‘El Harba’ exposes contradictions in Tunisian society

The film narrates the journey of a religious extremist who escapes from security forces and seeks shelter in the home of a prostitute who helps him deal with the situation despite their conflicting mindsets.

Monday 21/12/2020
Rania Gabsi and Lasaad Bousbeia. (Facebook)
Rania Gabsi and Lasaad Bousbeia. (Facebook)

TUNIS – During the Carthage Film Festival (JCC), held in Tunis from November 7-12, 2020, Tunisian director Ghazi Zaghbani presented his first film “El Harba” (The Escape), a feature film highlighting stark contradictions within Tunisian society.

“El Harba” was originally a play produced in 2018 that gained critical acclaim, encouraging Zaghbani to turn it into a film. He kept the actors who participated in the play, Nadia Boussetta and Mohamed Hassine Grayaa, along with actors Rania Gabsi and Lassaad Bousbeia.

The film narrates the journey of a religious extremist who escapes from security forces and seeks shelter in the home of a prostitute who helps him deal with the situation despite their conflicting mindsets.

The official poster of the film. (Facebook)
The official poster of the film. (Facebook)

The film thrives on  paradoxes — most strikingly how the extremist escapes from the grip of security only to find himself faced with a reality that contradicts his principles when chance leads him to take shelter from the police in the home of a prostitute working in the city brothel.

The film showcases three different worlds in Tunisian society, namely the religious extremist, the prostitute and the ordinary citizen, or client, who does not carry any ideological ideas and is only concerned with fulfilling his fleeting pleasure.

The elements of surprise in the work vary. In the scenario, Zaghbani pays most attention  to the character of the prostitute. This woman, despite her limited academic and cultural background, seems to symbolise wisdom and rational thinking. She is the one who accepts coexistence with others regardless of their differences, while the young takfiri man seems closed to himself and rejects others who disagree with him, even though he is a university graduate.

The play and the film are based on a novel by Tunisian writer Hassan Mili, written in the 1980s in French. Zaghbani changed the title of “The educated peostitute” to “El Harba” and refocused its plot on Tunisia after the January 14, 2011 revolution.

Nadia Boussetta and Rania Gabsi (Facebook)
Nadia Boussetta and Rania Gabsi (Facebook)

About the title, the director says, “I was convinced that the title of the play / movie could only be ‘El Harba’, because the three characters are all in a state of constant escape, the militant is fleeing security, people and himself, and the client is a fugitive from his marital life and his traditional lifestyle, while the prostitute is fleeing from society and from the difficult conditions of the time.”

The film ends with the victory of the “prostitute” over immobility and confinement. The prostitute is able, through a simple trick, to persuade the extremist to shave his beard. She barters with him over whether to keep her pregnant child whose father is unknown or have an abortion.

The extremist chooses the option of abortion, revealing the contradiction between what he declares and what he conceals, between what he says and what he does. The prostitute agrees to abort the pregnancy, provided that he shave his beard, so he does. By proposing that, the prostitute protects him from the eyes of the police and brings him back to his civilian life.

Tunisian actress Nadia Boussetta (R) and actor Ghazi Zaghbani, depicting Narjess a prostitute and an Islamist, take part in a play entitled ” The Escape” on March 1, 2018 in Tunis. (AFP)
Tunisian actress Nadia Boussetta (R) and actor Ghazi Zaghbani, depicting Narjess a prostitute and an Islamist, take part in a play entitled ” The Escape” on March 1, 2018 in Tunis. (AFP)

Through the film, which takes place in one night and in one setting — the prostitute’s room — Zaghbani succeeds in communicating a message according to which coexistence between the extremist and the prostitute is possible despite the closed space of the bedroom encapsulating the contradictions between the two. Coexistence is shown to be possible  through dialogue, which alone can resolve all disputes, even if they are based on dogmatic stances. That the prostitute and the militant alike have the right to life and dignity in one homeland seems to be one aspect of the message.