Cinema sees revival in post-revolution Tunisia

Tunisian filmmakers are making the most of newfound freedoms to tackle issues banished for decades from the silver screen, prompting a post-revolution cinema revival. (AFP)
Updated 02 November 2018
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Cinema sees revival in post-revolution Tunisia

  • Just two or three films a year were released during the 2000s, but the industry has rebounded since the 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
  • A dozen feature films are now made each year and new cinemas are opening up.

TUNIS: Tunisian filmmakers are making the most of newfound freedoms to tackle issues banished for decades from the silver screen, prompting a post-revolution cinema revival.
“Since 2011, one of the most tangible benefits we’ve seen is the ability to talk about all topics, especially themes of society, our daily life, its complexity and its richness,” said producer Habib Attia.
“In cinema it pays to have that sincerity.”
Just two or three films a year were released during the 2000s, but the industry has rebounded since the 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
A dozen feature films are now made each year and new cinemas are opening up.
Some 200,000 people flocked to the cinema this year to watch “El Jaida” by filmmaker and activist Salma Baccar about the fight for women’s rights in Tunisia.
Such box office figures are the highest in 15 years, said Lassaad Goubantini, one of Tunisia’s leading film distributors.
Mehdi Barsaoui, a Tunisian director, said filmmakers are “no longer forced to skirt” rules imposed by the former regime “through unsaid things and metaphors.”
His first feature film examines organ trafficking between Tunisia and Libya in the chaos after the two countries’ revolutions, which is being shot in Tunisian studios and the country’s south.
“It’s in direct speech and with a form of authenticity that allows universal stories to be told with a local stamp,” he said, while filming at a squalid dormitory for trafficked children.
“The renaissance is due to the closeness of the writers” to reality, Barsaoui said.
The country’s filmmakers have also seen success abroad, with Mohamed Ben Attia’s “Hedi,” a love story set in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, picking up an award at the 2016 Berlin film festival.
Last year, Kaouther Ben Hania’s “Beauty and the Dogs,” about a Tunisian woman seeking justice after being raped, was screened at Cannes before its international release.
Tunisian directors are also turning their attention to a reality rarely talked about by government officials — the radicalization of the country’s youth.
They include Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud’s “Fatwa,” due for release next year.
Ben Hania addresses the theme through the eyes of a father whose sons have gone to fight in Syria in “My Dear Son,” which was screened at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes.
The latter two titles have been chosen for the official competition at Tunisia’s own Carthage Film Festival, which runs from November 3 to 10.
Filmmakers are also experimenting with cinematic styles, such as silent film and mobile phone clips.
Another film featuring on the Carthage program is “Dachra” by Abdelhamid Bouchnak, dubbed Tunisia’s first horror film.
Earlier this year, it was shown at critics’ week in Venice, a sidebar to the main festival that promotes emerging talent.
But creative clout is not enough to entirely revamp an industry, with the business side also needing modernization.
“Now each release is accompanied by promotional campaigns, previews, screenings with debates and screenings in the regions,” said Goubantini, the distributor.
As a result, attendance at film screenings has increased by 10 to 15 percent each year since 2012, according to figures from distribution firm Hakka.
But it is hard to compile accurate figures, with no electronic ticketing system in place and no clear relationship between producers and distributors.
“We have a diamond in the rough, but it still needs to be cut,” said Kais Zaied, a young co-founder of Hakka which was launched in 2013.
The biggest challenge in Tunisia is the shortage of cinemas. From just a handful in 2012, the country now has around 15.
Screenings are also held at community centers, while some old cinemas are being restored.
The international chain Pathe Gaumont plans to open an eight-screen multiplex in Tunis soon, with another to follow in the coastal city of Sousse.
But there is still a long way to go, as Hakka co-founder Amal Saadallah estimates Tunisia needs at least 100 cinemas to create a strong industry.


Saudi artists draw inspiration from Islam

Updated 5 min 31 sec ago
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Saudi artists draw inspiration from Islam

JEDDAH: The work of Saudi sculptor Wafa Alqunibit is on display in a Jeddah art gallery. A small glass box holds objects that have the appearance, shape and texture of dates. Only they are wrought from metal and glint silver and gold.
Alqunibit concedes that art can sometimes be a taboo subject in Saudi society, but says her work has its place.
“I do this to promote and represent our culture and religion as I belong to a very religious family. We have our freedom and we have open minds and I just wanted to portray this image to the world,” she told Arab News.
Her Instagram feed shows other examples of her art, including sculptures featuring the distinctive ringed and slightly curled horns of the Arabian oryx, and videos of her carving, sanding and sawing using machinery that can be seen in any carpentry or masonry workshop.
But her journey toward the arts — specifically sculpture — has not been straightforward.
“I went to Portland (in the US) to complete my doctorate in human resources. But I ended up changing my major to arts and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and they accepted me as a painter.”
But her professors thought she had different strengths — with one telling her she was born to be a tough person.
“At first I thought he was referring to me as an aggressive person, but later when I started sculpting I found out what he meant.”
She uses her work to communicate with people, especially those who misunderstand Islam, and recalled living in the US at a difficult time for Muslims.
“I took support from the arts, to tell people what we really are and now my artwork is displayed in so many galleries and I have been given the title of religious artist.”
Another artist taking inspiration from culture and religion is 26-year-old author Allaa Awad, who has taken the 99 names of Allah and turned them into poetry.
Her debut work, “Ninety-Nine: The Higher Power,” includes poems about purity, mercy, blessings and peace.
“I have encountered many people in life. They have a negative concept about life and God and I just wanted to turn that around and put my own perceptions of what I think God is, who He really is and how we should perceive Him,” she told Arab News.
She also experienced a struggle in her artistic journey, like Alqunibit did, but in a different way.
“The difficulties that I faced were getting the names on point, because a lot of them are very similar to each other. The best part was how people reacted to it on a spiritual level and how they were able to relate to what I had to say, rather than what online research had to say.”