Quinta Communications chief Tarak Ben Ammar talks about his role in the recent popular uprising in Tunisia and what he believes are the implications for the Arab entertainment business

In February Quinta Communications’ CEO Tarak Ben Ammar was in his native Tunisia, overseeing production on Jean-Jacques Annaud’s $55m Arabian oil epic Black Gold, when the nation rose up in revolt. Just 23 days later President Ben Ali was ousted, ending 23 years of autocratic rule and sparking the Jasmine Revolution that is reverberating across the Arabic-speaking world.

Helping to give voice to that popular uprising was Nessma TV, the satellite broadcast network Ben Ammar co-founded in 2008 with Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset and the Karoui brothers’ advertising agency.

Nessma means “gentle breeze” in Arabic, a name that reflects one of the network’s underlying missions: to use the gentle power of entertainment to help moderate and modernise the hearts and minds of an Arab population that might otherwise gravitate towards closed-minded radicalism. Two thirds of the 90 million people living in the Maghreb – the North African land mass west of Egypt – are aged 25 or younger, an impressionable demographic whose cultural horizons are largely defined by what they see on the small screen.

Ben Ammar, whose uncle, Habib Bourguiba, was the architect of Tunisia’s independence and the country’s first president, is now developing a feature about Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor whose self-immolation ignited the initial protests.

Your Nessma network defied the Tunisian regime by broadcasting protest reports. What role did Nessma play, both on air and online, in facilitating the uprising?

Tarak Ben Ammar: Nessma was the only media outlet that was allowed to go to [the town of] Sidi Bouzid, where Mohamed Bouazizi was from and had set fire to himself, and interview his family and the inhabitants of the town. Sidi Bouzid was where the revolution started. When we aired the programme on December 30, we did so without showing it to the government or the ministry of information, despite their request. Then we put in on Facebook, so that people who had missed it the first time would still be able to see it online.

We were threatened by the government, but by then it was too late. Nessma helped open the door and within two weeks the revolution had spread across the whole country and [then-president Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali fled on January 15. Never before in an Arab regime under dictatorship had you seen a channel like Nessma air a completely unedited and uncensored programme like we did on December 30. Our Facebook site has more than 200,000 friends.

Of course my partners, the Karoui brothers, and I knew we were taking a risk but we felt it was a necessary risk to take. The government threatened to shut us down and also to send the station’s general manager to prison, but we persisted. The authorities ultimately didn’t dare to take action against us because they knew I had legitimacy – firstly, through my ties to founding president, Habib Bourguiba, and secondly because I had brought so much work over the years to my country through film and TV productions. Also because they knew that one of my partners was Mediaset, a major European media company.

My guess is the newly empowered youth movements across the Arab world will want to see their own stories being told on the screen. Will the independent film-makers from the Arab world we see at festivals now become a force in their local entertainment industries? And, given financiers’ natural aversion to uncertainty, how long will it take for capital to back a new entertainment infrastructure?

TBA: It reminds me of the time I was a student in the US during the late 1960s. It was the time of “I’m Black and I’m proud”. I think that’s relevant to Tunisia and Egypt. We’re seeing the youth there saying: “I’m Arab and I’m proud.” It has become hip now to be Arab, which, let’s be honest, it hasn’t been for some time.

The big question remains where is the market for these emerging Arab film-makers. We need to create a much more robust domestic market for Arab films, which certainly already exists for Egyptian film-makers but far less so for film-makers from other parts of the region, as well as ensure the quality and vision of these films is good enough to translate and export internationally.

Obviously Quinta is investing in Arab films, as this is important for us. You also have financiers in the region, such as the Doha Film Institute [in Qatar], who are making positive contributions as well.

‘It has become hip now to be Arab, which, let’s be honest, it hasn’t been for some time’

Tarak Ben Ammar, Quinta Communications

When I first wanted to make Black Gold 30 years ago I had interest from one of the major American studios, Paramount. One of the questions they asked me then was: why didn’t I have any Arab money on board? At that time, in the late 1970s, we had seen the first big boom in Gulf petro-dollars, so it seemed this would be a region rife with potential investors.

Though I was still a young man without a big reputation in the film business, I had access, thanks to my family, to some of the most important people in this region. I met with a number of important people. I kept getting the same quizzical look and the response: “You cannot be serious.” The name of the game back then was banking, real estate, oil, gas and defence. More than 30 years later, I asked myself, have things changed? Are they still only interested in oil and gas, real estate and armaments? Or have they begun to see the value and importance of culture and the media?

The fact that the Doha Film Institute is partner and co-producer on Black Gold, a film filled with Arab heroes and histories on an international scale, is a measure of how things are changing and will continue to change for the better in the weeks, months and years ahead.

From what I have read, if the Arab world had had more presidents like your uncle, Habib Bourguiba, we might have seen far more gradual transitions and far less of the popular anger, even allowing for the very different times we now live in. What are your personal memories of him?

TBA: I will never forget how my uncle would tell me in private how happy he was Tunisia didn’t have any oil or gas. He would tell me it allowed him to convince the youth of Tunisia they had to work hard and earn their place. That was a lesson I learned myself as I was seeking to forge ahead with my career as a film producer.

Bourguiba placed an emphasis on giving women complete, constitutionally enshrined equality as well as ensuring the Tunisian youth had [access to] good education. Those are the foundations of modern Tunisia today and why I am so hopeful about Tunisia’s future as it makes the transition to democracy.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that both Tunisia and Egypt, the two countries where we have seen revolutions this year, do not have oil. The real wealth in those countries is not in their soil but in the young people who walk on its land. They are the ones who will build their countries. That is exactly the question we ask in Black Gold and why the events of this year in the Arab world have made the film so timely – the film asks the question whether oil is a blessing or a curse.

Factfile - Tarak Ben Ammar

Ben Ammar created Carthago Films in Tunisia in 1974. It serviced high-profile shoots in the country including The Life Of Brian, Star Wars and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Ben Ammar went on to invest and produce his own films; his credits include La Traviata, Femme Fatale, Hannibal Rising and the upcoming Black Gold.

In 1990, Ben Ammar created Paris-based Quinta Communications in partnership with Silvio Berlusconi. Initially a production entity, Quinta moved into rights trading and distribution, releasing Passion Of The Christ in France in 2004.

In 1995, Ben Ammar became a board member of Berlusconi’s Mediaset.

In 2005, Ben Ammar invested $42.7m (€30m) in The Weinstein Company and joined its board. He acquired Italy’s Eagle Pictures in 2007.

In 2007, he opened LTC-Gammarth labs and post-production in Tunisia. Two years later, he launched North African satellite network Nessma TV with Mediaset and the Karoui Group.

Ben Ammar’s digital post-production facilities empire in France includes Duran Duboi, Les Audis de Joinville and a 43% stake in the venerable Eclair Group.