Since the planet’s new divide has become religion, stereotypes started galloping again in every direction. The women of the Muslim world, especially, have been regarded with many prejudices as a uniform whole. But thanks to Machtat (2023), the new documentary by Sonia Ben Slama, we meet three Tunisian women who defy many biased clichés. They are traditional wedding musicians—“machtat”—who perform at marriage ceremonies, they dance, they play, they sing, and joyfully ululate. The heroines of the film—Fatma and her two daughters Najeh and Waffeh—also have duties like adjusting the bride’s dress or announcing the nuptial money gifts. And concerning the much discussed head scarf, they don’t feel obliged at all to wear it, even in the presence of large crowds.
But still, this does not mean they are not victims of a patriarchal society; even if we do not witness episodes in which they are discriminated against as “frivolous women” by the society, we know that they have a difficult time with men, Najeh being divorced and looking for a new man and Waffeh–married to an abusive husband. Their elderly mother tries to support both of them in any way she can; but after so many years in the wedding sector, she is also tired and willing to pass on the baton to her daughters.
The easy-going documentary immerses us immediately in their intimate world through the emphatically warm perspective of another woman, the director Sonia, who, even though she has a very firm French education, connects deeply with the heroines thanks to her Tunisian origins. The enthusiastic Mediterranean nuptial atmosphere is balanced with private conversations between the skinny mother and attractively butchy daughters. Even though Waffeh struggles daily with her aggressive husband, she becomes the symbol of the system’s subjugated women who cannot get out of the vicious circle; by considering wedding her adolescent daughter to a much older man, she also becomes a probable perpetrator of a cruel action. This is where her sister Najeh opposes Waffeh’s intention strongly and becomes the spectators’ absolutely preferred character. In the first part of the film we see Najeh gracefully, but secretly flirting with the prospective husband over text messages, because her brothers do not seem to agree with such behavior; unfortunately, later on she starts to feel disappointed by “the man on the phone” who does not seem reliable anymore.
While we watch the aesthetically pleasing and amusingly funny documentary with admiration and a smile on our lips, we realize that the filmmaker categorically avoids showing us the face of the men in question. It seems to be like a deliberate act of revenge to male-dominated cinema, but we, as spectators, cannot at all satisfy our voyeuristic drives, while trying to imagine who the counterparts of such erotically charged thoughts are. However, the reward arrives at the end.
While Najeh, who seems to have lost her hope in the new marriage, dances in an extremely ecstatic mood at the very center of a predominantly male crowd in yet another wedding party, the camera catches just behind her a couple of young shirtless men performing a very erotic dance together.
Fatma tries to calm her daughter, whose behaviour can be considered excessive even in the a nuptial ceremony that allows for such freedom, but nobody seems to care about the two lads sharing such an intense experience under the gazes of many, in which we can find the evidence of men having a much larger range of freedom of self-expression. Considered one of the more lenient Muslim countries of the Maghreb and though it sparked the Arab Spring, Tunisia seems to be stuck in traditions that generally glorify men and penalize women. This makes Sonia Ben Slama’s feature an absolutely valid and contemporary statement.
Machtat by Sonia Ben Slama had its world premiere at Visions du Réel 2023 and will be screened at Acid in the Cannes Film Festival.
Edited by Savina Petkova
© FIPRESCI 2023