Louise Tutt talks to the Tunisian writer and director about her second feature, which screened in the Arab Muhr Feature Competition at DIFF.

The Tunisian writer and director Kaouther Ben Hania is back at DIFF with her second feature Challat Of Tunis following the documentary Imams Go To School which screened here in 2010.

Challat Of Tunis is a fiction feature shot in a documentary style and is screening in the Arab Muhr Feature Competition.

Is Challat Of Tunis inspired by real events?

Yes. In the summer of 2003, a man on a moped prowled the streets of Tunis, with a razor blade in his hand. He was on a mission to slash the derrieres of women strolling along the city’s sidewalks. Unlikely stories about this mysterious, terrifying figure were passed from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. The thug, known as a ‘challat’, was never caught.

Why did you choose to make it as a fictional feature but in a documentary style?  

I started writing a documentary project about the Challat story many years ago. I wanted to understand what really happened but I quickly realised it’s not possible to ask the police questions in a dictatorship.

So in 2009 I started writing it as a fiction feature and a year later the Tunisian Revolution took place, I was able to start a real investigation to find out more about what happened. I got some interesting elements and rewrote my story a dozen times to incorporate these. It’s now set after the Revolution and is about a woman determined to clear up the mystery of Challat at any cost.

I wanted to make a film with humour and one that was a profile of Tunisian society as seen from the inside, where private and public life are still coming to grips with the search for emancipation.  

Why motivated you to make Challat Of Tunis?  

Since its independence in 1956, Tunisia has prided itself on being alone in the Arab-Muslim world in its positive treatment of women. But for me all this was only written in paper. The relations between men and women are still archaic in a way. But because of the dictatorship all these subjects were hidden. No one talks about the problems. 

This wall of silence is a heavy burden to me and I want to regain my right to speak out as a citizen to say what I think of machismo, of disinformation and the dictatorship.

How easy and enjoyable is it to be a filmmaker in Tunisia today?

After the revolution there were many interesting documentaries made by young filmmakers. We had a real thirst to own our reality, to understand it. Now we are in a democratic transition and in a very fragile situation.  The future is not that sure but we continue filming. Filming is always enjoyable but financing films, bureaucratic obstacles and the disappearance of Tunisian movie theatres is not that enjoyable. Every finished film is a miracle!