It's All About Context?

in 32nd JCC – Carthage Film Festival, Tunis

by Elena Rubashevska

At the 32nd edition of the Carthage Film Festival, which took place in the capital city of Tunis, 12 features competed for the awards. Among them, there were three films of Tunisian origin. Marked by fully packed halls and heated Q&As, they raised interest and excitement and were warmly accepted by the local public. But what about them crossing their homeland’s borders and finding their way into the hearts and minds of an international audience?

From the violent and sentimental experience of Golden Butterfly (Fartattou el thahab, 2021) by Abdelhamid Bouchnak, to the surreal and absurd experience of Insurrection (2021) by Jilani Saadi, to the personal and sensual experience of A Tale of Love and Desire (Une histoire d’amour et de désir, 2021) by Leyla Bouzid, these three films differ in topic, genre, and visual style. There is, however, a uniting feature: at first blush, these films might not come off as a revelation, but once put into the context of the country from which they emerged they become enriched by hidden messages of great importance for Tunisians. 

Golden Butterfly conveys the daily struggles of a former policeman and father to a little mute boy. Embarking on this daring visual journey through what seems to be a sheer fantasy narrative, we suddenly stumble upon very practical social scenarios. Also characterized by fantastic coincidences, Insurrection presents us a quartet of characters who appear to be painfully representative of modern Tunisian society. With the Tunisian director in the lead and the action taking place in France, A Tale of Love and Desire focuses on intimate, romantic coming-of-age experiences (the kind of which flood contemporary cinema); but as it progresses, the story reveals a deep personal crisis common to migrants in search of a lost (or taken) identity. 

All three films, though obviously inventive, seem to show the lack of directors’ maturity and creative confidence. They cannot be fully appreciated without previous research into their country’s social situation (as well as the directors’ previous works), and require some additional explanation to justify their artistic choices (as well as flaws).

But does that situation apply to Tunisian cinema only? With the rise of importance of political agendas all over the world, with all the tension and conflicts unfolding both within countries and between them, with the obvious impossibility of creating “pure art” just for the sake of art anymore, it becomes inevitable that most of movies are perceived as possessing certain political (or at least social) statements. It is especially true for those coming from countries where filmmaking industries do not thrive and where thus each new movie serves to start public discourse of great importance (and eventually, creates a chance for future changes). What’s more, being selected by international film festivals, films such as those discussed here become freighted with the mission of shaping the image of their country of origin. The voice of a director speaks not for him- or herself only anymore; it serves as a collective voice, representing the most acute and topical problems of their respective countries’ societies.

Does that mean that political agendas in our age play a more important role than the universal language of cinema? Does that mean that nowadays most of the films should be necessarily accompanied by the additional explanation of all the conditions under which they have been created? Do we as film critics have always to take into account a filmmaker’s previous experience and background? I’d dare say no. The need to apply these criteria indicates an understanding of/respect for political issues a country might face, but we cannot ignore the fact that it is often not the stories shown in films, but the films themselves that act as the main statement for the evident problems of a certain area, region or state. And while they might be fresh and important for their local markets, when presented at international venues, they prove unable to clearly and confidently articulate common human struggles, dreams and hopes using adequate means of cinematic communication, lest propose any valuable insights for actual change.

Elena Rubashevska
Edited by José Teodoro