How post-revolution Tunisian cinema has become MENA's new home of indie filmmaking

Still from the film "Under the Fig Trees" [Luxbox Films]
7 min read
01 June, 2022
A triplet of Tunisian films have been selected for this year's Cannes Film Festival, solidifying its status as a regional cinematic hub. Speaking with those responsible, The New Arab learns how the Arab Spring was a watershed moment in their growth.

The country that triggered the wave of protests that would become known as the Arab Spring in 2011 is also the one affirming itself as the MENA region’s new home of indie filmmaking.

With an impressive three feature films, Tunisia is the Arab country that had the most films selected for the Cannes Film Festival this year, the world’s biggest international film festival that occurred from May 17 to May 28 on the French Riviera.

The three films, called Under the Fig Trees, Harka, and Ashkal were selected in Un Certain Regard and the Directors’ Fortnight, which highlights up-and-coming filmmakers.

"Although Tunisian filmmakers are still heavily dependent on European film production companies to co-produce and finance their films, it is clear that the country’s filmmaking future is full of promise and imagination"

Though all fictional stories, the features are unmistakable post-revolution films. Their backgrounds and narratives are heavily influenced by the national uprising and the historic events that have happened since December 2010 and indelibly changed Tunisia’s young generation of artists and filmmakers.

Under the Fig Trees by Erige Sehiri is probably the least directly political of the three films, but its depiction of young labourers in rural Tunisia spending a hot summer day working in a field of fig trees paints a poetic portrait of the Tunisian youth, flirting and romancing and dreaming of a tomorrow with better opportunities.

Erige Sehiri is only the second Tunisian woman to be selected for the Directors’ Fortnight, after Moufida Tlatli in 1994 for The Silences of the Palace.

This is Erige Sehiri’s first feature film, but not the first time her work focuses on labourers in Tunisia. Her critically-acclaimed 2018 documentary Railway Men recorded the working lives of train drivers as they struggled to keep Tunisia’s run-down rail network up and running.

For her first feature, Erige made a film that is deeply personal to her. Growing up in Lyon in France, to two immigrant Tunisian parents, she had only moved to Tunisia in January 2011 following the toppling of ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, originally to cover the revolution as a journalist.

The idea for this film came to Erige unexpectedly, as she was auditioning young girls in a small city close to her father’s birthplace of Kesra, a village in north-western Tunisia famous for its figs.

Erige met and became fascinated by a young tomboy who said she spent her summers harvesting figs. She followed her to the fields of fig trees to meet the young labourers, and decided to “make them my heroes.”

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“I identified with them especially because of this area. It's an Amazigh village from my father's childhood, and if my father hadn’t immigrated to France 40 years ago, I would probably be like them,” Erige told The New Arab.

The girls spoke in a very distinctive accent from that region, so for Erige, it was also a way to reconnect with her family roots.

“My parents were here for the screening yesterday. My father was crying so much. He kept saying ‘these accents! It’s my people’ so it was very emotional for him to watch that,” Erige said.

Harka, directed by Lotfy Nathan, was the only Tunisian film in the Un Certain Regard selection, and it’s also Lotfy Nathan’s first feature film.

Lotfy Nathan isn’t Tunisian, but Egyptian-British, yet he always wanted to make a film about Tunisia since it was the country that triggered the Arab Spring. 

In Harka, we follow Ali (brilliantly played by the young Adam Bessa, also known for Extraction and Mosul, who won Best Actor in the Cannes Un Certain Regard Awards), a Tunisian street seller during the Arab Spring, who tries to take care of his two younger sisters as he dreams of a better future, for himself and his country.

Still from Harka [Lofty Nathan]
Still from the film Harka [credit: Film Constellation]

Lotfy said that the title has a double meaning, that in Tunisia it’s a slang word for illegally crossing the Mediterranean into Europe, but it also sounds the same as “harraga,” which means “to burn.”

As is famously known, the Arab Spring started with self-immolation in Tunisia, that of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in 2010 in Ben Arous due to harassment and humiliation by police.

It was originally the story of Mohamed Bouazizi that inspired Lotfy in making a film about the Tunisian revolution.

He initially arrived in Tunis, hoping to make a docu-fiction film about Bouazizi, but was eventually turned off after talking with many local Tunisian filmmakers, who felt cynical about making a film on this topic.

Lotfy felt like an outsider making a film in Tunisia about this historical period, but it was a position he used to his own advantage.

“I think that anytime something like that happens in a country, these revolutions that are so widespread, it spurs our immune expression, and especially when there's regime change, there’s amazing art that comes out of this,” Lotfy said.

Ashkal is another film in Cannes 2022 that looked at post-revolution Tunisia and took a keen interest in Mohamed Bouazizi and the act of self-immolation.

In this police thriller by Youssef Chebbi, which received rapturous applause in Cannes, a young policewoman (excellently performed by newcomer Fatma Oussaifi) investigates a series of crimes in the half-built neighbourhood of Carthage in Tunis, in which people with no suicidal thoughts mysteriously self-immolate.

Beyond looking at this act of self-immolation in Tunisia through a political and social lens, the film explores the mystical and religious elements to fire – as a form of destruction but also of peace.

Self-immolation has persisted as a form of protest in post-revolution Tunisia since Mohamed Bouazizi’s death, with estimates of several hundreds of Tunisians committing the act due to socio-economic problems. In 2020, reports said that the number of self-immolations has tripled since 2011.

“It's the fact that it's happening again and again, that it's multiplying, that made me want to deal with this issue, and to ask the question: why do we live in a country where it's becoming more and more common?” Youssef told The New Arab.

“For me, Ashkal is really about borrowing different themes from contemporary Tunisia and recent history and making it a genre film in this area of Tunis.”

Still from the film Askhal [credit: Youssef Chebbi]
Still from the film Askhal [credit: The Party Film Sales]

Both Youssef and Erige are two examples of young Tunisian filmmakers whose films cross genres and experiment with filmmaking techniques rarely seen in Tunisian cinema.

Both filmmakers attested that since the 2011 revolution, the feeling of emancipation of the Tunisian people has been reflected in the arts. Youssef even went so far as saying that “there is more and more a re-appropriation of Tunisia through its cinema.”

“We feel that Tunisian cinema is becoming more and more assertive and is also very diverse. Before it was more of a formatted cinema, there was always this idea of having to make films that related to a reality of Tunisian society, but we feel that now we are freeing ourselves from this more and more.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Erige, who said that Arab or Tunisian cinema had to follow a certain formula to be accepted in international film festivals or be praised by European or American movie-goers, but young Tunisian filmmakers don’t bother anymore with this need to conform, which has liberated their filmmaking practice.

“Now we can be a filmmaker without being in the system,” she said. “Before you could not tell stories that were against the establishment, so you had to be very close to the system to succeed.”

Beyond having these three films in Cannes, Tunisia was also represented in Cannes through the director Kaouther Ben Hania, who was Jury President of Cannes’s Semaine de la Critique sidebar selection, as well as the 1971 film Viva la Muerte by Fernando Arrabal, selected for the Cannes Classics film section.

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Although Tunisian filmmakers are still heavily dependent on European film production companies to co-produce and finance their films, it is clear that the country’s filmmaking future is full of promise and imagination.

Erige, who has founded a collective that unites young Arab women in the film industry called Rawiyat  Sisters In Film said it best herself: “We don’t produce enough films [in Tunisia], but what’s good is that we produce few but usually they’re very good, so I have a lot of hope for the future of Tunisian cinema.”

Alexander Durie is a Multimedia Journalist for The New Arab. His stories focus on social movements, migration issues, and the arts & culture of the SWANA region. He has contributed to The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, The Economist, The Independent, and more.

Follow him on Twitter: @alexander_durie