‘In Uncle Salem’s Country’ encapsulates Tunisians’ disenchantment
TUNIS – In his short fiction film “In Uncle Salem’s Country” (2019), young Tunisian director Slim Belhiba follows the steps of Uncle Salem (A’m Salem) to document the dreams elicited by the 2011 Tunisian uprising, which quickly turned into a disappointment for the Tunisian population and the country.
In 14 minutes, the film tells the story of a school guard who, in late August 2013, works to renovate a primary school in a village near the capital Tunis before pupils head back to school the next month.
While working at the school, Uncle Salem, played by actor Cherif Mabrouki, realises that the Tunisian flag in the middle of the schoolyard is old and worn out, so he decides to head to the capital Tunis to buy a new one with his own money.
Thus begins the story of an-almost silent film. Nearly half of the film goes by before we hear the first sentence — when a woman hurrying her young child mutters to herself: “May God make this day end well.” At the same time, Uncle Salem purchases a new flag from a store in the capital and prepares to go back to his village.
Then the camera rotates towards an alley where Uncle Salem is carrying his new flag on his way home. Suddenly, a group of Tunisian protesters rush through, shouting “faithful, faithful … to the blood of the martyrs,” before being chased by the police. Instinctively, Uncle Salem runs to seek safety, but the police confuse him with the protesters and arrest him along with the group of rebellious youth, who are all eventually charged with inciting riots and disturbing the peace.
In a later scene, the camera displays the front of a Tunisian court before the verdict of the case is pronounced. The judge’s voice is heard from the corridors of the court saying: “After deliberation, the court decides to sentence the defendants for a period of 15 days in prison and a fine of 150 dinars…” The picture cuts off and fades into black until we see Uncle Salem leaving prison after completing his 15 day sentence.
In a fourth scene, village children are seen running towards the school for what appears to be their first day of school. In the meantime, Uncle Salem appears with a grey, unshaven beard, dragging his feet in the direction of the school to open the door for the students rushing towards the yard.
We hear Uncle Salem speak for the first time when a teacher urges him to pick up the pace. Uncle Salem answers with an obscene expression, reflecting his anger over the unjust prison sentence he served and perhaps reflecting general disappointment that the country’s uprising had not achieved its goals for the Tunisian working class that sparked it.
One single word uttered by Uncle Salem, who remains committed to both his educational duties and the flag, is morally shocking. He says it as he continues his slow walk, to wear his stained blouse in a scene that recalls the first frame of the film where the guard is shown painting the school walls before classes resume.
In a final scene full of symbolism, Uncle Salem raises the Tunisian flag up for the children as they enthusiastically sing the national anthem. But the camera shows that the flag has not been replaced — it is still the old worn-out flag seen at the beginning of the film. It seems that Uncle Salem lost the new flag he bought from the capital amid the protests, which cost him his freedom for the first time in his life. The scene symbolises the entire nation’s dismal results of the January 14, 2011 revolution — for protesters, subjugated masses and supposed beneficiaries — and how the country’s silent majority, like Uncle Salem, lost the most.
Silence is the only hero of the film, which begins without a word uttered and ends with schoolchildren singing Tunisia’s national anthem, as if they are the only ones able to speak and equipped to introduce change to a country ravaged by narrow political interests.
The film’s simple presentation does not hide its depth and symbolism, starting with the title that resembles the phrase “In Uncle Sam’s Country,” referring to the American dream — the ideals of freedom, dignity, equal opportunity and social justice that the United States preached to past generations and continues to instill in children today. This is what Tunisians dreamed of after the January 14 revolution.
That the film is 14 minutes long is certainly not a coincidence — it symbolises the date of the Tunisian uprising — and conveys the feelings of despair that have gripped Tunisians’ hearts amid recurrent social disappointments, a near bankrupt economy and a street imbued with a culture of obscenities displayed by the vulgar expression uttered by Uncle Salem to the school teacher. The teacher, it seems to say, has stepped down from their pedestal.
The film is loaded with messages, meanings and symbols that director and screenwriter Selim Belhiba shows with a smooth style that conveys emotions and surrounds the viewer with silent details without complications or exaggerations. The film recently won two audience awards at the Afrika Filmfestival in Belgium and the Rabat International Festival for Author’s Cinema, which this year celebrated its silver jubilee.
In 2014, Belhiba produced the short fiction film “Melodies” directed by Marwa Rekik. “In Uncle Salem’s Country” is his directorial debut, and he is currently preparing to launch a feature film whose title has not yet been announced.