Tunisian trailblazing feminist filmmaker passes away

Her film “The Silences of the Palace” won the Camera d’Or Special Mention at Cannes Film Festival in 1994, the Critics’ Prize at the Toronto IFF and the San Francisco International Film Festival’s Satyajit Ray award in 1995.
Wednesday 10/02/2021
Tunisian director Moufida Tlatli hold her honorary award during the opening ceremony of the Alexandria Film Festival for Mediterranean Countries in Alexandria, late on September 14, 2010. (AFP)
Tunisian director Moufida Tlatli hold her honorary award during the opening ceremony of the Alexandria Film Festival for Mediterranean Countries in Alexandria, late on September 14, 2010. (AFP)

TUNIS – Tunisian feminist filmmaker Moufida Tlatli, who wrote and directed the emblematic works “The Silences of the Palace” and the “The Season of Men” died at the age of 73 on Sunday.

Throughout her career, Tlatli thrived as an editor in the service of other filmmakers, later venturing into the directing stage when she was 47.

Tlatli, together with filmmakers Kalthoum Bornaz and Kahena Attia, were the first three Tunisian women to pursue cinema studies at the Institute of Advanced Cinematographic Studies in Paris (IDHEC), before returning to Tunisia.

Between 1972, when she returned to her native country, and 1994, when she released her first feature film – “The Silences of the Palace” — the native of Sidi Bou Said, a coastal town overlooking Carthage, edited the works of filmmakers Merzak Allouache, Abdellatif Ben Ammar, Taieb Louhichi, Nacer Khemir, Ferid Boughedir and Nejia Ben Mabrouk.

When she decided to enter the world of directing, Tlatli felt the urgent need to revisit the story of her mother who lost the ability to speak after a severe illness. She began to garner media and public attention with “The Silences of the Palace,” which was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes Film Festival.

The film, co-written and directed by Tlatli, investigates issues of gender, class and sexuality in the Arab world through the lives of two generations of women.

Seen through the eyes of a young woman singer, it exposes the sexual and social servitude of a group of women in an elaborate palace when Tunisia was a French protectorate.

“The Silences of the Palace” is considered a cult film that “resembles her [Tlatli], so delicate, profound, fair and so sad too, “said her friend Houria Abdelkafi.

The film received positive reviews at the New York Film Festival in 1994, with New York Times critic Caryn James describing Tlatli’s work as a “universal coming-of-age story with a feminist twist.”

After being released more broadly in 1996, the LA Times drew attention to Tlati’s depiction of feminist issues in Tunisia and praised her “flowing, sensual style,” calling the film “brutal” and “tender.”

“The Silences of the Palace” won the Camera d’Or Special Mention at Cannes Film Festival in 1994, the Critics’ Prize at the Toronto IFF and the San Francisco International Film Festival’s Satyajit Ray award in 1995.

The feature film also won the Gold Tanit at the Carthage Film Festival (JCC) 1994, and Best Actress Award went to its very young actress Hend Sabry for the star role that later propelled her to fame.

Tlatli’s second feature film, “The Season of Men,” was first screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. The film’s title refers to the one month out of the year when the women’s husbands come back to their native island of Djerba from working in the capital Tunis.

With “The Season of Men,” Tlatli once again proffered an incisive look at gender politics, giving a compelling depiction of women in contemporary Tunisia.

Tlatli’s third feature film, “Nadia and Sarra,” released in June 2004, tells the story of Nadia, a 45 year old female professor at the University of Tunis, and her daughter Sarra,18.

The movie centres around Nadia’s marriage problems, struggle with menopause and general physical and psychological deterioration.

Taking a closer look at the three movies, the director’s themes seem to have remained the same: sisterhood and sacrifice, eternal growing pains, inequity and inhibition, the weight of the past and the yielding of tradition to modernity.

Following the news of Tlatli’s passing, actress Hend Sabry posted on her official Facebook page, “The woman who changed my life left today… The woman who discovered me and saw what no one else could see, left today and turned a page that I was not ready to fold. Moufa… the woman, the mother, the resonant voice, the delicate soul that tired her out and made her create cinematic masterpieces at the same time. She was the incarnation of a feeling that I was always looking for, but haven’t seen anything like it before or after. She was a warm embrace that held me close when I was a frightened child in a new world. A heart-warming embrace, she was, as can be told by anyone who knew her or worked with her.”