Tunisian film documentaries thrive since revolution
The 2011 revolution significantly altered the course of Tunisian cinema, giving a boost to the production of documentaries as filmmakers came to enjoy a much freer environment.
Film director Abdallah Yahya, who produced the award-winning documentary Return in 2014, says the revolution brought significant change to Tunisian cinema.
“The cinema scene witnessed a significant cultural movement after the revolution,” said Yahya. That is especially true when it comes to documentary-making which was fraught with danger during the rule of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali who was deposed by the revolution. “The police would take away your camera if you filmed outside under Ben Ali. Now anyone can take their camera out and film.”
Following the revolution, Tunisian cinema experienced a surge in the number of documentaries made compared to fictional films.
“The first year of the revolution was marked by a wave of film directors who took cameras and hit the streets to film. They worked on documentaries but they did not have time to take some distance and think about it. One needs to take some distance and reflect,” said actress Nidhal Guiga.
Director Nejib Belkadhi, whose 2013 film Bastardo was screened at international festivals, said the lack of quality documentaries could be compensated for by their role in the cultural history of the country.
“After what the country witnessed, it is only natural that most films produced are documentaries. With the new margin of freedom, anyone can grab a camera and go out to film. While it is true that some documentaries lack the quality, they will all serve as part of the collective memory for the people,” Belkadhi said.
“Tunisian cinema remained art house cinema after the revolution. However, there were two waves: There were those who directly addressed the theme of revolution in cinema and those who only hinted at the issue in their films,” said Sana Ben Khemir, a member of the Tunisian Association for the Promotion of Cinema Criticism.
Along with the favourable political environment since 2011, Tunisian filmmakers built on a rich and daring heritage inherited from the days preceding the revolution. Iconic scenes of children running on the roofs in Ferid Boughedir’s Asfour Stah (Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces) and women sharing intimate details of their lives in Moufida Tlatli’s The Silences of the Palace have been engraved in the memory of Tunisians for whom these scenes constituted part of their collective memory and culture.
Tunisian filmmaking experience dates to the beginning of the 20th century. As early as 1922, director Samama Chikli produced the first Tunisian film — Early Beginnings. The Carthage Film Festival, the first Arab film festival, was founded in 1966. The biennial festival strives to create a creative space for filmmakers from different countries.
The cost of production is today one of the main challenges facing filmmakers. They have to finance long features themselves or work on short films.
“It seems the revolution has created more demand on film directing, which created a sponsoring issue especially that the sources of sponsoring are quite limited. Some are only relying on their own resources at this point to cover the expenses of the films,” Guiga said.
Yahya struggles with the same issue. “Today, perhaps the major difficulty that we encounter is the production. It takes time to produce films,” he said. “At the end, you decide not to rely on the sponsoring techniques to produce a balanced work.”
In addition to production, Ben Khemir attributed the lack of financing to the fact that Tunisian movie theatres no longer receive a large number of patrons. Since Tunisian films are not generally well received in theatres, producers do not expect much of a return for their money.
“It is an issue that dates back to the last years before the revolution. First, we don’t have well-equipped movie theatres for a good screening. Second, we don’t have a strategy to provide diversity of films for the viewers. Our audience is an audience of festivals. If there is a film festival, the movie theatres will be packed with people. If not, cinemas are deserted,” Yahya said.
In addition to the documentaries, there were few films such as Belkadhi’s Bastardo that marked the years after the revolution.
“It was a movie written during the time of Ben Ali that is open for different readings. Perhaps, if it hadn’t been for the revolution, it wouldn’t have survived censorship if presented during Ben Ali’s rule. The movie is about how societies create their own dictatorship. Each viewer, however, is free to have their own interpretation of the film,” said Belkadhi about his film.