Filmmaking by women in the Arab-speaking world has been a relatively new phenomenon, given various social forces that have slowed the cause of women’s rights — many of which are fairly forthrightly confronted in the films which have been made by women in this region — such as Wadjda, a 2012 film by a Saudi Arabian woman. Like Lebanon (and unlike Saudi Arabia), Tunisia has been one of the more progressive countries, and a number of the earliest works by women come from here.
فاطمة 75 Fatma 75 (1975)
An intriguing early document of women’s filmmaking in Tunisia, which due to a history of being suppressed in its home country for its subversive stance (presumably for suggesting that women are entitled to rights that they hadn’t fully been granted), means that it survives in a fairly faded form. Even so, you get a sense of its lineage in ‘Third Cinema’ terms, as a call to revolutionary change. It straddles the line between documentary (there are plenty of straightforwardly documentary aspects, including interviews and archival footage dealing with several eras in Tunisian history prior to its independence from France in 1956) and fiction. Before the film’s title card comes up, we see the director’s sister Jalila (herself a key theatrical figure) portray various historical figures, though you may need a more thorough grounding in regional history to pick up on who they are. However, it’s clear the director is making a passionate case for the rights of women in a poor country, and it’s a call that still echoes to this day.
Director Selma Baccar سلمى بكار; Writer Samir Ayadi سمير العيادي; Cinematographer Ahmed Zaaf أحمد زعلف; Starring Jalila Baccar جليلة بكار; Length 60 minutes.
Seen at Genesis Cinema, London, Thursday 16 August 2018.
السامة Sama (aka The Trace, 1988) [Tunisia/Belgium/West Germany]
Screened for the London Feminist Film Festival, 30 years after its release (and 36 since it was actually shot due to extensive production difficulties which the director talked about in depth after the screening), this is a film that concerns itself largely with the still-present scars on its women of a patriarchal society. It’s focused on a young woman, Sabra (Fatma Khemiri), who just wants to continue her studies, but finds it difficult to get away from people — her family, the men who are ever-present, criticising women walking on their own, or trying to hit on them, or both — and eventually finds she can no longer live in Tunisia. But then it’s about the practices, many of them based around superstition, which control women’s lives and which are passed down, largely out of sight of men, as a way of dealing with the restrictions. Clearly there are still plenty of issues which remain current, and the film is a first feature so betrays some of the rawness of its low-budget origins, but on the whole it’s a solidly-acted drama that’s a small and unseen window on its society.
Director/Writer Néjia Ben Mabrouk نجية بن مبروك; Cinematographer Marc-André Batigne; Starring Fatma Khemiri فاطمة خميري; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 18 August 2018.