Carthage Theatre Festival: A celebration of Arab and African roots

The festival included 159 plays from 39 countries, including 11 Arab countries and ten African countries.
Sunday 16/12/2018
A scene from the Tunisian play  “Zaman  El Forsene” (“Era of Knights”).  (Carthage Theatre Festival)
Vital voices. A scene from the Tunisian play “Zaman El Forsene” (“Era of Knights”). (Carthage Theatre Festival)

TUNIS - The 20th Carthage Theatre Festival acted as a return to roots with festivities honouring the heritage and history of Arab and African theatre.

The festival, which opened a 9-day run December 8, celebrated 35 years since its founding in 1983. Festival Director Hatem Derbal said it was important to use the occasion to show appreciation for festivals past.

“That’s why the theme of this edition centres on revisiting the memory of the festival, celebrating and commemorating the major works and productions that the past editions produced,” Derbal explained.

The festival honoured people who marked the theatrical scene in the Arab and African worlds, such as Tunisian actor Abdelaziz Mehrezi and Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka. It also featured an exhibition that documented the evolution and important milestones of previous festivals.

The festival included 159 plays from 39 countries, including 11 Arab countries and ten African countries. Nine Arab plays and two African plays competed in the official competition.

In addition to being a forum for exchange among professionals from different parts of the world, there was a special section dedicated to plays conceived during workshops conducted in Tunisian prisons. It featured five plays written and performed by prisoners.

“This is a historic opportunity,” said Sofiene Mezghiche, spokesman for the General Directorate of Prisons. “Being a prisoner does not mean stripping prisoners of their rights and citizenships. They should be able to express themselves.”

Mezghiche explained that establishing theatre workshops in prisons had been a goal for a while and they are working to expand the programme to prisons across Tunisia.

The special section presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for prisoners to show their skills in front of some of the business’s elite and for some professional stage workers, they didn’t disappoint. Reflecting on the experience, actor and director Hedi Abbes expressed fascination with the work of two prisoners in the civil prison of Gafsa.

“One of the prisoners said this is his last prison sentence. He found himself. He found his place in society after his interaction with the theatre teacher and participation in the play,” Abbes said. “Another prisoner asked the judge to delay his hearing until he performs his show at the Carthage Theatre Festival, which was moving for me. This is how theatre speaks to everyone.”

The festival paid tribute to the theatre of the Palestinian territories and Burkina Faso, honouring their figures and showcasing their work.

“Being here is about paying homage to my own journey in the theatre of my country,” explained Etienne Minoungou, playwright and stage director from Burkina Faso.

“Paying homage to the theatre of Burkina Faso also means that the Sahara is not a space of separation but a space for crossing to meet,” he added. “It includes all of our diversity and all the colours of Africa. To find myself here in Tunisia seeing how this theatre festival celebrates both the African and Arab countries is excellent.”

Mehrezi said the festival presents an opportunity to celebrate the essence of theatre as an artistic discipline.

“Theatre offers the best training for any aspiring actor. It is indispensable for anyone who has a dream to become an actor. Theatre is tiring but its beauty lies in that pain,” he said.

The festival attracts professionals and artists from around the world offering a space of freedom and exchange of ideas.

“Since its foundation, this festival (has been) an Arab and African festival but it is also (about) the aesthetics and visions of the international theatre. It is like many festivals in one festival,” Derbal said.

“It is a festival for Arab [and] African theatre but it’s also a festival for international theatre as it features plays from all continents — Europe, Asia, South America.”