Documenting the Destruction of the Mediterranean’s Only Coastal Oasis

Two images of Gabes juxtaposed. The top one is a screenshot from the Habib Ayeb film "Gabes Labess" depicting the Gabes oasis; the bottom one is a screenshot from the Rabeb M'barki film "All is Well Lella?!" depicting the coast with a red sign that warns “Risk of Death.” Photo of the two screenshots combined on June 2, 2019 by Meshkal news team.

When Rabeb M’barki graduated high school she wanted to study film. But going to film school in the capital of Tunis was beyond her financial means at the time. So she stayed in her hometown of Gabes and studied the closest degree to cinema there was on offer locally: audiovisual advertising. When her teachers asked her what she wanted to do as her graduation project, she told them she wanted to make a film.

“They told me ‘No! You’re in audiovisual advertising, so you have to do ads.’ So I made a film anyways and did a movie trailer for my [graduation] defense,” M’barki, age 28, told Meshkal.

That was just one of many barriers M’barki has faced in her quest to make films. Professional opportunities can often be harder to come by for young people, for women, and for people outside of the capital Tunis and the rich coastal areas. Showing the world her city of Gabes and its suffering has driven M’barki’s work as an “activist artist.”

M’barki’s film, “All is Well Lella?!”, which was screened on May 24 in Tunis at the week-long Ciné Social festival, showed the effects of decades of pollution of radioactive phosphogypsum that have been dumped into the sea from the phosphate production facility owned by the Groupe Chimique Tunisien (GCT).

“Gabes doesn’t have any more water, because [the factory] uses water too. The sea is no more; the oasis has gone; people are sick with cancer; they’re being choked and dying everyday,” M’barki told Meshkal.

It’s a very different Gabes than one previous generations remember from their childhood. Gabes is known for being the only coastal oasis on the Mediterranean Sea and one of only a few in the world. M’barki’s film follows in the footsteps of other documentaries that have tried to grapple with the steady destruction of what was once a city rich in biodiversity, water, and vegetation. A recent one is the 2014 film by documentary filmmaker and scholar Habib Ayeb “Gabes Labess.” M’barki explicitly references an even earlier documentary film from the early 1980s, “Gabes the Oasis and the Factory” by Taieb Louhichi, when her camera passes over a group of older men watching the film on a screen near the dock. Many of the men are fishermen whose livelihoods depend on the sea, livelihoods that are increasingly threatened by environmental destruction.

“Now the world is white and black, now everyone is sick. I dream of seeing the sea flourish again, to see kids playing on the beach, and fishermen taking back to the waves,” Rhouma Zreli, an activist and poet who lives in the Chatt Essalem neighborhood of Gabes near the factory, recites in M’barki’s film. The refrain of his rhythmic poem continues: “We are humans, not slaves. We are neither rocks nor iron of industry and pollution.”

Article 108 of Tunisia’s 1975 Water Code forbids the dumping “into sea waters any substance, especially household or industrial waste, that has the potential to harm public health or the health of marine flora and fauna.” However, even top government officials have admitted that this law has not been applied. Numerous civil society groups, activists, and citizens have continued to stage protests and demonstrations to stop the pollution.

This March, M’barki won the Young Journalist Award at the BBC Arabic Festival. In a video interview on the BBC Festival Website, M’barki says her crew members’ shoes eroded during filming due to the corrosiveness of the local environment. This revelation is particularly striking in the context of the film’s ending, where barefoot women singing and dancing at night lead a young bride to dip her feet into the sea, a tradition that invokes the sea’s blessing. The massive chemical factory, illuminated by its own red-hued lighting system, floods the backdrop. Fumes spout incessantly from its smoke stacks.

A still image depicting a bride in Gabes dipping her feet into the water as part of a tradition. The image is from the film screening of “All is Well Lella?!” at the Ciné Social film festival at the CinéMadart cinema in Tunis, May 24, 2019. Photo by Meshkal news team.

Although M’barki doesn’t call herself a journalist, she appears to have a journalist’s knack for digging deep into a subject and then narrating it while making the audience pine for closure.

“My role is to make people aware that there is a land that has many beautiful things, and a catastrophe has befallen it. This is what makes up the catastrophe, come watch, see,” M’barki told Meshkal. “I present the problem, but I don’t present a solution that I think is correct from my point of view. I want people to find a solution in the debate [that it sparks].”

Film directors of a series of films screened in the Ciné Social festival at the CinéMadart cinema in Tunis discuss their films and take questions. Rabeb M’barki, director of “All is Well Lella?!” sits second from left as an image of her film’s poster is projected behind her. Photo by Meshkal news team, May 24, 2019.

There’s plenty to debate. The film’s premiere at the Ibn Khaldoun Cultural Center in Tunis in early February prompted a three-hour debate, she said. The extraction and production of natural resources for export like phosphates play an important role in the way the Tunisian economy is structured. Many cannot imagine an alternative to an export-oriented industrial policy, no matter how exploitative or environmentally damaging its consequences. But others see Tunisia’s economic policy as being shaped not just by international economic constraints but also by international politics and power.

The phosphate factory in Gabes “is the emblem and distillation of the global and local regimes that control the Global South: toxic, entropic, carcinogenic, a technology which has concentrated wealth into very few hands, and is articulated into international monopoly production chains, while doling out liberally and locally the externalities of environmentally unequal exchange,” argued Max Ajl, a PhD in Development Sociology who focuses on post-colonial development in Tunisia, in a blogpost published by Verso blogs in October 2018.

M’barki hopes that by showing people the nuance and complexity of the situation in Gabes, it might prompt the kind of debate that can provide a solution. M’barki says she knows there may be painful short-term economic consequences for the Tunisian state if the factory is closed. But for her, stopping the pollution is an existential matter.

“I believe that sometimes money isn’t everything. You can’t make people sick, kill nature, kill people because of money. This is something dangerous. If we keep thinking this way the whole world will be destroyed, not just Gabes or Tunisia in particular,” M’barki told Meshkal.

This article is the second part of a series exploring the topics raised in the documentary films screened at the Ciné Social film festival in Tunis from May 22 to May 26, 2019. The films were hosted by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung’s North Africa office and shown at the CinéMadart cinema. To read the first article in this series, click here.