by GINA ANNUNZIATA
On 14 January 2011 the President of Tunisia Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had been removed from 23 years in power after 28 days of protests. It all started with Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian unemployed graduate – street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 of December 2010, in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the humiliation that was inflicted on him by a municipal official. This act became the driving force for the Tunisian revolution, sparking demonstrations and riots – some of them deadly – all over Tunisia in protest of social and political problems in the country. After Bouazizi’s death, anger and violence intensified leading then President Ben Ali to step down. Following the events in Tunisia, the uprising took place in Egypt and also led to the ousting of long-time president Hosni Mubarak, moreover, revolts in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen and major protests have also taken place in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Israel’s borders, Iraq, Mauritania and also Libya – where a full-scale revolution has broken out. In Egypt a cinema project starts immediately: Tamantashar yom – 18 days, a collaborative work comprising ten short fictional films inspired by the revolution made by ten Egyptian filmmakers.
The project covers the bloody events that led up to the fall of Mubarak after more than 30 years in power. The title refers to the period from 25 January – when widespread protests began against regime – to 11 February, the day when Egypt’s President finally relinquished his grip. This project – presented at the 64th edition of the Cannes International Film Festival – started by an idea of director Marwan Hamed to get together the world of Egyptian cinema on January 29 in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, with the proposal to make a no budget fictional story to post on Youtube to support the democratization movement. Although there was no agreement between the Egyptian directors involved in the project, in all the ten movies emerge themes such as fear, confinement and desire for freedom. In Window by Ahmad Abdallah – one of the ten short movies – we assist to the story of a young man, who lives in his bedroom, the changes he goes through and his reactions to the revolution he did not take part in, while watching the girl who lives next door through his only window. Going through many personal details, Window reviews the main events in the Egyptian Revolution through Newspaper headlines and Facebook. The young man changes with time, and tries to become more courageous in presenting himself to his love interest, who doesn’t know of him. Interior/Exterior by Yousrui Nasrallah, tells as the protests get in a couple intimacy through the day following the infamous “Battle of the Camels” on Tahrir Square, when Mona decides to join the demonstrators. Mustafa, her husband, tries to prevent her. In this movie Nasrallah uses the raw footage shot during the revolution perfectly blended with the fictional material.
As in Egypt, even in Tunisia immediately started many film projects made by well-known directors as well by cinema students. Until the Revolution, in Tunisia, as in most Arab countries, film projects must first pass a state committee, which grants or denies permission to shoot. If this permission is obtained, another official license, a so-called visa, is necessary in order to exploit the film commercially. As we can imagine, there are taboo such as religion, sex and politics. Even if it’s not formally forbidden, criticizing Islam – the official religion in Tunisia – as well a positive representation of atheism is not appropriate. Nonetheless there are transgressions of these “rules” in a few Tunisian films.
One of the first movies to treat the events surrounding January 14th is La khaoufa baada al’yaoum -No More Fear by Mourad Ben Cheikh where is narrated the story of the Tunisian revolution through the lives of those who lived it. The documentary follows human rights campaigners, media figures, political activists and normal people as they experience the revolution: lawyer Radhia Nasraoui, blogger Leena Ben Mhenni and freelance journalist Karem Cherif are some of them. Radhia Nasraoui is a Tunisian Human Rights lawyer and chairperson of ALTT – Association de lutte contre la torture en Tunisie, (Association against torture in Tunisia). She has acted militantly since 2003 against the torture in the country. Her activities over the last thirty years in favour of human rights have drawn the attention of the authorities who have sort to do all they can do to get her to renounce her ideas. Leena Ben Mhenni is a young activist who recounted the Sidi Bouzid events in her blog “A Tunisian Girl,” defying censorship and jeopardizing her safety.
‘No more fear!’ is referred to one of the slogans Tunisians people chanted during the revolution that overthrew Ben Ali, even if the main characters of the film had broken the wall of fear long before the end of the regime. There are different characters talking about the regime, between these, there is an artist we never see his face; only his hands appear when he is clipping pictures and articles from the press. Those clippings were used to make the poster for the film. The Mourad Ben Cheikh documentary includes many images from video posted on YouTube by anonymous activists. The mobile phones are been a powerful tool used by protesters against the regime. The phone cameras were employed to picture, record footages and upload them to web pages like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter reproducing the real events. Quickly the images of the protests spread and catch the worldwide attention to people’s demands putting the governments in serious difficulty. Practically the mobile phone became a vital tool to connect to rest of the world. Ben Ali’s authoritarian government had little tolerance for Internet freedom. It closed down many sites and arrested bloggers. As we have seen video gadget can film everything and the footage can get around the world within seconds. The information and the images of events are used by activists, human rights organizations as well as the global news broadcasters. The mobile phones represented the knives to the throat of many autocratic regimes in North Africa and Middle East. At first, Tunisian authorities tried first to block cell phone videos of December killings of protesters, which sparked a national revolt making a firewall to filter the videos. They soon spread like wildfire and were picked up by global cable networks, BBC World and Al-Jazeera.
Also screening at the last Cannes International Film Festival, we have to talk about another Tunisian documentary shot before and after revolution: Ni Allah ni maître – Neither God, nor Master by Nadia El Fani which angers Tunisian Islamists. The French – Tunisian director is known for her political engagement on issues that are at the same time controversial. Her first feature film is Bedwin Hacker (2003) where tells about a girl named Kalt (Sonia Hamza) who spends her days hacking into the frequencies of foreign television channels and using them to broadcast messages in Arabic, signing them with a moving cartoon character named Bedwin Hacker. Julia (Muriel solvey), also known as Agent Marianne and Kalt’s old rival, recognizes Kalt’s signature and sets out on a mission to expose her.
With this film Nadia El Fani had to struggle with more or less explicit censorship. Even if Hacker Bedwin has the prize-winning script, she had difficulties about funding, the Ministry of Culture demanded to cut the film and she had to wait four years until the film was released in Tunisia.
With Neither God, nor Master she had no fewer problems to the point to decide to change the title with Laïcité Inch’allah (Secularism Inch’allah) due to its misinterpretation. She starts filming during August 2010 when Tunisia was in the middle of Ramadan under Ben Ali’s regime asking people about religion and freedom. Despite the weight of censorship, Nadia El Fani films a country which seems open to the principle of freedom of conscience in relationship to Islam. Three months later, the Tunisian Revolution breaks out, she is out in the field. While the Arab World enters an era of radical change, Tunisia, which initiated the wind of revolt, is once again a “laboratory country” for its outlook on religion. In the film we see Nadia El Fanideclaring openly she does not believe in god, this is the reason why the film has been encountered a hate campaign by Tunisian Islamists, object of violent Internet attacks. A few months after the fall of Ben Ali it seems that freedom of belief and the right in public defend atheist views, is under threat. After reportage about the film on Hannibal TV, she has stirred up the hatred of Islamists, whose reaction has begun to create serious fears in Tunisia. Web and Facebook sites attacking her, one of these with a claimed 33.000 supporters, have flourished. Nadia El Fani is not the only victim, also other authors such as Nouri Bouzid, have had death intimidation from activists of the Islamist party Ennahdha. Bouzid presented at the last edition of Festival of African, Asian and Latin American Cinema in Milan the videos of his cinema students at work immediately during the Revolution.
Chaos by Achraf Zekri, shows images of looting of supermarkets, of fugitives from prisons while neighbourhood organized groups defend and assist each other, a hallmark of civil society and a extraordinary expression of responsibility to one another. Zaba et les medias – Zaba and media (Z.a.b.a. is for Zine Abidine Ben Ali) by Hassan Abdelghani shows the images of the President Ben Ali in the media, before and after his escape; this video is very meaningful about the question of the journalists’ “responsibility” during the regime. Under Ben Ali’s rule most broadcasters and newspapers were owned by one of Ben Ali’s relatives or remained close to the official political agenda either because of press freedom restrictions or for economical reasons. These structures had consequences for the development of the journalistic field in general and media responsibility practices, in particular. Les barbus et le bordel (The beardeds and the brothels) by Bassem Ayadi follows Islamic fundamentalists calling for brothels to be closed in Tunisia – the only Arab country with legal prostitution. Vous voulez en désordre by Slim Miled, is a rapper video clip in the background of the revolution. Underground music had a key role in protest movements spread with the help of YouTube and Facebook. Hamada Ben Amor, known as El Général – an underground rapper twenty-one-year-old living in the town of Sfax – uploaded a song he had written called Rais Le Bled (President, Your Country) to Facebook on November 7. The rap called out then-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for the problems faced by average Tunisians trying to make a living, including food scarcity, a lack of freedom of speech, and unemployment. The song was picked up by a local TV station and by Al-Jazeera and resounded with many Tunisians who quickly began sharing the rap. Soon enough, the government blocked the musician’s Facebook page and cut off his mobile phone. Despite these attempts to make his music fade away, El Général’s song rapidly became a sort of “national hymn” of the Tunisian Revolution. He recorded another song of protest call Tounes Bladna (Tunisia Our Country) on December 22, few days after he was arrested by state security, taken to the Ministry of Interior, and interrogated for three days. After Ben Ali fall, El Général told his experience to the whole world.
The documentary production about Tunisian Revolution becomes months after months more intense. Last edition of Doc à Tunis, a documentary festival held every year in the capital, gave exposition to the Tunisian movies made in the last few months. Tunisie Année 0 – Tunisia Year 0 by Olfa Chakroun is a film about the fears and hopes about the future of the country. She proposes to restore the mood of a time suspended between past and future, emphasizing the emptiness after revolution but at the same time the search for answers. Another documentary with reference in the title to Roberto Rossellini Germania Anno Zero is Démocratie année 0 – Democracy Year 0 by Cotteret Christophe. This is a feature film about the revolution in Tunisia split in two parts: the first one, Revolution, deals with the events of January 2011, the other one, Democracy, focuses on the democratic transition until elections. Through the analysis of the Tunisian uprising and the establishment of democracy, the film attempts to answer two questions. The first is whether with the Tunisian Revolution is born a new democratic model and whether if it will be satisfactory for all Tunisians, trying to identify the causes of success and / or failures of this new political system. The second question is directed the other side of the Mediterranean: is still possible a revolution is in the early 21st century, and what is its nature? Democracy Year 0, more than a Tunisian film about the revolution, i s a movie about a revolution of thought and democracy from the Tunisian model.
In Préccupations révolutionnaires / Revolutionary Anxiety the directors Karim Souakiet and Aymen made a journey to Sidi Bouzid where the revolution broke out to honour the martyrs and thank them, then they continued the trip to Kef and Kasserine, where the precious blood of Tunisian martyrs has been shed to give freedom and dignity. What gives anxiety now is how they will maintain the achievement of this revolution? Also De bouazizi à Sidi Bouzid – From Bouazizi to Sidi Bouzid by Mounir Msallem was shot in the same territories ten days after the revolution, when the director left by himself to Sidi Bouzid to see if life has changed after the immolation of Bouazizi.
Through all these movies, we have the idea of the complexity of a revolution born for freedom of expression, democracy and secularism. After Ben Ali fall, finally the movie directors could shot freely without bureaucracy brakes, with freedom in movie field never happened before. People let film themselves, with a new experience in a new free way. The public is becoming an “actor”, his relation to the image is changing. May be this is the first sign of revolution, the end of self censorship, the plurality of the outlook without the expectation to tell the realty but just a part of it.
 Tamantashar yom - 18 days : Retention by Sherif Arafa, God’s creation by Kamla Abou Zikri, 19-19 by Marwan Hamed, When the flood hits you… by Mohamed Ali, Curfew by Sherif El Bendari, Revolution cookies by Khaled Marei, #Tahrir 2/2 by Mariam Abou Ouf, Window by Ahmad Abdallah,Interior/Exterior by Yousry Nasrallah, Ashraf Seberto by Ahmad Alaa.
 Viola Shafik, Arab Cinema. History and Cultural Identity, American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 1998, pag.
 Josef Gugler (edited by), Film in the Middle East and North Africa. Creative dissidence, American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2011, p. 19.
 This decision was taken by El Fani last June after that a group of Salafists forced their way into the Africart theatre in the center of Tunis, shattering the glass doors and accosting several people in an attempt to prevent the film from being screened.
 “Mr. President, your people are dying/People are eating rubbish/Look at what is happening/Miseries everywhere Mr. President/I talk with no fear/Although I know I will only get troubles/I see injustice everywhere”. See El Général and the Rap Anthem of the Mideast Revolution, by Vivienne Walt, in Time, Tuesday, February 15, 2011. Read more: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2049456,00.html#ixzz1T0HkD8gB.