Theatre icon Raja Ben Ammar leaves inspiring legacy
Tunisa - Renowned actress and director and co-founder of the dance theatre movement in Tunisia Raja Ben Ammar has died following complications from heart surgery.
Ben Ammar’s performances in Tunisian and international theatres over a 30-year career exhibited an experimental vision, using the stage as the ultimate venue for freedom of expression. She won the Best Actress Award at the Theatre Days of Carthage in 1987, 1989 and 1995
Ben Ammar’s death on April 4 at the age of 63 shocked many of her fans, hundreds of whom, along with friends and family members, attended Ben Ammar’s funeral in Ariana. Speaking at the service, Tunisian Minister of Culture Mohamed Zine el-Abidine described the actress as “one of the pillars of Tunisian theatre.”
Taoufik Jebali, who along with Ben Ammar founded Théâtre Phou, wrote on his Facebook page: “How can we survive without Raja? Raja is a part of our youth, our impulsivity, our unity and our division. Even if she disappeared today, we will always go back to her.”
Ben Ammar’s first acting roles came in the local school theatre before she spent two years at the prestigious drama school of Ludwig- Maximilian University of Munich.
Ben Ammar joined one of Tunisia’s first national theatre companies, El Kef Theatre Company, before participating in Nouveau Theatre company, which was led by Fadhel Jaibi, Fadhel Jaziri, Jalila Baccar, Mohamed Idriss and Habib Masrouki, who tried to put a contemporary touch on national theatre productions.
Ben Ammar helped launch Théâtre Phou in 1980. Along with Jebali, Ben Ammar’s team included her husband, playwright and actor Moncef Sayem and actor Raouf Hendaoui. The company produced more than 20 theatrical productions in which Ben Ammar either starred or directed, most notably, “Al-Amal” (1986), “Saken Fi Hay Essaida” (1989), “Baghdad Cafe” (1990), “Bayaa-al-Hawa” (1995) and “Faust” (1997).
Théâtre Phou gained international acclaim and its performances were featured at international festivals in the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Venezuela, Colombia and Europe. The productions were awarded many prizes, including the Grand Prize for International Choreographic Meetings in France in 1992 for “Nuit Blanche” (“Sleepless Night”).
“The body is the most important element on the stage. It opens space, explores doors of perception and opens horizons to other worlds,” Ben Ammar once said.
In addition to directing and performing in plays, Ben Ammar is credited with launching dance theatre in Tunisia, which combined lyrical dancing and theatricality.
Imed Jemaa, a renowned Tunisian dancer and choreographer, recalled that Ben Ammar was the first person to support his career as a choreographer and dancer.
“She has always considered herself a dancer. In interviews, she often presented herself as a dancer and an actress and was helpful and supportive to young dancers. She was the only person who helped me when I started working in choreography back in 1989, back when no one believed in dancers as artists,” Jemaa said.
He added: “She was hard working and passionate. She was an icon not only in the world of theatre but also to dancers. I wonder sometimes, that if it wouldn’t have been for her, dancers wouldn’t have a future in the artistic scene. She gave the stage of her cultural centre, Mad’art, to dancers to train and perform when the ministry refused to support them.”
On the screen, one of Ben Ammar’s most remarkable appearances was in Ferid Boughedir’s “Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces” in 1990. In the performance, she was said to have charmed moviegoers with her charisma and authentic performance. Remembering Raja’s appearance in his movie, Boughedir commended the actress’s humility and humbleness.
“Raja had her only cinema appearance in my movie, ‘Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces.’ I was surprised that Raja, who was a famous theatre actress and an icon of dance theatre, was nervous about her appearance in the movie. With the camera close to her face, she was transpiring. She was stressed,” Boughedir said.
He added: “This is what makes her great. She is never arrogant and she is always looking for new experiments and ways to challenge herself. This was unforgettable for me as a film-maker. People like Raja Ben Ammar never disappear. Maybe she is no longer present physically but she will always exist spiritually. Great people don’t die.”
Ben Ammar was not only a talented and innovative artist but also a woman of convictions, known for her strong positions and visionary contributions. In 1993, she set up Mad’art in Carthage, a theatre and cultural centre that targeted youth from various neighbourhoods to offer a space for training and performance.
Mad’art became a cultural hub for the northern suburbs thanks to its versatile programme of cinema, theatre, dance and artistic workshops.
“Just like the name of her company ‘Théâtre Phou,’ the name of her Cultural centre Mad’art played on the idea of madness like Raja wanted to convey that the artist had the right to madness and non-conformity,” Boughedir said.
“She was generous and believed in the importance of training for the young people living near Mad’art especially in El-Kram. There was delinquent and jobless youth and she called on those young people to go on stage to take part in training and plays. Lotfi Abdelli, one of Tunisia’s famous comedians, started with her in Mad’art.”
Ben Ammar’s last play, “A Window on…,” a work depicting several portraits of human life, premiered at the opening of the International Festival of Hammamet last summer.