The Tunisian Filmmaker in the City from the Plural to Singular

Tarek Ben Chaabane

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“Do not hesitate to shake people, if necessary, because the important thing is to stimulate debate.” As much to say it from the beginning: it is almost impossible to find an echo at this statement of the filmmaker Ridha Behi. A statement that dates back to 1981. If we chose it as a point of departure for this reflection on the relationship between Tunisian filmmakers and engagement, that is to say, the intervention in the life of the city it’s not so much to force doors that are already wide open. Militant cinema, that cinema that can be defined generically by these functions of information, criticism and mobilization is losing momentum. Neither the frankly political cinema produced by socialist realism, nor the militant and third-world “third cinema” of which O. Getino and F. Solanas established the theory, have survived the movements of history.

We will, therefore, question the relationship of Tunisian filmmakers to the city, from their commitment and their handling of issues related to the common interest.

We will do without a presentation of the modes of production that have determined, at a given historical moment, figures or genres. We will not talk about the movement of socio-historical constraints and opportunities that structure the space of “telling” and shape representations of the world.

It is the theme of engagement or artistic intervention in the city that we found interesting in the sense that Tunisian filmmakers have often claimed, until a certain period at least, their attachment to social issues. They designed their work for the community. They defined themselves as stakeholders in the city.

We will try to question the forms of this engagement by browsing the positions of the filmmakers and by developing an analysis of the thematic content of Tunisian films to probe the degree of involvement of filmmakers in the city.

Our hypothesis is that the engagement of filmmakers has often been articulated to forms of organizations born of particular historical moments. A certain programmatic and filmic discourse has developed in the context of a given context.

By studying the dominant themes of this filmography we will try to grasp the implications in terms of commitment in parallel to the passage from an openly political cinema to a cinema that claims subjectivity and singularity but which nevertheless remains stowed, under the figure symbol or allegory, to issues that concern living together. That is to say that the Tunisian filmmaker as part of his relationship to the city has evolved from a commitment assumed, on the edge of militancy, from films to openly political rhetoric to a commitment not openly assumed or claimed but where the films potentially remain in junction with the company. Of course, we are talking here about fiction films and not about documentary production, which has only had a great deal of vitality during the post-revolutionary period.

What then is the nature of the redefinitions of the Tunisian film scene, which wanted to be an agent of change and controversy in the public space?

It is, therefore, through the themes addressed that we will highlight the involvement of Tunisian filmmakers in the city.

A national cinema

The first period is that of national construction. This is the era of independence. The film industry is set up in Tunisia, first, to serve pedagogical and propaganda purposes. The first Tunisian film celebrating the fiftieth anniversary this year, “Dawn”, is also a hymn to the glory of the movement and national unity. It is a film of edification. Even if it borrows all the strings of the commercial film, this film remains committed in the sense that it wants to mobilize around the unifying notions of the leader of the fatherland and the party. The director of the film Omar Khélifi defines his project between the common concern and entertainment: “I want to make films that have meaning for the Tunisian people, a relationship with its history, while being entertaining shows. I absolutely do not want to do experimental art cinema. “ [1]

If Khélifi will continue to make nationalist cinema for the general public, it is the cinema of art and test that will dominate the Tunisian cinema. It must be said that the time lends itself to it. This is the time of nationalization, federalism, the decolonization of looks …

The filmmaker presents himself as an agent of this construction at least as engaged intellectual. He does politics by being linked to associations, federations or through his films. It is also the time of adherence to the great nationalist ideological form.

If this euphoric period would quickly give way to national disillusionment, Tunisian cinema would no less remain attached to politics. Some films, such as Ridha Behi’s “Soleil des Hyènes” are, by their very construction (here we are talking about the structuring of the script, the technical breakdown …), real pleas that, in addition to wanting to provoke an awareness, call for public involvement.

An analysis of the thematic content of the films of this first period shows that Tunisian filmmakers put their films in a social dimension and try to challenge the recipient. The main themes are those related to the criticism of social customs and values ​​(conservatism, arrivism, hypocrisy, alienation, fatalism, superstition …), major social problems (rural exodus, unemployment, immigration, union struggles and political, subordination of the citizen to the administration and the central power), and the themes of the female condition, East-West confrontation and resistance to occupation and oppression. It is clear that the use of a strict rhetoric of militant cinema varies. Some films are explicitly, as we have seen with the example of “Sun of Hyenas”, deconstructions of the dominant discourse. The entire official discourse that legitimizes the penetration and the positive aspects of tourism is dismantled.

This is the official account of the national liberation struggle that is deconstructed in Abdelatif Ben Ammar’s “Sejnane”.

“And tomorrow” by Ibrahim Babai tackles the policy of marginalization and exclusion that leads to rural-urban migration as a form of alienation.

“Fatma 75” by Selma Baccar is also emblematic of this form of commitment. His film, which pays tribute to certain figures of Tunisian feminism, is built around an open criticism of state policy, considered limited
despite the advances. The author of this film goes further by convening a mobilizing vein since this militant film calls for the intervention of the receivers.

The films of the seventies contain a critical charge turned essentially against the discourse or what can be called the great edifying account promoted by the power. It is to a rewrite of history and the present that the filmmakers invite themselves.

A disengaged cinema?

We note by analyzing the thematic content that there is evolution during the second period which covers the 80s and 90s. Social criticism is present but the politically committed film disappears. The most remarkable difference is this: the theme of the tension between the subject and the group becomes central.

While we are witnessing a virtual disappearance of the theme of resistance to occupation and oppression.

What are the conclusions to be drawn in terms of commitment?

Filmmakers always carry this commitment in the affairs of the city. They define themselves as the interlocutors of their own fellow citizens. Nouri Bouzid, one of the most representative filmmakers of this period, declared a cinema “that considers the viewer as an adult”.

It should also be noted that references to politics are never totally removed. Moufida Tlaltli considers the female protagonists of his films as “the colonized colonized”, and the Halfaouine of Ferid Boughedir is hailed as an anarchist chant against the authoritarianism and the grid of the city by the scrutinizing eye of the guards.

We can not speak of the third period that opens with the millennium without jumping on two elements that concern the film industry. The first concerns state policy: the latter is losing interest in cinema and simply helping to keep the industry afloat. The second element derives in part from the first: we are witnessing the disappearance of the place necessary for what Jean Michel Frodon calls the “national projection” where the nation makes itself visible and identifies itself. The filmmakers are sort of left to their fate and cut off from their audience. A cinema of inadequacy is born. The subjects become more intimate even if the themes of the emancipation of the woman and the confrontation with the group remain dominant. But what is interesting in this cinema of the new millennium is the expression of singularity. We no longer seek his salvation in relation to the compactness of the collective, we no longer seek to transform the group, we evolve at the margin and break.

In the filmmakers of the beginning of the millennium (Raja Amari, Jilani Saadi, Nawfel Saheb Ettabaa, Nidhal Chatta) the political or social commitment is no longer determinant. Films and speeches no longer refer to problematic social realities. Raja Amari declares in this sense, at the exit of his film “The secrets”: “It is true, it is true, tend to draw Maghrebian films, African in general, to this representation of the social that freezes the work of filmmakers and blocks in their artistic approach. Too bad. Does this answer the need to be found in movies in an immediate and direct way? In any case, this is not what interests me most. “ [2]

It is necessary to wait for the revolution and the numerous documentaries produced so that the engagement takes again a sense and that the filmmakers reposition themselves in front of the city. But the quality of this commitment, its critical scope, its forms and its rhetoric remain to be studied. It is also necessary to study the first works of feature films produced in recent years, even if it seems to us that the intimate tendency is largely dominant and that the engagement in the affairs of the city no longer seems to express itself or with the same content. nor from the same approach.

[1] “I want to make a cinema that speaks to Tunisians and calls them”, comments collected by F. Ayari, F. Boughédir and G. Hennebelle , Mahgreb CinemAction CinemAction, No. 14, Spring 1981.

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