There have been a number of recent documentaries—Netflix’s “Knock Down the House,” featuring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and “Time for Ilhan,” looking at Ilhan Omar—that are about female politicians of color who have challenged the status quo on gender and race as they vie for political office in America. But these representational battles are not just the preserve of the United States, as can be seen in Tunisian director Raja Amari’s latest work, “She Had a Dream,” a documentary world premiering in IDFA’s Frontline section that follows 25-year-old Ghofrane Binous as she runs for office during the 2019 legislative elections in Tunisia.
Director Amari, recently a member of the Short Film Documentary Jury of the El Gouna Film Festival, is better known for her two narrative feature films starring Hiam Abbas: 2002’s “Red Satin,” in which Abbas transforms from housewife to cabaret star, and 2016’s “Foreign Body,” where the Palestinian actress plays a French widow who takes in an undocumented Tunisian refugee. Amari’s decision to make an observational documentary about an election campaign in Tunisia came about organically, she says. “I was talking with Cinéteve, a production company concerned with the social and political situation of women, and they were interested in making a film about Tunisia.”
The timing was important. “We’re approaching the 10th anniversary of what the West call ‘the Arab Spring’ and in Tunisia is referred to as ‘The Revolution’,” she recalls, “and at first I wanted to make a film about marriage, dreams and expectations in this context. I also wanted to tell the story of Black women in Tunisia, because I felt they are somehow forgotten.”
With Cinéteve and Arté France on board, Amari approached Saadia Mosbah, an activist who founded Mnemty, an organization that backed the criminalization of racism in Tunisia in 2018, and the recognition of Jan. 23 as a national holiday marking the country’s abolition of slavery in 1846. Mosbah introduced Amari to the activist Binous, who had previously worked as a flight attendant and made global headlines when a passenger insulted her with a racial slur. The fallout led to the enactment of the aforementioned anti-racism law in Tunisia.
Amari was excited by the fact that she had found a Black Tunisian woman who was going to marry a light-skinned man and also didn’t mind being filmed. Then, as Amari set the cameras to roll, “Ghofrane told me, I’m not getting married any more, I’m moving into politics.” Amari gulped, took a minute, and realized that this would be a more exciting direction for her film to take. “I had wanted to talk about politics indirectly, but now I had to tackle it head on. I followed her on this journey, during the election campaign and afterwards.”
The film sticks with Binous’s point of view. The documentary does not give a potted history or an overall look at Tunisian democracy—rather, it’s only through Binous’s conversations that we pick up details about democracy and elections in the country where the Arab Spring started. It is the only North African country that made a peaceful and successful transition to a democratic parliamentary system with officials elected by the people. None other than Michael Moore deemed this transition so successful that in his film “Where to Invade Next” he lauded the gender parity of the Tunisian parliament and laws that enshrined women’s rights.
While Amari reminds us that the Moore film speaks of the situation as it was a few years ago, she agrees that “Tunisia is a bit different from the other countries in the Arab world. We have very progressive laws towards women enshrined in the constitution after the revolution. But now, little by little, the practise of politics has shown some of the limits. For example, the last election saw the numbers of women in parliament reduced and highlighted the depth of the patriarchal system. The film shows that democracy is a long and painful process.”
“She Had a Dream” also highlights how racism remains a big issue that has not just disappeared because of the 2018 law. “In a way, we have interiorized colonial attitudes where the ideal is the white man,” argues Amari. “For generations, we have been told about the positive aspects of the north. Also, there is a history of slavery in Tunisia, and the problem of racism is very taboo, if you ask a Tunisian on the street, they would argue that there is no problem with racism.” Amari’s film, however, shows otherwise.