Carthage Theatre Festival brings together African and Arab artists
Tunis - Tunisia celebrated the art of theatre with plays from Arab and African countries at the 19th Carthage Theatre Festival in December.
Founded in 1983, the Carthage Theatre Festival showcases Arab and African theatre and provides a forum of exchange and a meeting point for artists. With 100 productions, the 2017 edition dedicated sections to theatrical companies in Tunisia, Syria, Jordan, Mali, Iraq, Congo and other countries.
“This edition marks the return of the official competition with plays from 11 countries and it will celebrate the heritage of Tunisian theatre with ten different experiences in parallel sections. What is new in this edition is the selection of the amateur theatre shows, which provide an opportunity for amateur artists to acquire expertise,” festival Director Hatem Derbal said at a news conference.
“We will honour many other figures of theatre. The idea is to dedicate a section of the festival to commemorate the memory of the theatre figures who contributed to the evolution of the theatre world and who will continue to influence modern theatre.”
The 2017 edition marked the comeback of Arabic theatre, notably Syrian theatre, which stole the show with Jamal Choukair’s play “Statico,” winning awards for best script, best female performance and best male performance.
“This is the first time I’ve participated in the festival and this is my first experience directing a play,” Choukair said. “It was important for us to be selected for the competition and it was a great honour to receive three awards. Being part of this edition has been an amazing experience.”
“Statico” explores political unrest in the region and brings up existential questions, which seem to lead the protagonist to consider suicide. Despite the sombre premise of the play, Choukair said it gives an optimistic message.
“The purpose of the play is to send a message of hope. Despite death and other hardships, there are many reasons to live and it is always good to have hope in life, not to give up to despairing. There will always be a bright side to reach out to and strive for. It is always possible to restore what has been destroyed,” Choukair said.
Lebanese actress, director and activist Hanane Hajj Ali’s play also explores the dark reality of the region. Her humorous one-woman show “Jogging” tells the story of a woman who ponders her life as an artist, mother and citizen of a war-torn country during her morning jogging trips. Hajj Ali is no stranger to the festival, having participated in the first edition as a part of “Al- Hakawati,” (“The Storyteller”).
“Ever since the first time we participated, there have been amazing and fascinating shows,” Hajj Ali said. “Today, we can see that there is also a lot of reflection put also on the role of critic as well and not just the artist since they dedicated a whole conference for the role of theatre critics. I hope that this edition brings more effort and addition.”
She praised the festival for remaining faithful to its principles of artistic freedom as it continued to welcome shows from all countries without censoring the themes.
“One of the most important characteristics of the festival is that the government has no control over the theatrical companies. In the past editions, there was no interference from the state in the selection of the plays as the latter were selected according to the standards of committees, which is not always evident in the Arab world,” Hajj Ali said.
Both Hajj Ali and Choukair defended the festival’s important role in promoting Arab and African theatre, which has limited international exposure.
Hajj Ali reflected on the issues and the themes that have seemed to preoccupy playwrights in recent years and raised the question of the socially engaged art.
“Looking at the state of Arab theatre in the past years, one can clearly see the striking difference in quality,” she said. “I think this is one of the most pertinent questions. This is one of the concerns of critics. For art to be effective, does it require to be at the service of the people and their concerns? Does it require the message to be more important than its artistic value or should the artist pay more importance to the artistic and aesthetic value even if that means to distance the work from the current issues?”
She added: “I think there is a balance to strike but this will continue to be an issue as neither is the right alternative. If we feel the urge to tackle the issues and concerns, then one also should maintain the aesthetic level. The nature of the issue itself does not matter as much as the way to deal with it.”
Choukair emphasised the festival’s importance in providing a space for hope and artistic creation, while serving as a counternarrative to extremist ideology and terrorism.
“The Carthage festival will remain a sponsor to all the artists of the Arab and African world. This festival plays a role in fighting terrorism, building the civilisation and promoting cultural exchange and, most importantly, knowing the others,” Choukair said.