Women Take the Helm of Tunisia’s Film Industry

New female directors who came of age during the Arab Spring are earning international acclaim for unflinching works in a country where expression has long been restricted

Women Take the Helm of Tunisia’s Film Industry
Director Kaouther Ben Hania, middle, attends the “Jupiter’s Moon” screening in 2017 in Cannes, France (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

In late 2010, during her fourth year at a Paris film school, the director Leyla Bouzid had the surreal experience of seeing her native Tunisia suddenly appear on the front page of newspapers and on prime-time TV. Protests were sweeping Tunisia and soon longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted, sparking a regional movement now known as the Arab Spring.

“Right away, I wanted to talk about what I’d lived through in high school: the police state, how we’d censored ourselves, the paranoia,” she said. “I wanted to take advantage of the moment to talk about something I couldn’t have before.”

Now, more than a decade after the initial protests, she is still doing just that. Bouzid is part of a new wave of Tunisian female directors that came of age during the revolution and are now earning international critical acclaim — from Cannes to Los Angeles — for unflinching independent films. In a country where freedom of expression — among other civil liberties — had been restricted by French colonial rule and subsequent military strongmen, Tunisia’s film industry is becoming a rising force in global cinema.

The country’s sand dunes have long served as a filming location for Hollywood blockbusters, including “Star Wars” and “The English Patient.” (Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine, is a homonym of the terrestrial Tunisian village of Tataouine.) But since the Arab Spring, women filmmakers are now dominating their nation’s film industry and telling the stories of a country that had previously been a mere backdrop in Western ones.

Tunisia has a rich tradition of female directors, many of whom made films cloaked in symbolic subtext to avoid government censorship, according to Professor Florence Martin of Goucher College, who has written extensively on Tunisian cinema. Filmmakers such as Moufida Tlatli, Selma Baccar and Raja Amari made pioneering works in the 1990s and early 2000s, but a new generation of directors are making films more explicit in their social and political commentary.

Like Leyla Bouzid, the director Kaouther Ben Hania was also in Paris at the time of the Arab Spring’s beginnings in Tunisia. Ben Hania is from the town of Sidi Bouzid, where the initial demonstrations erupted when a local fruit vendor self-immolated to protest what had become, for him, the intolerable indignities of everyday life under authoritarian rule.

Ben Hania described Sidi Bouzid as a “pseudo-ville” — a town far from the headlines before the Arab Spring. Growing up, she sought inspiration elsewhere. Daily life “was not interesting, so it was necessary to populate it with characters from films and literature.”

She dove into Arabic translations of Russian and French classics, as well as works by the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz and other figures of the Arabic canon. She also made use of the local video store, where she rented her way through the VHS tapes of American new releases, classic Westerns and horror films — before turning to Bollywood. With its pageantry and larger-than-life productions, Bollywood offered her an escape into a brightly-colored world where “everything was beautiful.” Westerns were violent and often glorified a particular form of assaultive masculinity which never appealed to her.

Ben Hania made a range of films during and after attending film school in Paris. Her feature-length drama “Beauty and the Dogs” came out in 2017. It feels like a fairytale undone. (“Dogs” in the English title is translated from the French term “meute,” which literally means “pack,” suggesting that the female protagonist in Ben Hania’s work is beset — hounded — by a plurality of villains.)

Inspired by a true story, the film captures one night in the life of a young Tunisian woman, Mariam, who has been sexually assaulted, and the events that unfold as she seeks a medical examination and subsequently to register her case with the police. It’s a damning portrait of a system that was never designed to support survivors. The film treats Mariam’s trauma with sensitivity but also finds dark humor in the outrages and absurdities of the institutions around her, where inaction and bureaucratic obstruction are couched as “procedure.” We watch her persevere through — if not triumph over — Kafka-esque obstacles and ghoulish encounters. “What fascinated me the most was the contrast between her naïveté and how it allowed her to see this through to the end,” said Ben Hania. “I wanted to tell her story but through my prism.”

The film screened at Cannes in 2017 and was released in U.S. theaters the following year, resonating with a far wider audience as the global film industry reckoned with its own power structure seeking to shield male perpetrators and prop up the status quo.

Ben Hania’s next feature-length film became the first in Tunisian history to earn an Oscar nomination. “The Man Who Sold His Skin” is a sumptuously-shot dark comedy that offers a critique of the art world and of humanitarian organizations that prove inadequate to meet the needs of vulnerable people. As alluded to by the title, it tells the story of a Faustian bargain struck by a refugee so desperate to leave Syria and seek asylum in Europe that he agrees to have his visa tattooed on his back.

Ben Hania’s operatic film stands in striking contrast to the minimalist, naturalistic intimacy of another movie that deals powerfully, if indirectly, with the fallout of the Arab Spring: Meryam Joobeur’s “Brotherhood.”

This film, which became the first Tunisian movie to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Short in 2020 — is a quietly devastating work about a Tunisian family grappling with the actions of the eldest son, who has just returned from fighting in Syria. Shooting on a microbudget on the country’s verdant northern coast, Joobeur enlisted two professional actors to play the roles of the parents and cast nonprofessional actors (and real-life brothers) to play their sons.

For Joobeur, filmmaking has been a way of reconnecting with her Tunisian roots. Born in the United States to Tunisian immigrants, she attended film school in Canada. In 2012, after Ben Ali was toppled, she decided to return to Tunisia to make a documentary based on her grandfather’s life. The end product was “Gods, Weeds and Revolutions” (2012), a haunting short about legacies of torture, political repression and intergenerational silences. Joobeur avoided dramatic scenes of Tunis’ still-crowded boulevards in favor of empty domestic spaces and sparse natural vistas.

Her next major project was “Born in the Maelstrom,” which came out in 2017. The 28-minute film is an adaptation of the eponymously-titled short story dealing with race relations in the U.S. The filming was ambitious, however, and involved managing a cast and crew of 150 people. In an interview, Joobeur told me she made “Brotherhood” in reaction to this experience. “‘Brotherhood’ was guerrilla-style, 10 people. It was almost like a secret project — a lot of my friends in Montreal didn’t know about it.”

“Brotherhood” initially screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and took home the top prize at Tunisia’s Carthage Film Festival, ahead of the 2020 Oscars. During the pandemic, Joobeur secured funding to expand it into a feature-length film called “Motherhood,” which will focus on the family’s female characters.

While Joobeur powerfully evokes a lush natural landscape in her films, director Rabeb M’barki tells stories where the land itself is under threat. Since the Arab Spring, M’barki has been using documentary filmmaking to cast light on the environmental consequences of authoritarianism. At the 2019 BBC Arabic Festival, M’barki won an award for “All is Well, Lella?!” The 30-minute documentary is a scathing look at the environmental degradation wrought by a major Tunisian chemical company in the waters surrounding her coastal hometown, highlighting the long-term effects of a power structure that allowed the chemical plant to operate with impunity. M’barki called the pollution a “provocation” and said that the changes she has witnessed in her lifetime spurred her to make the documentary, the second installment of a trilogy in production.

Leyla Bouzid is unusual among her contemporaries because her father, Nouri, is himself a filmmaker, known for his daring political films during the years of Ben Ali’s dictatorship. Yet she actually credits her mother with instilling in her a love of cinema. From an early age, she knew she wanted to be involved with film, but it wasn’t until her teenage years as a member of Tunis’ chapter of the Tunisian Federation of Amateur Filmmakers that she settled on directing.

Bouzid’s 2015 feature debut, “As I Open My Eyes,” tells the story of a spirited 18-year-old girl in Tunis on the eve of the 2010-11 revolution. It’s a coming-of-age story, as we watch her fall in and out of love and attain political consciousness. The film ends on a somber note, as she is forced to recognize the curbed freedoms and compromising positions with which adults — especially women — must contend in an authoritarian state. But a happier ending is implied, as the viewer understands that major societal change is imminent.

In her second feature-length film, “A Tale of Love and Desire” (2022), Bouzid chronicles the relationship between two young college students in present-day Paris. Both the protagonists, Farah and Ahmed, are children of the diaspora: Farah is from an affluent Tunisian family and has relocated to Paris for her studies, while Ahmed was born to Algerian immigrants and grew up in a working-class community in the Paris banlieues, or suburbs.

The film is a sensual one, as its title suggests. But it also poses deeper questions about self-knowledge and self-acceptance, especially as they pertain to Ahmed. When Ahmed introduces himself to Farah, he uses the French pronunciation of his name, eliding the “h” with the “m.” Farah, however, uses the aspirated “h” of the Arabic pronunciation. It’s a subtle exchange but one that hints at a disparity in their familiarity and comfort with their North African roots. Ahmed’s ambivalence toward his Algerian origin impedes his ability to form relationships — a romantic one with Farah but also, more provocatively, his relationship with himself.

“A Tale of Love and Desire” was released to U.S. audiences on July 26; on the same day, the electoral authority in Tunisia announced the results of a constitutional referendum held a day earlier. Tunisia’s constitution had codified the hard-won democratic victories of the Arab Spring and was unique in the Middle East and North Africa. The new version, put forward by President Kais Saied, greatly expanded the latter’s authority over the judiciary and permanently weakened the Parliament.

Professor Safwan Masri of Georgetown University in Qatar considered the referendum to be part of Saied’s process of “gutting” the post-revolution institutions, expressing concern about freedom of expression and the future of democracy in Tunisia. “The new constitution and Saied’s power grab have utterly derailed the democratic process and brought the country back to authoritarian rule. It has spelled the end of democracy in Tunisia, for now.”

Ben Hania, Bouzid and Joobeur make films about the intersection of the personal and the political spheres. How they will respond to apparent democratic backsliding remains to be seen. But to watch these directors’ works is to consider the way repressive regimes — or their legacies — impinge upon the lives of the characters on screen, making their films a form of protest. The directors get to exercise a creative freedom unavailable or denied to their characters, liberties which may once again be under threat. In a scene of “As I Open My Eyes,” a group of musicians debate which song to play during their set, knowing their politically-charged lyrics might expose them to state reprisal. As the oud player, Borhène, notes, “Are we going to censor ourselves?” The very fact that we can watch this scene unfold is a testament to the changes already effected by Tunisia’s revolution.

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