Tunisian post-revolution cinema in the spotlight

A triplet of Tunisian films have been selected for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, cementing its status as a regional film hub. Speaking with officials, The New Arab learns how the Arab Spring was a watershed moment in their growth.

The country that triggered the wave of protests that would become the Arab Spring in 2011 is also the one that is emerging as the new home of independent cinema in the MENA region.

With three impressive feature films, Tunisia is the Arab country which this year had the most films selected at the Cannes Film Festival, the largest international film festival in the world which took place from May 17 to 28 on the Côte d ‘Azure.

The three films, titled under the fig trees, Harkaand Ashkal were selected for Un Certain Regard and the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, which showcases emerging filmmakers.

“Although Tunisian filmmakers are still heavily dependent on European film production companies to co-produce and finance their films, it is clear that the country’s cinematic future is full of promise and imagination”

Although all fictional stories, the feature films are unequivocally post-revolution films. Their journeys and stories are heavily influenced by the national uprising and historical events that have taken place since December 2010 and have indelibly changed the young generation of Tunisian artists and filmmakers.

under the fig trees by Erige Sehiri is probably the least directly political of the three films, but its depiction of young workers in rural Tunisia spending a hot summer day working in a field of fig trees paints a poetic portrait of Tunisian youth, flirting, romanticizing and dreaming of a future with better opportunities.

Erige Sehiri is only the second Tunisian woman to be selected for the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, after Moufida Tlatli in 1994 for The silences of the palace.

This is Erige Sehiri’s feature debut, but it’s not the first time his work has focused on workers in Tunisia. Her critically acclaimed 2018 documentary Railroad men recorded the working lives of train drivers as they struggled to keep Tunisia’s ramshackle rail network running.

For his first feature, Erige made a film that is deeply personal to him. Growing up in Lyon, France, to two Tunisian immigrant parents, she only moved to Tunisia in January 2011 following the overthrow of leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, initially to cover the revolution as a journalist.

The idea for this film came to Erige unexpectedly, while she was auditioning young girls in a small town near her father’s hometown of Kesra, a village in northwestern Tunisia famous for its figs. .

Erige met and became fascinated by a young tomboy who said she spent her summers harvesting figs. She followed her into the fields of fig trees to meet the young workers, and decided to “make them my heroes”.

“I identified with them mostly because of that area. It’s an Amazigh village from my father’s childhood, and if my father hadn’t immigrated to France 40 years ago, I would probably be like them,” Erige said. The New Arab.

The girls spoke with a very distinctive accent from that region, so for Erige it was also a way of reconnecting with her family roots.

“My parents were there for the screening yesterday. My dad was crying so much. He kept saying ‘those accents! These are my people, so it was very emotional for him to watch this,'” Erige said.

Harkadirected by Lofty Nathan, was the only Tunisian film in the Un Certain Regard selection, and it is also Lofty Nathan’s first feature film.

Lofty Nathan is not Tunisian, but Egyptian-British, yet he always wanted to make a film about Tunisia since it was the country that triggered the Arab Spring.

In Harkawe follow Ali (brilliantly played by the young Adam Bessa, also known for Extraction and Mosulwho won Best Actor at the Cannes Un Certain Regard Awards), a Tunisian street vendor during the Arab Spring, who tries to take care of his two younger sisters as he dreams of a better future for himself and his country.

Still from the movie Harka [credit: Film Constellation]

Lofty said the title has a double meaning, that in Tunisia it’s a slang word for illegally crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, but it also sounds like “harraga”, which means “to burn”.

As we know, the Arab Spring started with the self-immolation in Tunisia, that of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in 2010 in Ben Arous due to police harassment and humiliation.

It was originally the story of Mohamed Bouazizi that inspired Lofty to make a film about the Tunisian revolution.

He first arrived in Tunis, hoping to make a docu-fiction about Bouazizi, but was eventually put off after talking to many local Tunisian filmmakers, who felt cynical about making a film about this subject.

Lofty felt like an outsider making a film in Tunisia about this historical period, but it was a position he used to his advantage.

“I think every time something like this happens in a country, these revolutions that are so prevalent, it boosts our immune expression, and especially when there’s a change in regime, there’s an incredible art that comes out of that. “said Lofty.

Ashkal is another film at Cannes 2022 that looked at post-revolutionary Tunisia and took a keen interest in Mohamed Bouazizi and the act of self-immolation.

In this Cannes-acclaimed crime thriller by Youssef Chebbi, a young policewoman (beautifully played by newcomer Fatma Oussaifi) investigates a series of crimes in Tunis’ half-built neighborhood of Carthage, in which thoughtless people suicidal people mysteriously self-immolate.

Beyond looking at this act of self-immolation in Tunisia through a political and social lens, the film explores the mystical and religious elements of fire – as a form of destruction but also of peace.

Self-immolation has persisted as a form of protest in post-revolution Tunisia since the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, with estimates of several hundred Tunisians committing the act due to socio-economic issues. In 2020, reports indicate that the number of self-immolations has tripled since 2011.

“It’s the fact that it’s happening again, that it’s multiplying, that made me want to tackle this subject, and ask the question: why do we live in a country where it’s becoming more and more common? ” Youssef said The new Arabic.

“For me, Ashkal It’s really about borrowing different themes from contemporary Tunisia and recent history and making it into a genre film in this district of Tunis.

Still from the movie Askhal [credit: The Party Film Sales]

Youssef and Erige are two examples of young Tunisian filmmakers whose films cross genres and experiment with filmmaking techniques rarely seen in Tunisian cinema.

The two filmmakers attest that since the 2011 revolution, the feeling of emancipation of the Tunisian people is reflected in the arts. Youssef even went so far as to say that “there is more and more a reappropriation of Tunisia through its cinema”.

“We feel that Tunisian cinema is asserting itself more and more and is also very diversified. Before, it was more a formatted cinema, there was always this idea of ​​having to make films that related to a reality of Tunisian society, but we feel that now we are freeing ourselves from it more and more.

It’s a sentiment shared by Erige, who said that Arab or Tunisian cinema had to follow a certain formula to be accepted at international film festivals or to be hailed by European or American cinephiles, but young Tunisian filmmakers don’t bother more of this need to conform, which liberated their filmmaking practice.

“Now we can be filmmakers without being in the system,” she said. “Before, you couldn’t tell stories that were against the establishment, so you had to be very close to the system to be successful.”

Beyond having these three films in Cannes, Tunisia was also represented in Cannes by director Kaouther Ben Hania, who was president of the jury for the annex selection of Cannes Critics’ Week, as well as the 1971 film long live death by Fernando Arrabal, selected in the cinema section of Cannes Classics.

Although Tunisian filmmakers are still heavily dependent on European film production companies to co-produce and finance their films, it is clear that the country’s cinematic future is full of promise and imagination.

Erige, who founded a collective of young Arab women in the film industry called Rawiyat sisters at the movies said it herself best: “We don’t produce enough films [in Tunisia]but what’s good is that we don’t produce much of it, but in general it’s very good so I have a lot of hope for the future of Tunisian cinema.

Alexander Durie is a multimedia journalist for The New Arab. His stories focus on social movements, migration issues and the arts and culture of the SWANA region. He has contributed to The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, The Economist, The Independent, etc.

Follow him on Twitter: @alexander_durie

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