Cinema for Prisoners Too, as JCC Film Festival Kicks Off

Prisoners at a film screening during the JCC film festival at the Oudhna prison in Ben Arous on October 30, 2021. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

As Tunisia’s biggest annual film festival, the Carthage Film Festival (JCC by its French acronym) kicked off on Sunday, October 30, the traditionally desperate search for tickets began. But one group of people received their own private film screening: about 150 prisoners from the Oudhna Civil Prison, including 30 female prisoners who were brought in from the Manouba Women’s Prison facility.

“This was my first time in a prison and I was horrified and scared that the film would not appeal to them [the prisoners]. However, seeing their feedback, claps and the happiness in their eyes afterwards was the best thing that happened today,” Egyptian filmmaker Ali Al-Araby told Meshkal/Nawaat after the prisoners watched his documentary “Captains of Zaatari.”

“Captains of Zaatari” is a documentary that tells the story of Mahmoud and Fawzi, two Syrian refugees from the Zaatari refugee in Jordan. For eight years, filmmakers followed the pair as they pursued their dream of playing football, trying to avoid the wretched life that people constantly told them was their fate. Through football, Mahmoud and Fawzi hoped to achieve celebrity and represent their country in a tournament in Qatar. All they wanted was an opportunity to travel outside the refugee camp, the only home they had known after having had to flee their war-ravaged country. The film shows that they were eventually able to fulfill this dream, offering a hopeful message to their families and friends at Zaatari camp, and on Sunday, to the prisoners in Oudhna jail as well.

“All a refugee could need is an opportunity to fulfill their dream, not pity,” Mahmoud says in the film to journalists gathered in a press conference after finishing their final game in Qatar.

Prisoners Share Feedback  

At Oudhna, where prisoners are placed when they have only a little of their sentences left to serve, the prisoners don’t wear uniforms. In his navy blue tracksuit, with his hands crossed behind his back and a smile on his face, 38-year-old Ahmed*, a prisoner at the Oudhna prison facility, stood in the audience to watch the screening of “Captains of Zaatari”.

“I found the story very motivating,” Ahmed told Meshkal/Nawaat. “It gave us a good message… similar to how they were able to fulfil their dream despite their country being at war. It could also be possible for us when we leave [prison] another day”.

Before the screening, the prisoners were also given a live musical performance by Tunisian singer Yasser Jradi. Ahmed told Meshkal/Nawaat that they hope to have access to movies and music more than just once a year during the JCC festival.

“If we could have it two or three times a year, it would help us a lot,” he said.

This sentiment was echoed by Ahmed’s prison mate, 33 year-old Tarek*, who said that more activities that cater to their diverse preferences should be included as part of the correctional program inside their prison facility.

“We have been waiting for a week and making arrangements for this event to take place. We have talked to the people in charge, and we hope to see more of it not only in the JCC but also throughout the year,” Tarek told Meshkal/Nawaat after the screening.

Tarek thinks that it’s important to make things diverse and allow all prisoners to have a breather a few times a year.

“Not everybody loves football or cinema…It would be nice to have different types of activities here.”

“At the end of this day you will be going home but we are the ones getting locked up again, and I cannot find enough words to describe to you the feeling we endure…We really hope to at least have things where we could spend our time and release our energy…and where we get to feel that we are not prisoners for a while,” Tarek told Meshkal/Nawaat inside Oudhna prison.

Ahmed told Meshkal/Nawaat that he hopes society and people outside prison could look beyond the existing stigma around prisoners and give them a chance to dream again.

“It is true that we made mistakes but we are also entitled to have our dreams… This is not a stopping point for us. We can build new lives when we go out, and we hope that they [society and the state] would help us pursue our dreams and not end it here,” Ahmed said.  

Cinema as a Rehabilitation Tool

The screening for the prisoners was organized part of a collaboration launched between the Tunisian Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Culture, in partnership with the International Organization Against Torture (OMCT by its French acronym) and is the seventh annual time such a screening occurs.

Khaireddine Ben Hassan, a representative from the Ministry of Justice who was present at the event, said in a press statement to journalists in Oudhna prison that they are planning to make JCC screenings in Tunisian prison facilities a yearly occasion, in addition to other available cultural activities.

“This comes as part of our correction and rehabilitation process which we have initiated together with the Prisons National Directorate and other ministries… We sought through this initiative to allow prisoners who cannot reach the outside world to see it from the inside and send them a message of hope, entailing that with work and perseverance, they could also have a chance at dreaming,” Ben Hassan explained.

“Helping these prisoners with their rehabilitation and reintegration is a national issue and all parties need to cooperate to help them get back to society,” Ben Hassan told Meshkal/Nawaat after the event.

For Tarek Sdiri, the Oudhna Prison Director, JCC is an opportunity to have more engagement from prisoners.

“We started this experience since 2014, in partnership with OMCT and other civil society parties…I believe that this has been a successful experience and we seek to pursue it more in the future…We’ve seen interesting interaction from our prisoners and we hope to see more of it during the Carthage Theatre Days (JTC),” Sdiri said.

Sdiri said that in preparation for JTC, prisoners from different facilities will be showcasing a play they have prepared in the State’s Culture City facility in downtown Tunis.

Sdiri also explained that the Oudhna prison facility, located in Ben Arous governorate, 24 kilometers away from the capital Tunis, is different from other facilities in the country, as it has a correctional and rehabilitory nature. There, prisoners who only have a short time left in their sentences can come and learn some manual skills that would help them in finding jobs and reintegrating into society once they leave.

Egyptian filmmaker Al-Araby said that he hopes he can see this experience replicated in other parts of the Arab world, and he offered to make more time to spend with the prisoners at Oudhna if they are willing to create movies themselves.

“For me, the real award that I got after making this movie was this experience, nothing can top that,” Alaraby added.

Al-Araby said that they are planning to screen his movie “Captains of Zaatari” in all refugee camps in the world within three months of Tunisia’s JCC festival.

The first screening of his documentary was in the Egyptian Gouna Festival in early October.

The JCC festival, which runs from October 30 to November 6, includes special movie screenings in prison and juvenile facilities.

*Pseudonyms have been used for the prisoners’ names.

This article was produced as part of a reporting partnership between Meshkal and Nawaat.