Realism... "A Matter of Morals"!

in 25th Carthage Film Festival

by Ahmed Bouhrem

Since its release, El Gort, a documentary film by Hamza Ouni, has caused much ink to flow and collected multiple awards, including the Bronze Tanit at the 25th edition of the Carthage Film Festival. 

The film follows the lives of two workers in the municipality of M’Hamdia, located on the western edge of Tunis. Their job is to load and unload hay bales.

The universe of the young workers is somewhat familiar to the filmmaker as his father held the same job.

The film revolves around these two inseparable friends, who in spite of the hardships of their work – spent either on the roads, the souks or the barns – they are good humored as they fight tooth and nail to keep their job.

The filmmaker accompanies them on the truck cab and films their conversations, their teasing and emotional outbursts. These scenes alternate with an interview in which the heroes respond to the filmmaker’s questions.

From their discussions emerge a remarkable spontaneity, a certain lucidity and an incredible sense of hope and love of life. The answers in the interview are less happy, as the men take a more serious look at their lives and talk about the reality of their job, the difficulty of the task, their dreams and disappointments, yet their speech is free of pathos and they don’t deviate into any sordid aspects of life.

We are also introduced to other characters: two truck drivers, the mother, some friends; they too have their lots of misfortunes and they talk about their suffering.

This documentary is a well-designed road movie; the good humor of the characters in the truck cab is in contrast with the more serious tone of the breaks during which life appears in all its cruelty. As a result, the pace of the narrative makes considerable progress in terms of balance and vitality.

Let us commend in passing the careful framing; the filmmaker has emancipated us from the jerky plans and incessant camera reframings used indiscriminately in recent years, in most documentaries and even in fiction.

It must be noted that the director has succeeded in gaining the confidence of his protagonists and the six years of filming allowed him to build some familiarity with them, to the point that sometimes the two friends have completely forgotten about the camera and let themselves go and deafen our ears with an avalanche of rude words. It appears that such familiarity and freedom of tone can be a double-edged sword.

Some deviations from the rules of decency in terms of language are tolerated when spontaneous and justified by the context, as is the case in the beginning of the film, but both men abuse and sully our ears with obscenities during interminable minutes.

Drift reaches its peak at the end of the film when the filmmaker, believing that he is  pushing realism to the limit, films an evening scene in which the two dead drunk protagonists get together with two drugged out friends. The discussion between the friends turns into altercation and they nearly come to blows.

Filming the scene in bulk, the filmmaker seems impressed, or even overrun by the characters who took advantage of the freedom that was given to them, took themselves for real actors and started to use vulgar language for ten long minutes, which curiously made a few spectators happy and dazzled by the “audacity” of the director! Paul Claudel said: “Continuous poetry bores.” So what then can be said of obscenities?

Another negative point: it could have been better to remove the questions asked by the director; this makes the movie look like a TV report and breaks the narrative rhythm of the overall set. Moreover, it was also inappropriate for the director to appear in the film, as his appearance does not contribute to it.

In his first documentary, Hamza Ouni succeeds in offering us a film with a controlled, spontaneous and authentic story. However, he was trapped by his concern for realism and somewhat wrong about reality. Reproducing what is supposed to be reality as a whole in all its harshness and in all its obscenity rather reveals a certain naivety on the part of the filmmaker, especially in the evening sequence in which this “reality” has become questionable.

Edited by Yael Shuv