Testing the Social Power of Film in Tunisia

Film posters attached to the glass wall façade of the CinéMadart cinema in Carthage, May 24, 2019. Photo for Meshkal by Fadil Aliriza.

At the second screening of the documentary short film Deportato in Tunis this May at the Ciné Social film festival, two of the five people profiled still couldn’t make it to watch the film in which they were featured. The reason: they couldn’t afford to come from Sfax, a city less than 300 kilometers away.

The socioeconomic status of the people featured in the film is a central theme of the documentary, which helps explain their absence at the screening. The film focuses on the detention and deportation of five Tunisian young and middle-aged men who migrated to Italy by sea in recent years, usually in dangerous conditions and without visas. While the men come from different areas and don’t all know each other, what ties them together apart from their migration and deportation is that they have precarious work opportunities, either being unemployed or working part time for as little as 12 dinars a day (about 4 USD as of this writing) for part time gigs.

“Why did I go? Did I go to play football for Milano? To buy sneakers? You go there to work a bit, make some money, get married and come back,” Ismail Kleifi explains in the film between cigarette puffs.

While Kleifi has a sense of humor about his ordeal, others continue to have nightmares.

“I would sleep and dream that I was still crossing the sea. It was the same dream everyday,” says Amin Salah, another man who traveled to Italy in dangerous conditions only to be deported after months in detention.

A photo of a scene in the film Deportato depicting Hicham al Abed Ben Soltane, the main narrator and interviewer who himself was deported by Italian authorities at the film screening in CinéMadart cinema in Carthage, May 24, 2019. Photo for Meshkal by Fadil Aliriza.

The same trip has been deadly for many. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, 2,275 people died or went missing crossing the Mediterranean in 2018 alone. 2016 was one of the most deadly years, with the UNHCR recording over 5000 people who died during the crossing that year.

Migrants often pay large sums to people operating ferries that leave at night from North African shores and places like Zarzis to Italian islands like Lampedusa and Pantelleria. Some of the men in Deportato describe being packed into small boats with up to 120 other people, increasing the risk of the boat capsizing. Italian authorities have arrested Tunisian fishermen who rescue migrants stranded at sea and bring them to Italian shores.

For the director of Deportato, conveying the experiences and messages of his subjects to viewers is an important part of expressing his own political message.

“I advocate that it’s the right of people to go the second [other] coast [of the Mediterranean], to go where they like. They were born free, they should move and live free until they die,” director Hammadi Lessoued told Meshkal. “But people live an experience of collecting money and selling, making ends meet and then going to a place and then they find themselves in a place back where they left from and they lost everything. It means that today we have to review our whole relationship with those who yahreqou.”

The verb “yahreq,” which in Arabic literally means to “burn”, means in Tunisian dialect to travel to Europe clandestinely. The origin comes from the phrase “to burn a traffic light,” meaning to run a red traffic light.

But what can documentary film do to influence political realities? For Lessoued, whose film Deportato was produced by the collective blog Nawaat and the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES by its French acronym), he doubts his film can have much impact.

“I don’t imagine the film will change the reality. Not a thing will change,” Lessoued said. “The authorities in Tunis are not listening to people. They just rule the way they want to rule. And people talk however they want to talk. There’s no respect for those who are talking from the authorities.”

Lessoued says the same applies to documentary films about much more prominent issues like poverty and war in the region which have also resulted in no real political change. Lessoued has much more modest ambitions for what his film can accomplish.

“The role of a documentary is to talk about an issue that hasn’t been talked about before…It’s possible that its role is to open the door to debate,” Lessoued said.

Rabeb M’barki’s documentary All is Well Lella?! was screened the same day in Tunis as Deportato at the Ciné Social film festival organized by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung North Africa office. Her film documents the environmental destruction caused by industry and its effects on the health and livelihoods of residents of Gabes. She too is skeptical about the power of documentary to change social and political realities.

“If I talk to you as an artist, yes [it can have an effect],” M’barki told Meshkal. “But if I talk to you as a person from Gabes, with a lot of logic and a lot of realism, it can [change] a bit, not a lot. I alone can’t do anything. My film alone can’t do anything.”

While directors M’barki and Lessoued may be guarded in their hopes for what their films can accomplish, others see documentary film as a medium that can have a real impact.

“I don’t believe in that. They don’t realize it. But I see it. They have their heads so much in their film. You can see the motivation behind their films it comes from local frustration about an injustice,” Hisham Ben Khamsa, Head of Communication for the Carthage Film Festival, told Meshkal when asked about directors who think their documentaries can’t affect change. “The sum of all of these push forward the boundaries. It definitely moves the goal posts.”

The organizers of the first Ciné Social festival see the event as one more platform for reaching people who might have more power to shape policy.

“Everyone is an island… we don’t have a common or collective platform where we can invite politicians, decision-makers,” Belhassen Handous, a program manager at Rosa Luxemburg in Tunis who was one of the main organizers of the festival.

Handous is himself a documentary filmmaker. The films that he and others chose for the Ciné Social festival after a call for applications all included some sort of denunciation of a social ill, whether precarious labor conditions, marginalization, or challenges in Tunisia’s political transition process. The appeal for documentary film as a medium to discuss these issues is that they can attract wider audiences, according to Handous, and he believes that it can have the power to make political change, even if people don’t realize it.

“This is the main crisis in Tunisia, we are not aware about the power of documentary and the impact of social documentaries,” Handous said.

While the space for expression in films has grown since the 2011 uprising, there is a history of even the Tunisian state funding challenging films that explore social issues. Ben Khamsa gives the examples of The Silences of the Palace or Halfaouine, although in contrast to current Tunisian cinema these well-known films focused more on private spheres in life and family issues rather than the public sphere.

“The success of Tunisian cinema was that it was very ingrained in society. It was very social cinema. And you see it also in documentary,” Ben Khamsa, who is also a longtime promoter of Tunisian films internationally, told Meshkal.

Narjes Torchani, another project manager at Rosa Luxemburg who worked on organizing the Ciné Social festival, says that while the opening night of the festival saw a full house at the CinéMadart cinema for the film #Manich_Msamah Generation, each subsequent night saw about 70 people attend. For her the festival was a success in giving platforms to documentary films—a medium that often faces challenges to commercial success. However, she also sees the need to bring in larger audiences to social topics through more attention to film form and cinematography.

“I personally noticed people came because the film talks about their region or a topic they are really engaged in, so maybe we have to work more on cinematographic aspect of filmmaking,” Torchani told Meshkal.

Getting the balance right between form and content could be one way for Tunisia’s new generation of documentary filmmakers to reach wider audiences.

This article is the third 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. To read the second article in this series, click here.