How did Tunisia become the most exciting and versatile Arab cinema today? The Jasmine Revolution and subsequent Arab Spring may have ignited newfound interest in North African cinema, but the fact of the matter is Tunisia had been leading the charge of Arab auteur film long before2010.
Tunisian cinema has come a long way from the landmark moment in the late 1960s when a wave of local filmmakers began to emerge in the wake of the 1956 independence from French imperialist rule. From the so-called golden generation of the 1980s with their defiant political and social parables to recent high-profile nominations in Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance and at the Academy Awards, filmmaking in Tunisia has weathered decades of fluctuating censorship, an erratic financial system and the copious bureaucracies that have always approached filmmakers withsuspicion.
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Despite its increasing global popularity and wide critical acclaim, Tunisian cinema has been confronting mounting hurdles at home over the past year as the nation’s new autocrat, Kais Saied, continues to consolidate his powers and reinstate Ben Ali’s police state. As the clampdown on oppositional voices shows no signs of slowing down and new censorship rules are enacted, the brief window of freedom Tunisian filmmakers have enjoyed since the revolution appears to be graduallyshrinking.
But Tunisian cinema has always been one of resistance, and with a new generation arising from the revolutionary ashes, a strident and lengthy pushback against the new dictatorship could take it on to newfrontiers.
To celebrate the UK release of Erige Sehiri’s second feature Under the Fig Trees, an effervescent celebration of Arab countryside life set over one working day for a team of fig pickers, we shed light on 10 of the greatest Tunisian films. Each of them act as a reminder of the resilience of a national cinema that has never stopped punching above itsweight.
Under the Fig Trees is in cinemas and on BFI Player from 19 May2023.
Director: Sadok BenAïcha
A young novelist scores an unexpected success with his first novel, which surveys the mental state of Tunisian youth in the aftermath of independence. Dismayed by the critical misunderstanding of his themes and intentions, he writes another novel centred on a young female protagonist fighting for emancipation. The second novel becomes an even bigger success, but a distorted cinematic adaptation of his writing propels him to mysteriouslydisappear.
Sadok Ben Aïcha’s debut feature was a watershed moment for post-independence Tunisian cinema. Palpably influenced by the French New Wave in its freewheeling mood and focus on angry, misunderstood youth, the fragmented narrative and crude visuals reflect a nation and cinema taking first steps towards finding a voice and identity. Ben Aïcha’s picture spawned a new generation of passionate cinephiles who would soon create the first film societies in the country and plant the seeds for a lively cultural life that has miraculously endured tilltoday.
In the Land of Tararani(1973)
Directors: Férid Boughedir, Hamouda Ben Halima and Hédi BenKhalifa
Férid Boughedir is better known for Halfaouine (1990), a provocative coming-of-age comedy drama whose sexual politics and staid aesthetics have not dated well. Far more playful is his contribution to this long-neglected gem: an anthology of three short films adapted from Sleepless Night, a book collection written by the great pre-independence satirist Ali Douagi. In Ben Halima’s ‘The Lamppost’ an impressionable hairdresser arranges a rendezvous with a mysterious veiled woman; in Hédi Ben Khalifa’s ‘The Visit’ a disgruntled wife pays a call on her aunt to vent her frustration over her drunken, abusive husband; and in Boughedir’s ‘Picnic’ a family outing goes horriblewrong.
Capturing the tone and spirit of Douagi’s prose, In the Land of Tararani is a biting satire touching on the subjugation of women, marital discontent and the fearful pull of anonymous sex. Combining the restrained comedic mannerism of Jacques Tati and the stylish artifice of Egyptian melodramas, it’s a compulsively watchable work of early Tunisiancinema.
Director: Abdellatif BenAmmar
The late Abdellatif Ben Ammar made history in 1970 when his debut feature A Simple Story became the first Tunisian film selected for Cannes – it’s still one of the very few Arab debuts to compete for the Palme d’Or. While A Simple Story charted the plight of Tunisian émigrés in Paris and the lingering spectre of colonialism, this second feature chronicles the waning days of French rule in Tunisia in the early 1950s. Its story focuses on a young man who grows disillusioned with the national resistance after his father is murdered by a secret French state-affiliatedorganisation.
A complex study of the birth of grassroots movements and the formation of political consciousness, Sejnane digs into the psychology of political mobilisation in its examination of the parameters of individuality under repressive rule. With remarkable poetic naturalism, Ben Ammar vividly captures the soul of Tunisia’s working class and its unionisation – a unique facet of Tunisian political life that has remained a thorn in the side of each successivedictatorship.
The first full-length film made by a Tunisian woman filmmaker, Selma Baccar’s debut feature has often been treated as a mere history lesson in the stagnant conditions for Tunisian women in the 1970s. Nearly half a century after its release, Fatma 75 can finally be appreciated for what it is: a formally inventive, profoundly emotional multi-layered essay film that weaves a colourful tapestry on the different stages of women’s liberation movements inTunisia.
Adopting a non-linear structure and containing early examples of re-enactment in Arab documentary filmmaking, the film focuses on a university student working on a presentation about women’s liberation. The student assumes different roles as the narrative jumps from the 3rd century BC and 7th century AD to the 1930s and 1970s, giving a voice to long-silenced women from each era.Subtly taking a swipe against then president Habib Bourguiba’s misleadingly progressive policies for women, the film was duly banned for 30years.
The Desert trilogy (1984 to2005)
In 1984, poet, painter and writer Nacer Khemir imagined an unusual anecdote inspired by Sufism, Arabian poetry and Islamic architecture, with plenty of symbolism and little plotting. The result was Wanderers of the Desert (1984), a mystical account of a schoolteacher who gets sent to a desert village populated with treasure hunters cursed to eternally walk thesands.
Two similarly conceived fairytales would follow: The Dove’s Lost Necklace (1991), a gorgeous fable about a calligraphy student in 11th-century Andalucia who seeks the aid of a prince in unearthing the missing pieces of a poem that holds the secrets of love; and Bab’Aziz (2005), a road film of sorts about a blind Sufi who hits the desert alongside his young granddaughter for a rare gathering ofdervishes.
Collectively, Khemir’s awe-inspiring trilogy shatters audience expectations of Arab cinema, steering away from social realism to chart spiritual terrains few, if any, Tunisian films have ventured into. It’s an epic tale of the bond between love and the divine, the clash between modernity and tradition, the relationship between existence and knowledge, and the schism between materialism and the yearn for spiritual fulfilment. Abundant with overwhelming colours, imagery and transfixing landscapes, it remains one of the most unique achievements in Tunisian cinema – a pure objet d’art that has lost none of its power to captivate andbeguile.
Man of Ashes(1986)
Among the most beloved and revered of all of Tunisia’s directors, Nouri Bouzid made a career out of tackling every imaginable taboo, including torture and political imprisonment (The Golden Horseshoes, 1989), male prostitution (as played by none other than Blue Is the Warmest Colour director Abdellatif Kechiche in Bezness, 1992) and Islamic radicalisation (Making Of, 2006). It all started with Man of Ashes, an early LGBT-themed Arab film, and one that also tackles the issue ofpaedophilia.
Hachemi, the young male protagonist of the film, is compelled into an arranged marriage. On the day of the wedding, flashbacks to his traumatising childhood reveal that he was sexually molested by his former carpenter superior. Thus begins this groundbreaking character study, which shatters the myth of the invincible Arab superman. While previous films had concentrated on the patriarchal oppression of women, Man of Ashes was among the first Tunisian pictures to underline the impact of violent masculinity on the post-independence generation of young men. Bouzid – who,before he began his film career, was tortured and jailed for six years for joining a dissident socialist group – understood that the new form of patriarchy is state-led; that the only means to fight this new order is in defending weakness andvulnerability.
The Silences of the Palace(1994)
Thirty years after its release, Moufida Tlatli’s thunderous debut remains the most recognisable and most popular of all Tunisian films. It’s famed for Hend Sabry’s astonishing performance, at the tender age of 15, and its piercing commentary on the decadence of the dying Tunisianaristocracy.
Co-written by Nouri Bouzid, this coming-of-age classic is set in the early years of post-independence and revolves around Alia, the daughter of a housemaid who gradually realises her mother’s prince employer is her father. The central subject of the film is the sexual servitude countless poor Tunisian women were forced into during the French colonialist rule. Tlatli’s treatment, however, is anything butstraightforward.
Intercutting between adult Alia’s short strolls in the palace and long flashbacks from her childhood, The Silences of the Palace is built on scrupulously reconstructed memories, which comprise sensations, impressions and stifled emotions rather than action. Revelations are few and far between. The dialogue befuddles rather than discloses. Gazes, body language and especially the foreboding silence divulge a history whose full details are never revealed. The opulent decor, grand banquets and gaudy customs are parts of a vast façade barely concealing the corruption of a class on the brink ofextinction.
Drawing more than 300,000 admissions at the Tunisian box-office, The Silences of the Palace is still one of the highest grossing Tunisian films of all time, a hugely influential picture that ushered in a new wave of women’s cinema in NorthAfrica.
Before ‘women findingself-fulfilment in dance’ became a worn-out subgenre, there was Satin Rouge, Raja Amari’s charming debut feature about Lilia, a lonely middle-aged widowed mother whose chance encounter with a belly dancing cabaret offers an escape from her feelings of isolation. The film was revolutionary in its candid female gaze, unabashed championing of sexuality and joyous celebration of the female body. Rarely in Arab cinema has sex and sexuality been depicted so free from the overbearing association withreligion.
In her breakthrough role, the great Palestinian thespian Hiam Abbass perfectly calibrates her character’s initial loss and insecurity with her subsequent self-actualisation and liberation. Like her director, she understood the unifying power of belly dancing, a popular Arab artform whose brazen embrace of sexuality never sat well with thepatriarchy.
The Challat of Tunis(2013)
Director: Kaouther BenHania
There’s no bigger Tunisian filmmaker at the moment than Kaouther Ben Hania. Her 2020 release The Man Who Sold His Skin was the first film from the country to be nominated for the Oscar for best international film, and she is now the first Tunisian woman director to compete in the main Cannes competition, with her docudrama FourDaughters.
Her second feature, The Challat of Tunis, is her most formally ingenious work to date. A heady mix of Pierre Étaix’s Land of Milk and Honey (1971) and Borat (2006), Ben Hania’s mockumentary sees the director embarking on a wayward odyssey to uncover the identity of the infamous eponymous attacker who caused terror in 2013 after slashing the backsides of 11 women he deemed inappropriately dressed from his motorbike. Along the way, Ben Hania stumbles upon rubber dolls, a ‘Virgin-o-meter’ and a video game where players earn points for similar attacks. There are real interviews with men expressing their support for the attacker and sobering testimonials from the realvictims.
The Challat of Tunis is intentionally over the top, but Ben Hania does not mock her real-life male subjects as much as give them the space to do all the unintentional self-mockery themselves. The end result is both unsettling and painfully hilarious; a deliciously sardonic black comedy that emphasises the chauvinism still rampant across the Arabworld.
The indescribable Tlamess starts with a nameless soldier deserting his unit after his mother dies. A long, aimless naked run leads him to an otherworldly forest where he takes refuge. A nameless, rich pregnant wife crosses paths with him, and the two make the forest their new home. The two communicate telepathically, the man gets pregnant, there’s a mysterious 2001-like black monolith, and it all unfolds almostwordlessly.
Welcome to the mad, surreal world of Alaeddine Slim, one of the boldest, most original voices in contemporary Tunisian cinema. As in his 2016 film The Last of Us, Slim employs exceedingly minimal narration, creating a vast audio-visual world that taps into the collective unconscious of a people still haunted by authoritarianism, economic depression and traditional gender roles. His political concerns are cloaked under an existential veneer; his cipher characters invent their own modified gender roles and personal laws – an act of insurrection against autocracy, against society, and against God himself. This is a Tunisian cinema at its most conceptual – a free, disobedient cinema finally enjoying its full moment in thesun.
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