution edition.

How do the days of the Carthage festival look like after the revolution? What are the tones and shades of colors of the films? What is the taste and nature of the cinematographic discourse now that a new staff has taken over the administration of the festival? This is a new administration within which enthusiasm fuses with amateurism, whether in scheduling, selecting the members of the arbitrating committee or in the organization of conferences. There is also an attempt to involve, without exclusion, all bodies, institutions and organizations operating in the sector of cinema. The challenge is huge and the focal question is: How is it possible to conduct the festival with the least possible losses in this transition period that the country is going through?

The advent of the festival represents in itself a great event as all the state institutions are still in the course of reestablishment and the Tunisian people are still sensing their way towards the ideal formula that would enable them to get out of the stalemate. It is worth noting here that in such conjuncture, cinema generally figures not as a top priority but rather lags far at the bottom of the list, but Tunisians palpably proved that the cultural component is part and parcel of the revolution. More than that, they were very keen on making this post-revolution session of the festival a real success as it is revealed by the huge number of the attendees; all the cinemas have been completely full at all times.

In the 13 cinemas, from 11am to 11pm, youths and adults flooded in thus making it sometimes difficult for us to get into the screenings. Without the badge showing our status as members of the arbitration committee, we would not have been able to get into the cinemas on time. What was new in this post-revolution edition was that there were no police squads in the cinemas, and the security of the premises was assigned to the festival organizers and their assistants as well as to some other cultural clubs. This led now and then to some clashes at the entry gate. What was heart-warming was the presence in mass of women, whether veiled or not, in the cinemas as their number doubled the number of men. We can say that all the cinemas attracted a wide public, both refined and educated, which made it possible to conduct the films projection in the most favorable conditions possible. This at a time when the Tunisian cinema in general is going through a period of stagnation and people are turning away from cinemas as a result of the tough micro-conditions through which the Tunisian cinema is going through on the one hand, and because of the macro-conjuncture the country is experiencing on the other hand. The reaction of the audience and media representatives was vociferous and revolutionary when the projection of the film by Nouri Bouyzid, I Won’t Die (Man Moutch) was hindered by a technical defect obliging the organizers to delay it until the following day. It was a defect in the digitalization of the film; a digitalization which is nowadays permeating cinema. It was possible for the projectors to decipher the code of the film only after contacting the production company outside the country. After this event, an atmosphere of confusion and uneasiness reigned over the projection program during the first two days.

However, in general, in spite of the difficult general conditions through which the country is going, it is worth attesting that the specificity of the Carthage cinema days with their openness to both the Black continent and the Arab world were spared and maintained. More than that, we can say that the spirit of the virtuous Bouzizi haunted all projections and his presence was the norm in all meetings and not the exception. As time slipped by, we saw how Tunisians pave their way towards the defense of freedom of opinion and freedom of invention in a space where everyone remains open to dialogue and ready to accept the opinions of the others.

Films from the Heart of the Revolution

The revolution, the mentality of revolution and the enthusiasm of revolution …, all these were present in the officially competing films. The projection started with the inaugural film by Mohamed Zirn, The Nation Wants or Get out of Here (Degage); a strong film which gives voice to all social categories which took part in the revolution, i.e. the modest social classes which revolted for a loaf of bread, for dignity. In this film, Mohamed Zirn manages to harmoniously combine what is documentary – non-fictional motion pictures – recorded in person during the revolution with other broadcast reports. He succeeds in perfectly and intelligently wrapping the materials to the extent that spectators become able to make a difference between what was fornicated by the media and what really happened in very specific areas in Sidi Bouzid, notably in the abodes of Bouzizi’s family and neighbor’s. They are able to apperceive how the revolutionary wave swept over from Sidi Bouzid to the heart of the capital, whether at a breakneck pace whenever the clashes increase or at a slower pace during the interviews.

Nouri Bouzid in his film I Won’t Die was faithful to himself as he followed the same model of his previous films by opting for the themes of the defense of women and arts. But this time, his backdrop was the revolution and its arenas where the youth can be seen, days and nights, in roads or alleys, preparing their defense against the police attacks. Nouri Bouzid also builds up in parallel relationships between Zeineb and Aicha on the one hand and between these two girls and their boyfriends on the other hand. These relationships are consolidated by the revolution, as the two girls aspire to free themselves from their family shackles, especially from the veil imposed on them; this veil that the two men exploit by opportunism so as to meet some of the revolutionary trends. After several violent clashes between the two girls and their families – clashes parallel to the streets skirmishes -, the two girls succeed thanks to their bravery and their love of life triumphed. Meanwhile, Nouri Bouzid, however, addresses a severe warning to the revolution against the steep slope to which it may be drawn especially if it lends hands to the enemies of revolution. Yusri Nasrallah, through his film After the Event, transports us to the heart of the Egyptian revolution, to the Tahrir square and its known spaces, drawing upon actual scenes and others built up by his own imagination but with an emphasis on the horse and camel cavalries who attacked the protesters in the Tahrir square. Throughout the film, we discover that the tourists’ guides who used to transport and accompany tourists to the Pyramids and other monuments turn out to be jobless overnight with the advent of the revolution and thus are used by the authorities in power without even knowing where they are going.

We also find in this film an ambiguous liaison between two women. The first comes from the heart of the capital; she is liberal and works in the advertising sector; she wants to obtain divorce from her husband; she enthusiastically takes part in the revolution and draws crowds of supporters. The second comes from the outskirts of the city; she is married to one of the cavalrymen who took part in the attack against the demonstrators; she is the mother of two boys and lives in wretched poverty at the mercy of her husband. The two women cement a relationship which pops up transparent in some instances and ambiguous in others. Through this relationship, the film producer unfolds to us some of the factors which underpin the revolutionary implosion in the middle social classes whose members have more and more difficulty to breathe in an environment overwhelmed by a multileveled social hypocrisy. This is what forces the girl of the city to seek the protection of the girl from the outskirts and leads them to unite their efforts for the common purpose of blowing up an inflammable situation.

Films on the Margin of the Revolution

Mahmoud Benmahmoud came with his film The Teacher (AlUstad) not very far from the pre-revolution atmospheres as he calls into question and condemns another pre-revolution period, by tracing back the reign of Bourghiba. The teacher is a character who belongs to the university campus but who does not venture much outside the wings of the power stage. He falls deeply in love with one of his supervisees who is preparing her Ph.D. We learn that he is destined to take the office of Minister of Human rights when he pleads on behalf of his student who turns out to be convicted of conspiracy with foreigners and threatening the security of the state. The teacher prefers jail over other enticements including the return to his family and his wife. This is a clear hint to the reality of the engaged intellectual. However, the film with its scenario, its fuzziness and the precipitated happy and improvised ending plunges us into an intellectual and cinematographic chaos added to a disproportionate number of live dialogues either at the meetings of the human rights association or at the teacher’s home.

Mizrak in his turn calls into question the pre-revolution period through his film The Repenter (a’taib). The ‘repenter’ belongs to the banned Islamist groups but responds to the call for national civil concord in Algeria. He returns to reintegrate society anew but this society will definitely reject him as the past injuries are not yet healed. There is at least one person missing or disabled in each abode.

The ‘repenter’ has to face a man and his wife who lost their daughter, a victim of the Islamist group. They entice him with money so as to show them the way to their daughter’s grave. On their way to the tomb, a series of events occur thus revealing that no conciliation is possible between who is not reconcilable. When they reach the grave, and begin excavating the corpse, and mourning over, shots are fired and the film ends.

It is a pitch-black film whose actors are confused and lost at the same time; actors who behave as if serving an ever-lasting sentence, psychologically torn between memories of the past and the impossible future aspirations, especially Rachid, the ‘repenter’. He has such a personality that, when he repents, he becomes a persona non grata; a person who flees death on the mountains’ edges for another death within society. Even the places where he habitually goes are engirdled places where one can but suffocate.

Rachid Belhaj in his turn follows suit in his film Perfumes from Algeria through an imagined famous character who lives in France but returns to Algeria to witness how things are turning out in his country. His sudden desire to avenge himself on those who have been behind his exile represents a vociferous reference to the bloody period that Algeria went through during the nineties – a period during which everything was burnt out, the good and the bad.

If the places where the characters of Mizrak spend their time are pitchy black and enclosed, those of Belhaj’s are open and rich and evokes the richness of the heritage and architecture of the Algerians, added to the refinement of their personalities and their great enlightenment.

Films Remote from Revolution

Far from the world of revolution, other films come to light thanks to their brilliant scenarios. At the forefront we find Going Out to the Day (Al Khuruj ila annahar) by the young Egyptian film producer, Hala Loutfi, who manages to produce a real cinematographic master-piece characterized by an outstanding capacity to bring into pictures the feelings of boredom and loss. She depicts the life of a small family composed of a man lying on his bed in a coma-like state and a wife, very thin and with pallid complexion, who spends her time complaining about the unhealthy condition of her husband, and a teenage daughter, neither beautiful nor ugly, who spends her time looking after her mother and her unending desires and taking caring of her father who is about to pass away.

In this dead film, the cameraman moves as if observing all the movements of the three characters inside the house, as if he were in the shoes of the angel of death following every move and motion of these persons who seldom communicate. With its circular movement within a limited space the film remains so repugnant that it gives the impression that it has been deliberately done to trigger the feelings of anger and uneasiness among the audience. No sooner does the cameraman step outside the house with the girl than we breathe a sigh of relief, but for a short time as she gets lost anew in a night which has neither a beginning nor an end. Afterwards, the cameraman brings us to another enclosed space; that of the hospital where her father is supposed to be brought according to her mother. All in all, it is another pitch-black film which excels in beautifying what is definitely not beautiful.

It is impossible for us here not to mention the two other films: The Horses of God (Khuyulu Allah) and A Death to Sell (mawtun lilbaigh). In the first, we are given the proof that each film newly produced by Nabil Ayouch is a wonder. He has this capacity to improve his mastery of the wording and diction. What matters in this film is not in the fact that it apprehends life in the slums of a big city like Casablanca; these slums which cannot but incubate potential terrorists – people who are by nature and instinct predisposed to become suicide-bombers – ready to explode themselves in retaliation or in search of the promised heaven. What really matters is the way Nabil Ayouch builds up the personality of his characters, how he adapts and accommodates them cinematographically from childhood to youth controlling their moves and motions, the way he makes them express perfectly what they feel deeper in their heart and the way he devised the dialogues between them. These dialogues remain anchored on the daily life of the slums. In addition to the good choice of actors and actresses and their good management, he meticulously distributes the motions and scenes of the film according to the age categories of the characters of the film, according to their psyche and last but not least according to the ripeness of the suicide-bombing idea in their minds. In each case, the shooting modes of the camera changes so that the events of the films dramatically evolve towards a wonderful mosaic of colors and feelings mastered only by very few film producers.

Faouzi Bensaidi in his turn follows suit by choosing young people ready to do anything possible in order to earn a better living. However, the characters of A Death to Sell retain their links with reality and thus the film turns out more realistic. I mean by that the actors are not kept within a closed circle as is the case in The Horses of God but instead they move into different spaces and perform different actions as if they master their own deeds. It follows then that Ben Saidi’s film is characterized by this touch of realism considering that the audience can decipher the personality of the actors as they move from one area to another. In the film of Nabil Ayouch, the spectator has the impression that he is discovering worlds uncommon and foreign to him, though real and tangible, discovering artificial worlds though really existing.

It is necessary to mention here that the success of the two films depends to a great extent on the staff relied on by the two producers and who are mainly foreign technicians. This enabled them to give a perfect output to the extent that we can say that the Moroccan film ends up comparing with the best international productions.

Regards the African films taking part in the official competition, all of them opt for the same direction, that is to say their realization was possible thanks to non-African technological means. They distinguish themselves by retaining the local African flavor. These films deal with the themes that really preoccupy the African minds, such as illegal immigration, as it is the case in the film The Boat (azawraq) by the Senegalese producer Mousa Traouri or the reality of the lost youth in the film The Fire was lit in Dajas (Udrimat naru fi djasa) by Lonsem Solo from the Ivory Coast and the film Everything Here is OK by Bokas Bsqual from Angola or the revolt against traditions and customs in the film Spiders Network by Ibrahima Troauri from Mali. These films are worth appreciating for their remarkable scenarios and their investigation into the deeper inner-self of the African man and by shedding light on the African self-reliance.

Carthage in this post-revolution edition succeeded in setting the things of the Tunisian Cinema straight and making it operate clockwise, not anti-clockwise.

Edited by Steven Yates