Tuning Into Tunisia’s Rising Talent

"As I Open My Eyes"
Photo Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

Five years after the Jasmine Revolution, a new generation of Tunisian filmmakers is enjoying major critical acclaim with films about hitherto hushed-up aspects of Tunisian society, using a subtle mix of powerful human drama, youthful energy and acerbic humor.

“What recent Tunisian films have in common is their freedom, their sincerity, their realism and their audacity in dealing with very personal journeys at a time when everybody expects films about issues such as the Arab Spring, jihadism, Islamism, terrorism,” says producer Dora Bouchoucha, whose latest film, “Hedi,” directed by Mohamed Ben Attia, focuses on a man whose life is turned upside down when he falls in love with a free-spirited woman. The movie is screening in official competition at this year’s Berlin Intl. Film Festival.

Other notable films coming out of Tunisia include Leyla Bouzid’s “As I Open My Eyes,” which is set against the backdrop of the Arab Spring and won kudos at Toronto, Venice, Carthage and Dubai, and Fares Naanaa’s directorial debut, “Borders of Heaven,” which revolves around a Tunisian middle-class couple devastated by the death of their 5-year-old daughter. Released in December, the film has clocked more than 100,000 admissions in six weeks, an outstanding feat considering Tunisia has only 12 movie screens.

Documentaries produced following the Jasmine Revolution are also on the rise, including “Babylon,” which won the grand prize at FID Marseilles in 2012, and Sami Tlili’s pre-revolution protest movement documentary, “Cursed Be the Phosphate,” which won the prize for Arab documentary at Abu Dhabi in 2012. In 2014, Kaouther Ben Hania’s motorbike slasher mockumentary, “Challat of Tunis,” produced by Habib Attia, was released theatrically in 20 countries.

“Before the revolution, very few documentaries were produced in Tunisia because of the lack of freedom of expression,” Bouchoucha says. “You can try to play with the texture of fiction and deal with political issues under a dictatorial regime, the layers of reading can be manifold, but when you are making a documentary, you are constantly searching for the deepest truth.”

“When the revolution arrived we finally felt that there were lots of things we could tell through cinema,” Bouzid says. “I wanted to remind people how hard it was. We made an important step forward.”

“(President Zine El Abidin) Ben Ali was aware how dangerous cinema could be for his dictatorship,” adds Attia. “Filmmakers were aware that there were red lines they couldn’t cross. This meant that they couldn’t treat contemporary social issues in Tunisia, which are the subjects of greatest interest to Tunisian and international audiences.”

One of the main showcases for Tunisian cinema and the country’s liberal outlook is the Carthage Film Festival. Deprived of plentiful movie theaters, young Tunisians flock to screenings at Carthage. One such film is Nabil Ayouch’s prostitution drama “Much Loved,” which was banned in Ayouch’s native Morocco.

Lack of funding and a shortage of screens are two major challenges for Tunisian filmmakers, who rely upon state support and co-production funding.

Hopes are pinned on measures being prepared by the Centre National du Cinema et de l’Image, created in 2011 and headed since 2015 by Fathi Kharrat. He is preparing legislation to fund more films and create incentives to build multiplexes, start a cinematheque and reactivate a 1994 co-production agreement among Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Since 2011, grants of $250,000 have been provided to around 10 Tunisian-produced films per year, representing 50% of the filmmakers’ budgets.

One of Kharrat’s main objectives is to get Tunisian television stations to invest in local films. The only recent example of TV stations investing in local cinema is the investment made in “Borders of Heaven” by pan-Arab VOD platform, IcFlix.

“Heaven” producer Attia is prepping Medhi Barsouai’s “Hassan,” which tackles the topic of female betrayal, and a new film by Ben Hania about a girl who was raped by policemen in 2012.

“The new climate of freedom of expression in Tunisia is a direct result of the policy pursued by the Ministry of Culture since 2011,” adds Kharrat. “There is no going back.”

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