A man sitting in an internet café in the small town of Thala shows footage posted to Facebook of his fellow townspeople taking to the streets in early January 2011—demonstrations that provoked a deadly response from security forces and played an important role in what has been called Tunisia’s revolution.
“What remains of the revolution?” the man, who goes by Nidhal, asks himself, apparently repeating a question asked by someone off-screen.
The question seems to have caught him off guard. After a pause, Nidhal responds.
“My son,” he says, now bringing up a photo of his son onto the screen in front of him. “His father made a revolution for him…and one day he will make a revolution for his descendants.”
This is a single scene in Memory of the Revolution, one of five short documentary films made by local, amateur directors from Thala compiled into a larger one called Stories of Young People in Thala. Nidhal’s answer in the film prompted cheers and applause in an overcrowded cinema in the massive Culture City complex in the center of Tunis on Tuesday night. The film was produced by the international non-governmental organization International Alert and the screening was hosted by “Cinémathèque Tunisienne,” the film library attached to Culture City.
Thala lies about 250 kilometers southwest of Tunis in a district (délégation) of the same name within the larger governorate of Kasserine near the border with Algeria. According to the 2014 census, the population of Thala district is just under 40 thousand people. On January 8, 2011, Thala was also the site of what one retired Tunisian general described as “the deadliest fight of the Tunisian revolution.” Alleged details from a closed military trial concerning the events were published in the press, supporting the claims of many locals in Thala that security forces opened fire on demonstrators using sniper rifles.
The demonstrations and the deadly suppression of those demonstrations in Thala have continued to make national and international headlines. In 2012, a military tribunal sentenced former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in absentia to life in prison for his role in the killing of 22 people and the injuring of hundreds more in Thala, Kasserine, and surrounding areas. However, Ben Ali’s head of presidential security, Ali Seriati, and then-interior minister Ahmed Friaa were acquitted. Since then, prosecutors have brought other cases against these high officials in what continues to be a fiercely debated transitional justice process.
Nidhal was “the first one to participate in the revolution in Thala,” which is why he was chosen as a subject for their film, according to Jihen Nasri, who codirected Memory of the Revolution together with Shady Rebhi.
“Eight years after the revolution, nothing has changed,” director Nasri told Meshkal. “The demands are the same, the social conditions are the same…we’re always living protests, living the demands. The citizens need something to change but nothing changes.”
Nasri, age 29, like nearly all her colleagues in this project, had never had any experience making films before this one. However, she jumped at the opportunity when International Alert opened up calls for applications for Stories of Young People in Thala.
Thala is a “marginalized town, with all the problems of marginalization: unemployment, school dropouts, very poor infrastructure, lack of opportunities,” Olfa Lamloum, the Tunisia country director of International Alert and a political scientist, told Meshkal.
International Alert made a film about Kasserine, a similarly marginalized town in 2017, documenting the stories and ambitions of people there whose voices are rarely heard or represented in national media. During the course of producing and directing that film, entitled Voices from Kasserine, Lamloum says her team met “young people passionate about cinema” from Thala and decided to launch a second film project, this time about Thala that would put the cameras and the directing in the hands of locals themselves.
Tunisia’s “democratic transition should include marginalized people in terms of people, voices, needs, opportunities, equality, public policy etc.,” says Lamloum.
The first short, entitled Beyond the Mountains, directed by Anis Khelifi and Ghaith Sehli, follows an older man, Am [Uncle] Brahim, and a younger man living in a rural area about 15 kilometers north of Thala. Am Brahim humorously chides young people who have gone to the city and taken classes looking for state jobs and takes pity on the Tunisian state itself, which he says is having its own problems these days. The younger man bemoans the fact that he wasted several years in job trainings and looking for work before moving back to do agricultural work on his ancestral land; he shows the camera his austere living quarters.
The second short, entitled Football and directed by Elyes Omri and Hassen Sayari, documents the attempts by locals to get state officials to fulfill their promise to invest in the worn down stadium of the local Thala football club the “Thala Sports Association,” founded in 1921. A confrontation with a visiting minister apparently leads nowhere. Meanwhile a veteran of the club remembers a chant that supporters would sing when he and his teammates used to enter the stadium, a chant which proudly recognizes the struggle of the players to make it to the stadium in rain and wind and in terrible conditions. When they would sing that, the veteran says, he and his teammates would play “like devils.”
The third short, Fathia, Story of a Young Rural Woman, directed by Hanen Messaoudi and Marwen Slimani, profiles Fathia, an ambitious and charming young woman who entered electoral politics despite obstacles presented by her family and community. Fathia is fiercely proud of Thala. Fathia herself was in the audience in Tunis on Tuesday night at the showing in Culture City, and after the screening she like several others in the audience who had come from Thala shouted out “vive Thala!” The fourth short, The Fava Bean Revolution, directed by Anis Hamdi and Bilel Rahmouni, documents a charismatic, ambitious, funny, and illiterate resident of Thala who started his own business selling fava beans on the streets, one of several odd jobs he does to make a living.
When Stories of Young People in Thala was screened in Tunis on Tuesday night, several audience members used the opportunity after the film’s screening during the question and answer session to criticize the amateur directors. Some of the criticisms focused on the technical aspects of cinematography. However, others criticized the clothes, attitudes, and demeanors of the subjects in the film. One older man criticized Fathia, profiled in the third short, for her headscarf for not conforming to what he said was the kind of women he knew in the countryside. “How awful she is,” the man who had been given the microphone insisted, even after several audience members pointed out that Fathia was present in the room.
Some of the negative comments the film received reminded Lamloum of comments she received after the film Voices from Kasserine was screened in other parts of Tunisia as well.
“We have real territorial conflicts and inequality [in Tunisia], and when we put all these people together we usually have this kind of tension from both sides,” Lamloum offered as an explanation. “There is a lack of space of discussion between people from different backgrounds in this country. We had people at the same time from Douar Hicher [a poor neighborhood in the capital of Tunis], from Thala, from Tunis. The audience was really very mixed, in terms of territory.”
Nevertheless, organizers see the event as a success. The cinema on Tuesday night was packed, with over 200 people in attendance in a space that holds only 150. Those who arrived late had to sit on the floor and in the aisles.
“When the hall, during yesterday’s screening, was filled with so many people, I could see that our participants were a bit anxious, but also confident and happy to share and express their narratives on screen,” Mariam Abdel Baky, a project manager at International Alert told Meshkal. “It was very rewarding and incredible for us to see our participants, some of whom have never shot a film before, be able to express themselves in a cinematographic way.”
One of the major themes in many of the shorts was the feeling that the demands of the 2011 revolution remain unfulfilled, despite the often tragic sacrifices locals have made. This, however, shouldn’t necessarily lead viewers to pessimism, according to director Nasri.
“Naturally there’s an opportunity for hope because there was once a day when the people revolted against a dictatorship, broke the chains of 23 years. There was once a day when the people revolted and there wasn’t a single person who imagined that this people would revolt,” Nasri says. “Certainly the same people, the same young people, and the same future generation that has lots of hope and lots of ambitions are still ready to continue the path.”