Ten months after Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power, a delegation of French producers headed to the country last weekend to forge new links with its fledgling, post-dictatorship film industry.
Revolutionary exploits, female sexuality in Tunisian society and the misadventures of young people desperate to make it across the Mediterranean Sea to European shores were among the subjects on the table at the first ever Franco-Tunisian co-production forum last weekend.
Some 20 French producers flew into the Tunisian capital of Tunis for the event organized by France’s National Cinema Centre (CNC), promotional body Unifrance and Tunisia’s fledgling producers union, the CSNPF.
“The forum came out of a meeting between Tunisian producers with the CNC at Cannes which led to a series of joint actions aimed at rebuilding our film industry,” commented coordinator Habib Attia of Cinetelefilms.
At present, Tunisia makes one or two low-budget local features a year. Its producers would like to increase that to ten productions annually. A French protectorate from 1881 to 1956, the country has retained strong cultural and linguistic ties with France, making it a natural first port of call for the country’s fragile cinema industry.
Attia produced Mourad Ben Cheikh’s documentary capturing the days surrounding the toppling of Ben Ali No More Fear, which screened in Official Selection at Cannes this year and is due to hit cinemas in France today (Oct 5), where it is being distributed by KMBO.
Running Sept 30 to Oct 2, the co-production forum coincided with the first day of campaigning for upcoming elections on Oct 23 for an assembly that will write Tunisia’s new constitution. Formerly banned Islamist party Ennahda is expected to take up to 30 percent of the vote.
Ennahda supporters were out in force in the centre of Tunis over the weekend, canvassing for votes not far from the once notorious Interior Ministry which remains surrounded by barbed wire, tanks and soldiers.
The revolution and on-going struggle to establish a new democracy following the departure of Ben Ali were high on the list of subjects tackled by the 30 projects presented to the delegation of potential French co-producers
Lofti Achour’s well-received, two-part project Burn (Brûle) and Fourteenth (Quartorze) revolved around a political intrigue involving a French multinational in the weeks leading up to the revolution followed by a 24-hour drama set between Jan 14 and 15.
Mhedi Hmili’s said his feature project Hourya, about an amnesiac searching for his identity among the inhabitants of a post-epidemic, burnt-out city under military rule, grew out of his time in exile.
“I couldn’t return to Tunis for three years and the town in the film reflects my image of the city during that time,” explained 27-year-old Hmili. “I finished the first draft on Dec 24, it was before the revolution but this is very much a post-revolution tale… if ever the elections turn sour… this imaginary city could become a reality.”
Ramses Mahfoudh (Godolphin Films), Hourya co-producer alongside Mohamed Ali Ben Hamra (Polimovie), said they were considering shooting the picture in one of the Libyan towns damaged by fighting between interim government forces and fighters loyal to Muammar Gaddafi close to the Tunisian border.
“Clearly it depends on the security situation but it’s wholly feasible. Towns like Zaltan and Zuwara lie just a few hours’ drive from Tunis,” said Mahfoudh.
Not all the projects tackled the revolution.
Nawfal Saheb Ettaba’s Baccalaureat, one of the most popular projects of the weekend, looked at the issue of illegal immigration from Tunisia through the treacherous odyssey of a teenage boy who pays people smugglers to get him across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
Conjectures Mortelles, from 24-year-old director Mohammad Ben Slama, looked at the trend among young Tunisian women to get their hymen re-sewn to pass-off as virgins on their wedding night. Ben Cheikh’s long-gestated Ali Rais delved into the trial of the legendary 17th century pirate.
Majdi Lakhdar’s Black Pigeons (Les Pigeons Noirs) recounted the unlikely friendship between a cabaret dancer and a young housewife, with little experience of the outside world, who suddenly has to survive on her own after her domineering husband disappears.
Veteran filmmaker Naceur Ktari, who worked as assistant director to Roberto Rossellini and Dino Risi in his early career, unveiled his adaptation of Mohamed Bouamoud’s The Years of Shame (Les Années de La Honte) an epic love-story spanning from 1936 through to World War Two in Tunisia.
Ktari had already found a French co-producer in the shape of Laurent Thiry of Magnificat Films who was present at the forum.
Other attendees included Marc Baschet (ASAP), Catherine Dussart (CDP) and Guillaume de Seille (Arizona), Mylène Guichoux (Aurora), Xenia Maingot (Eaux Vives) and Yves Chanvillard and Nadim Cheikhrouha of Screen Runner, who were at Venice this year with A Desintegration and Would You Have Sex with an Arab?
“France is a natural co-production party for us and a market that could work well for our films. We’ve got strong cultural links and a shared history,” said Attia as the event wrapped up on Sunday. “We hope the forum will become an annual fixture from now on.”