Last Thursday was the 5th anniversary of the end of the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia, climaxing that country’s famous Jasmine Revolution—so designated by the Western media—and which launched the so-called Arab spring—or, rather, the Arab winter, as The Economist calls it—that swept the Arab world over the subsequent months, notably in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. Of the countries that witnessed popular uprisings during that exhilarating, ephemeral historical moment, only Tunisia has succeeded in effectuating a transition to democracy, or at least to a non-authoritarian political order this is incontestably preferable to the regime it replaced. Two analyses by Tunisia specialists writing on the anniversary’s occasion get it exactly right, one by the first-rate journalist Thierry Brésillon—who did some of the best reporting from the country during the transition period—in the CCFD-Terre Solidaire’s Paix et Conflits website, the other by Tunis-based political scientist Laryssa Chomiak, in a post on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog. There is also Al Jazeera’s 25-minute reportage-debate, aired on January 15th, “Where is post-revolution Tunisia heading?,” with specialists Amel Boubekeur, Youssef Cherif, and Simon Mabon.
Rather than offer my own thoughts, I will recommend a terrific Tunisian film I saw the other day, À peine j’ouvre les yeux (English title: As I Open My Eyes), by youthful, up-and-coming director Leyla Bouzid, that is set in the summer of 2010, half a year before the onset of the Jasmine Revolution. In lieu of describing it myself, I will copy-and-paste the review by Variety’s great critic Jay Weissberg, who knows Maghreb cinema better than any critic writing in any language, who saw the pic at one of the film festivals where it debuted (Dubai, Venice, Toronto), before hitting the salles in France last month
A headstrong young woman in Tunisia bucks her parents and her repressive society in Leyla Bouzid’s impressive debut.
On the eve of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, a young woman struggles against family and society to pursue a singing career in Leyla Bouzid’s impressive, generally nuanced debut, “As I Open My Eyes.” Sharply yet subtly capturing the atmosphere of fear fostered by the dictatorship of President Ben Ali, this skillfully made drama is especially attuned to the myriad forms of surveillance, from the prurient to the political. Showcasing a stand-out lead perf by first-timer Baya Medhaffer, with intriguing compositions by Iraqi musician Khyam Allami, “Eyes” will open eyes to several new talents and could see a small international rollout.
There’s an appealing youthfulness about the film: the characters’ ages, of course, and the indie music, but also the fluid lensing and the irresistible freshness of Medhaffer’s slightly pouty face, her fixed determination giving character to doll-like features. The actress plays Farah, an aspiring thrush in a new band about to perform their first gig. The young woman has just graduated with honors, and everyone expects her to go on to study medicine, but she’s more interested in musicology.
That doesn’t sit well with mom Hayet (singer Ghalia Benali), once a free spirit herself but now determined to do everything she can to “protect” her daughter from making wrong choices. Life in this middle-class Tunis household is tense, owing to both Mom’s overprotective nature and the frustration that dad Mahmoud (Lassaad Jamoussi) lives in the center-west city of Gafsa, unable to get a transfer to the capital because he refuses to join the ruling party.
Farah is in a heavy-petting relationship with fellow band member Borhene (Montassar Ayari), a cool lute player with sensuous hands that caress her skin. They try to keep their liaison hidden, but the moment a man touches a woman or vice-versa, people notice and stare. Their band is poised for a breakthrough, and the preview gig goes over like gangbusters, especially the new song “My Country,” with its line, “Oh my country, land of dust/Your gates are closed and bring misfortune.”
That sort of lyric makes the authorities wary, and Hayet receives a visit from old acquaintance Moncef (Youness Ferhi), an Interior Ministry employee who warns that Farah is drinking and hanging out with people known to the police. Hayet flips (she’s given to over-dramatization) and makes her daughter swear she won’t go to the gig, but Farah locks her mother in and does the show. Professionally things seem to be going so well, but then manager Ali (Aymen Omrani) wants the band to censor themselves, and tensions mount from every corner: How can Farah fulfill her dreams as an independent young woman in a society that allows only a semblance of freedom?
Helmer Bouzid brings so much shading to the script that the more cut-and-dried last quarter is a slight letdown, as if she felt things had to suddenly be made starkly clear when they already were powerfully drawn. Similarly, wedging in a few scenes about worker tension at the phosphate mines of Gafsa (where unrest was one of the sparks leading to Revolution) feels unnecessary, but these minor quibbles don’t compromise the film’s overall impact, which skillfully conjures the pressure-cooker atmosphere lying just below Tunisia’s surface during the waning days of the dictatorship in 2010.
Especially striking is how the pic evokes the illusion of normality, which makes the roadblocks Farah stumbles over that much more disturbing. This is a society where informers are discovered in unlikely places, and expectations for women, even among the young and hip, run counter to self-expression. With his long hair and easy projection of nonconformity, Borhene seems like a guy happy to see Farah be the fearless woman he praises, but when she draws attention to herself at a party, his traditional concept of woman’s place takes over: Women should not make a spectacle of themselves. This emphasis on the gaze carries an enormous impact: As a free-spirited young woman, Farah is the target of censure from everyone, including her mother, whose past gutsiness has been deformed by a state that rules through fear and coercion.
Benali’s gutsy perf as Hayet fills the screen with highly-charged energy, so it’s to Medhaffer’s enormous credit that the novice so potently holds her own. As both singer and actor, she projects an outer fragility consistently overpowered by heady determination, making Farah a deeply satisfying character. D.p. Sebastien Goepfert, who worked on “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” has a sensual feel for figures and textures, and the top-notch lensing exhibits a pleasing freedom of movement, with smooth pans and gliding camerawork. Allami’s songs have a biting insistence.
Weissberg gets it exactly right. A few comments on the film. First, the two lead actresses, Baya Medhaffer and Ghalia Benali—the 18-year-old daughter (Farah) and mid-40ish mother (Hayet), respectively—and who dominate the film, are absolutely excellent. And it’s apparently the first cinematic role for both, though with Benali being a well-known Tunisian singer. While Medhaffer is spunky and pretty in a youthful way, Benali is maturely beautiful and sublime. She’s fabulous (and on this, two mid-40ish female colleagues/friends—so far the only persons I know who’ve seen the pic—entirely agree with me). Secondly, the family dynamics are just right, in the relationship of mother with daughter, father and daughter—and he’s a good man, the father—and the couple with one another. They’re middle class educated, were clearly opponents of the regime in their youth, but have been beaten down by the system and made their compromises with it—the father only up to a point, though in the end he finally throws in the towel on his passive resistance. Thirdly: though the milieu portrayed in the film is liberal and Westernized, the deadweight of patriarchy and social pressure in regard to gender weighs down on everyone, as Weissberg suggests. It’s really hard to break with prevailing social norms when everyone is watching over and judging you. Fourthly, the workings of the Ben Ali police state, of the mechanisms of its surveillance and control over the population, are brilliantly depicted. And—spoiler alert!—the interrogation sequence of Farah by the secret police is chillingly realistic. If one wants to know what it’s like to live in an authoritarian regime, to (innocently) test its limits—even if one is not overtly political—and have a run-in with the authorities, see this movie. Fifthly, people want to be free. They don’t want to live in a fucking dictatorship and with the constant threat of being suddenly hauled off by the mukhabarat, detained in some secret interrogation center, and tortured and sexually abused at the slightest transgression. Sixthly, the music—original, apparently composed for the film—is quite good IMO. As a singer Medhaffer has talent. And seventhly, the ending was just right. I feared one that would mar the film but happily this was not the case.
Indiewire and Screen Daily gave the pic the thumbs way up. French reviews of the film are also very good, with Allociné spectateurs particularly enthusiastic. The Huff Post has an interview with director Bouzid. Trailer is here.
Another good Tunisian film seen recently—last spring, actually—is Le Challat de Tunis, a mockumentary by Kaouther Ben Hania, another youthful, up-and-coming feminist director from that country. Here’s the description by Hollywood Reporter critic Stephen Dalton, who saw it at the 2014 Cannes film festival
This playful blend of real and fake documentary uses a bizarre true story of unsolved knife attacks against women to examine gender politics in newly democratic Tunisia.
Offering a wry feminist critique of macho chauvinism in Arab culture, Tunisian writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania’s second feature is an intriguing addition to the boom in low-budget filmmaking inspired by the recent wave of Middle East revolutions. (…)
Challat of Tunis takes a real event as its starting point. In 2003, a mysterious knife attacker rode through the Tunisian capital on a motor scooter, slashing the buttocks of women on the sidewalk. Nicknamed the “Challat” [“slasher” in Tunisian Arabic], the assailant was never caught, but he achieved a kind of folk-hero notoriety, particularly among religious and social conservatives who believed women in jeans or short skirts were being rightfully punished for not dressing “respectfully.”
Ben Hania has examined the gap between European and Arab cultural values before, in her well-reviewed 2010 documentary Imams Go To School. Indeed, she initially planned to make a straight non-fiction film about the Challat, but soon came up against the bureaucratic brick walls of the old regime under former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Following the Tunisian Revolution of 2011, however, she reworked the project into a playful docu-drama hybrid that uses the Challat story to interrogate the sexual politics of her newly democratic homeland.
Shooting in hand-held mock-doc style, Ben Hania straddles the line between director and actor. She interviews slasher victims, prison guards, detectives, lawyers and ordinary citizens — some clearly fictionalized, others apparently real. She finally meets a young man who claims to be the Challat, Jallel Dridi, a hotheaded mummy’s boy who models himself on Al Pacino in Scarface.
The film’s most powerful sections are the vox pops with real Tunisians. One man suggests the knife attacks were “a sign of virility” and “part of our Arab culture.” A religious cleric even claims women with “beautiful hair” are sent by the Devil to tempt and corrupt helpless males. The Challat’s female victims, meanwhile, share grim memories of shame, suicide and sexual molestation by the police. “I felt as if I had been attacked by the whole society,” one recalls. Predictable enough, but still sickening. (…)
Variety’s Jay Weissberg, calling the film “audacious” and “hilarious,” also gave it a thumbs up review, as did academic film critic Shelagh Rowan-Legg—for whom the pic is “brilliant and disturbing satire”—on the TwitchFilm website. French reviews—critics and Allociné spectateurs—were good to very good. Trailer w/English s/t is here.
UPDATE: Francis Ghilès has a well-informed article in OpenDemocracy (January 29th), “Something is rotten in the state of Tunisia,” which paints a somber, indeed pessimistic, portrait of the situation in the country.