Mockumentaries generally have culturally specific elements that play best to local audiences, and Kaouther Ben Hania’s hilarious and acerbic “Challat of Tunis” is a prime example. Ostensibly about the helmer’s search for a man who slashed 11 women from his motorbike back in 2003, the pic shines a discomfiting light on Tunisia’s attitudes toward women, using a fake-docu approach that many outside the Arab world won’t fully grasp, at least at the start. Foreknowledge should ease any hesitation at laughter, which means critical hype will be vital, though the film will work best with diasporan communities at targeted showcases.

Right from the start, with news footage from 2003 of then-president (dictator) Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali promising to ensure public stability, viewers should realize that the director is taking an ironic gander at her country’s problems. That was the year when a number of women were mysteriously slashed by a knife-wielding nutjob; fast-forward to 2013, and Ben Hania has a lead that the perp, popularly called the Challat of Tunis, is being let out of prison.

At the start, the movie plays like Ben Hania’s journey of discovery: She tries to find out who the Challat is, and interviews a woman who claims to have been slashed. With more than a touch of satire, the supposed victim is first seen in a detritus-strewn field, sunning herself in a bikini. When next seen, in her upper-middle-class kitchen, she explains that actually, she wasn’t attacked at all: Desperate to get a tattoo but forbidden by her older husband, she admits to having cut herself in order to convince hubby that she needed a tattoo to cover up the scar. The director also talks with men at a cafe, most of whom express support for the Challat’s actions, arguing that if a woman dresses immodestly, then she deserves what’s coming to her.

Resigned to not locating the Challat, Ben Hania holds an audition to find someone to play him in her movie; during the casting call, Jallel Dridi arrives claiming he’s the real deal. She tracks him down at home, where he expresses his undying love for his mom, Moufida, saying they don’t make ’em like they used to (maybe that’s why his cousin gives him a rubber doll). To ensure he chooses the right bride, he tries out the Virgin-o-meter (Japanese science and American technological know-how!), a side-splittingly clumsy device that requires that its antenna be dipped in a woman’s urine; as the marketing woman says, it’s “for the good of our people.”

Ben Hania knows that the most biting humor is the kind so close to home, it generates squirms of recognition as well as laughs. The Virgin-o-meter is one, and another is a videogame designed by Marwen (Mohamed Slim Bouchiha), in which players must slash only women whose heads are uncovered. Points are deducted for cutting hijab-wearing figures, prompting an imam to praise the game for demonstrating that devout people are protected. Of course it’s an utterly ridiculous statement, yet, as with Borat’s targets, one can assume the man being interviewed here is for real, as are several others who express solidarity with the legendary Challat for punishing immodesty.

At the pic’s end, Ben Hania speaks with women who really were slashed (it’s likely the incidents were copycat attacks and not the work of one man). Their troubling testimony is a sobering reminder that misogynist attitudes, so often justified via bastardized religious tenets, have tangible consequences. Satire is an excellent way to bring disquieting issues to the surface, and these last scenes ensure that the ugly face of sexism doesn’t disappear once the yuks end.

Though shot in a rough indie-docu style, complete with inelegant focal adjustments and handheld lensing that occasionally jiggles a little too much, it’s obvious Ben Hania and her d.p. Sofian El Fani know exactly what they’re doing and why. Editing, too, is spot-on, cleverly negotiating the right balance of absurdity and emotional weight.

Cannes Film Review: ‘Challat of Tunis’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (ACID), May 24, 2014. (Also in 2013 Dubai Film Festival.) Running time: <strong>89 MIN</strong>. (Original title: “Le Challat de Tunis”)

  • Production: (Tunisia-France-Canada) A Cinetelefilms, Sister Prods., Six Island Prods. production. (International sales: Jour2Fete, Paris.) Produced by Habib Attia, Julie Paratian. Co-producer, Paul Scherzer.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Kaouther Ben Hania. Camera (color), Sofian El Fani; editor, Nadia Ben Rachid; music, Benjamin Violet, Si Lemhaf; production designer, Sophie Abdelkafi; sound, Moez Cheikh, Melissa Petitjean; assistant director, Mehdi Barsaoui; casting, Chiraz Fradi.
  • With: Jallel Dridi, Mohamed Slim Bouchiha, Narimene Saidane, Moufida Dridi, Abdelaziz Mzoughi, Taoufik Arfaouii, Maya Touati, Nahed Hamdi, Amani Adili, Nour El Houda Lakehal Kanouni, Chemseddine Mathlouthi, Mohamed Ali Jlassi, Asma Hami, Sofian El Fani. (Arabic, French dialogue)