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The Tunisian film industry

Tunisia- Carthage Film Festival
Tunisians queue outside a movie theater in Tunis on November 8, 2017, during the 28th edition of the Carthage Film Festival. Photo AFP ©AFP ⁃ FETHI BELAID

The Tunisian revolution of 2011 has had a profound effect on the country’s film industry and cinema. After a steep decline, during the last decade, of the reign of the former strongman Zine El-abidine Ben Ali, who was Tunisian president until 2011, the sector has quickly emerged as a strategic source of cultural, social and economic development.

Tunisia’s film industry collapsed in the early 90s, after Ben Ali’s decision to transfer the ownership of the national ‘Tunisian Society for Film Production and Expansion’ to a private monopoly. With little to screen and unable to compete with home entertainment, numerous cinemas were shut down. The number of film theatres dropped from 100 theatres for three million inhabitants after Tunisia´s independence from France in 1956, to a dozen for eleven million inhabitants in 2011. Eight years later, in 2019, the country counts around 18 film theatres for the almost 12 million inhabitants, including an eight-screen multiplex opened by international chain Pathé Gaumont. Screenings are also held at community and cultural centers, for instance the prestigious nine-hectare ‘Cité de la culture’ (the city of culture) in Tunis.

The monopoly was broken up in 2011, during the revolution. Since then, local cinema clubs have arisen and the number of production companies has increased rapidly, some of them established by well-known cineasts. Film and documentary makers have quickly taken over the new public space that was created by the hard-won right of freedom of expression. A variety of documentaries and films have become possible to make now that people are no longer afraid to talk. Documentary makers have explored profound problems of Tunisian society, such as internalized colonial oppression and fossilised social structures that block youth´s access to society. The film ‘The Last of Us’ (2016), considered as characteristic for the new experimental approach of the next generation Tunisian filmmakers, is a magic story about an immigrant’s voyage to Europe. The film, made by director Ala Eddine Slim, was selected to represent Tunisia as best foreign-language film at the 90th Academy awards in 2018, but was eventually not nominated.

However, a significant number of other films have also gained more international acclaim. The 2016 drama ‘Hedi’, which according to filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia is ‘a metaphor for post-revolution Tunisia’, picked up two awards, for best debut and best actor, at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2016. ‘La voie normale’ (‘the normal road’), released in 2019, a documentary about the Tunisian railway company SNCFT, was screened at a couple of important documentary festivals and won two awards. A restored version of the monumental ‘Les Baliseurs du désert’, organically produced in 1984 by the internationally reputed filmmaker Nacer Khémir, was selected to participate in the Venice Biennale in 2017, in the Classical Films section. One year later, Tunisia opened ‘La Factory’, which is part of the Cannes film festival, that aims to encourage young directors from all over the world and to promote local films. In addition, since 2018, Tunis has been hosting the annual Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival, the first event of its kind in the MENA region and an initiative to promote Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans-sexual rights in Tunisia, where homosexuality remains controversial and criminalized.

No doubt inspired by the post-revolutionary social changes, Tunisian filmmakers have shared their anxieties and personal perspectives in feature films and documentaries with a political message. Between 2011 and 2018, at least four feature films addressed radicalisation and other frequent topics about the position of women, the struggles of the youth as well as the changing parent-child relationships in Tunisian society. Some of these films have received financial support from international donors, but filmmakers often prefer to ensure their independence and turn therefore to low-budget films.

However, in 2017 and 2018, claiming they were bored by the often distressing, realistic stories they were often creating, Tunisian filmmakers and public became thirsty for different film genres. Well-known film director Abdelhamid Bouchnak created another mile-stone in Tunisian film history in 2018 with Tunisia’s first horror film, ‘Dachra’. His film became a resounding success. Simultaneously, the ‘new style comedy’ Porto-Farina (2018), by Ibrahim Letaief, was widely praised and screened for months in almost all of the country’s film theatres.

Tunisia, known for exporting olive oil and deglet nour dates, might be on the cusp of adding a new item to its export products.

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