“All This for a Drink of Water”: New Documentary Studies Water Injustices

Photo of a scene from the film Om Layoun, featuring a man who said he suffered a stroke after police beat him when he demanded access to water. Photo taken by Fadil Aliriza during a screening in Tunis on March 3, 2021.

One side of an old man’s face remains permanently limp and drooping as he speaks to documentary filmmaker Habib Ayeb, who is standing off camera. Wearing a rumpled and oversized gray formal jacket and a red-and-white patterned fabric around his head that they call a “Zunnar” or “Lahfa” in northwest Tunisia, he shows the cameras the makeshift rainwater system his family uses for drinking water. He said when he traveled from his countryside home to the local government office to demand water, police beat him and he became so angry he had a stroke.

“All this for a drink of water…police humiliated me,” he says.

According to official statistics, Tunisia appears to be a success story when it comes to providing people with water. But statistics are “the State’s knowledge about itself…inseparable from mechanisms of control,” as scholar Béatrice Hibou has written (on page 17). Habib Ayeb’s latest documentary “Om Layoun” shows us what the State might not want to know about water in Tunisia: that many people do not have access, have lost access, or have had access set at a price they cannot afford due to privatization.

On Wednesday, March 3, Ayeb screened Om Layoun for the first time to an invited audience of about 50 people at the public Culture City complex in Tunis. After the screening, Ayeb said he invited Members of Parliament (MPs)—especially those on the Committee on Agriculture, Food Security, Trade and Related Services—for an earlier, private screening, yet none of them turned up despite arranging the time according to their stated preference. However, two MPs were in attendance on Wednesday and Ayeb publicly thanked them for coming.

“The aspects he’s focusing on in this movie, we had discussed previously in the committee and we continue discussing in the conferences we have at the regional level,” Mohsen Arfaoui, an MP representing Tozeur from the People’s Movement party, told Meshkal after the screening. “The most important thing is the fight that occurred between regions over water. There are regions rich in water that are not benefitting from it. Some regions get water at the expense of others. Besides regional disputes, there are also sectoral disputes; industrial sectors, agricultural sectors.”

Asked about Arfaoui’s comments, Ayeb retorted that he’s “sure” the parliamentary committee have not yet discussed the issues brought up in his film, and he sees politicians and officials as influenced by what he calls Tunisia’s “biggest lobby”: Tunisia’s “modernist” experts and agricultural engineers. In the context of water usage and agriculture, modernists want to use water resources for intensive, industrial farming of produce destined for export as a way to develop the country.

Ayeb sees this as a strategy that treats water usage largely as an engineering question rather than a political one and doesn’t prioritize small farmers, rural populations, or ecology.

“They say it. They consider any social, ecological questions as not their problem,” Ayeb said.

Documentarian as Engineer, Scholar, Activist, Artist

Om Layoun is Ayeb’s sixth documentary film after Couscous Seeds of Dignity (2017), Gabes Labess (2014), Fellahin (2014), Green Mirages (2011) and On the Nile Valley (2003). Ayeb sees a continuity to the films.

“It’s the same project: alerting, informing, advocating and politically pushing towards political options,” on the issues of “social justice, climate justice, environmental justice,” Ayeb told Meshkal.

In 2017 Ayeb founded the Tunisian Observatory for Food and Environmental sovereignty, or OSAE by its French acronym.

Postcards designed for Om Layoun—available at Wednesday’s screening—feature a clear statement of purpose for the film: “The right to water is a basic human right that must be enforced. It must not be subject to conditions, limitations, or pricing.”

In the late 1970s, Ayeb worked as a water engineer at the Ministry of Agriculture, but left to do a PhD in Geography after he was told to keep his political opinions to himself. Part of his turn away from what he calls the “modernist” ideology was when he realized his home village of Demmer in the southeast had managed water resources efficiently and equitably using traditional techniques, something he discussed at length in a 2018 interview he gave to Max Ajl.

“There it rains, in the best years, 100 millimeters. This small village they used to grow wheat, which is completely impossible,” Ayeb told Meshkal. “They have accumulated an amount of knowledge and expertise—of course when I was very young I was too much modernist to accept these old things. For me it was just old things, nothing else.”

Ayeb made his first film right after receiving his PhD from University of Paris 8, when a colleague making a documentary needed an expert in Ayeb’s field of doctoral research: water systems on the Nile. The day they finished editing that first film, Ayeb said he went to the supermarket and bought his first camera. The next film he made, Green Mirages, was a sort of return to his home village of Demmer and its old techniques.

“When I started considering environmental poverty, injustice issues, then I went back to the village to understand what we are losing,” Ayeb said.

Listening to the Unheard

Ayeb said he believes documentary films are “the best way to connect academic work with social and political engagement, advocacy, mobilization, action, political action.”

He brings the experiences and voices of rural people—often invisible to city-dwellers and the officials whose policies affect them—to the big screen. Those interviewed by Ayeb are rarely interviewed by media or consulted by policymakers. And when Ayeb turns his lens on them, he doesn’t take soundbites; he follows them to their homes, films what they ask to show him, and keeps his questions—often left in the film’s audio for the audience to hear—spaced out with long pauses and silences which his interviewees fill or leave empty at their own pleasure. He told Meshkal his interviews last from one to four hours and he often conducts multiple interviews with the same person.

The technique presents the interviewees not as subjects of study or pity but as humans and equals.

“We want water in our houses and faucets like everyone,” one woman walking on the side of a small, countryside highway tells Ayeb.

In that scene, Ayeb and his videographer Ernest Riva appear to have crossed paths with three women and their children carrying large plastic jugs full of water down a mountain somewhere in the northwest of Tunisia. The women point out that three large dams full of water are nearby and indignantly question why they can’t have any of it piped to their homes. We learn why later in the film from another interviewee: Tunisia’s post-independence authorities decided to redirect water from the water-rich northwest region to the coastal Cap Bon region, where many water-intensive agricultural goods are grown for export.

In the following scene, we see the women’s homes, and, just as they told the cameras earlier on the highway, they have good quality faucets, showerheads, sinks, and drains—everything but the water they need to live.

“What I wanted to show is their social daily life, their problems, but also what they have in mind: their intelligence, their knowledge, their thoughts politically, ecologically,” Ayeb told Meshkal. “These are unheard people and my idea is to give them a voice. This is just an opportunity to talk. Why I do it is not just a humanitarian issue; I just want to tell the people in the urban areas, to decision-makers, to students, to experts, [that] there are thousands of farmers everywhere and they have an amount of knowledge and you cannot have it in the city.”

Without Water to Drink or Farm

Om Layoun features people who say they have been living without personal access to water for years or even decades. One man tells the filmmakers he and his neighbors “steal” water from the school just below their houses. Someone off camera tries to cut the man off—perhaps out of fear he may incriminate himself or fear that admitting to theft is undignified. But the man insists he will tell the documentary-makers the truth of their situation.

It’s not just homes, but farms as well that are thirsty in Om Layoun. The most wistful moments come when older interviewees recount how free and accessible water used to be decades ago, before a series of privatization measures were slowly—and often quietly—introduced. One farmer laments that the younger generation don’t even know what they’ve lost.

Now, water has “become a question of money…electricity, STEG [the public electricity company], administration,” a farmer in Gabes tells the camera. He adds that the water he uses for farming was once free but now costs 9600 Tunisian dinars a month.

Another older farmer in Gabes, sitting in front of a lush, oasis farming plot, seethes at what he has lost during his lifetime. He tells Ayeb he wants to “go to battle with the State, the people who took our water…the chemical group,” referring to the phosphate processing plant built near the Gabes coastline in the late 1970s.

Photo of a scene from the film Om Layoun, featuring a farmer in Gabes. Photo taken by Fadil Aliriza during a screening in Tunis on March 3, 2021.

The plant, as documented in one of Ayeb’s earlier films, has redirected water from Gabes’ natural oasis—the only seaside oasis in the Mediterranean and one of only a few in the world—while polluting the air and groundwater. A 2018 European Union study found that people in Gabes are nearly two times more at risk of dying  of lung cancer and lung and heart disease than the rest of Tunisia.

“Our rights have become only dreams,” the older farmer continued.

Besides showing people without drinking water or farmers without irrigation water, Ayeb’s film has one other main focus: water infrastructure, like irrigation channels or industrial or traditional watering mechanisms. A series of long, still shots show concrete water channels beside bone-dry earth. The structures look as if they have been abandoned for decades: water infrastructure without humans or life.

Photo of a scene from the film Om Layoun, featuring old water infrastructure. Photo taken by Fadil Aliriza during a screening in Tunis on March 3, 2021.

The film’s opening scene features a farmer in a shack in a barren landscape trying to work a motor that can pump water out of his well. We hear the noise of the motor, and we see the farmer’s head peep out of a window occasionally. He pauses his unfruitful efforts to tell Ayeb—standing off camera as always—that it takes a younger man to go into the well and fix any mechanical problem. If he doesn’t succeed, he’ll have to buy water from his neighbor’s well to water his trees.

Eventually the man succeeds and he tells Ayeb: “I’m the happiest man in the world because I’m thinking of my trees.”

Ayeb said that Om Layoun will soon be screening at festivals domestically and abroad, but there are no set dates yet for the next screening.