Tunisian cinema is often described as the most daring of all the Arab cinemas, reflecting the country’s widely perceived status as the most “open” and “tolerant” of the twenty-two Arab states, the one in which Western modernity has been consciously but not indiscriminately embraced, and where the secular and liberal ideas of its first president, Habib Bourguiba, have taken root and flourished. The social and economic success of Tunisia since it gained its independence from France in 1956—a few periods of stagnation notwithstanding—and its relatively peaceful relations with its neighbors and with the world generally, are thought to be the very proof and reward of Tunisia’s commitment to its national motto, inscribed in the Constitution: “Liberty, Order, Justice.”1 For many, especially in the West and among non-Muslims, Tunisia appears to be a model of equipoise between “East” and “West,” and of how to be a small and sovereign nation in a large and globalized world.
And yet, during Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s presidency, from the coup that brought Ben Ali to power in 1987 to his ouster in 2011, Tunisia would supersede Morocco under the rule of King Hassan II (1961–1999) as the most repressive state in the Maghreb.2 There was no freedom of political expression whatsoever, and the state’s record of human rights abuses contrasted (p.x) starkly with the country’s public image as a safe and friendly tourist destination and as the most progressive society in the Arab world. Against these considerable odds, a generation of Tunisia’s filmmakers emerged in the mid-1980s to make films that are to a greater or lesser degree allegories of resistance to the increasingly illiberal trends marking their society and which explore what it means, and how, to be Tunisian in the contemporary world. These directors of what I call the New Tunisian Cinema have kept the cinema alive as a form of public pedagogy and as a unique site of cultural politics that tries to influence the debate about national identity, a debate to which I endeavor to contribute here, through an analysis of a handful of their films dating from 1986 to 2006.
During my two extended stays in Tunisia under the auspices of the Fulbright Scholar Program—my arrival in Tunis the first time coinciding with the day on which Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn in Washington (an event I witnessed on Rai Uno, the only European-language channel with tolerable reception on the television in my room at the venerable Hotel Majestic on the Avenue de la Liberté); and my arrival the second time, on 11 September 2001, coinciding with the al-Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense in Virginia (my first knowledge of which I derived from the grainy images that came into view, as my landlord’s son, communicating to me by cell phone from the roof of my villa, turned the satellite dish in the direction that would give me the best “bouquet” of channels from the hundreds now available in Tunisia)—the debate about national identity was on everyone’s lips, or so it seemed to me in my milieu, which centered on the University of Tunis. As Fredric Jameson wrote in 1986: “Judging from recent conversations among third-world intellectuals, there is now an obsessive return of the national situation itself, the name of the country that returns again and again like a gong, the collective attention to ‘us’ and what we have to do and how we do it, to what we can’t do and what we do better than this or that nationality, our unique characteristics, in short, to the level of the ‘people.’”3
Obsessive or not, this question of “the national situation” interests me, and interests me now more than ever, not only as it pertains to Tunisia, but as it bears on my own American citizenship. As an immigrant teenager to the United States from war-torn, white Rhodesia, I was already familiar with the rhetoric of national identity—the “what we do better than this or (p.xi) that nationality, our unique characteristics,” and so on—and as an opponent of the racist regime in the country of my birth, I had been forced early to learn about the hypocrisies of power. I had yet to read Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, but I knew its lessons by heart, especially the one about “the colonizer who refuses.”
It was many years before I came to understand that the United States is fully implicated as well in “the colonial relationship” described by Memmi in his book. Carefully disguised for the most part, and operating globally in neocolonial modes that make the identification of villains and victims more difficult, American participation in concrete oppression is nevertheless revealed in all its sordid reality by the massive political and material support we give to the state of Israel, while turning a blind eye toward its morally repugnant ethnic-cleansing policies and occupation of Palestinian territories.4 In Connecticut, at my university, I am back in Rhodesia; like the majority of Americans, most of my colleagues are publicly silent about IDF atrocities and Israeli war crimes, even when these are being exposed by the mainstream media for all to see and read about; and my most vocal students only want to talk about Palestinian “terrorists” and how “Israel has a right to defend itself.”5
This is the context in which New Tunisian Cinema: Allegories of Resistance was written. The debate about who we are as Americans—especially after the Bush–Cheney administration between 2001 and 2009 managed to subvert or dismantle nearly everything I thought the United States stood for6—continues to rage; only now, significant numbers of Americans seem to think we are engaged in a “clash of civilizations” that is threatening our “American way of life.” That “other” civilization is vaguely (or not so vaguely) thought by many to be the Muslim world. The example of Tunisia, then, is of great interest to those of us who care about liberty, equality, and fraternity both within and among nations. Tunisian society really is poised between “East” and “West,” in a way that has much to teach us about the world we live in, and about the world we should want to live in.
This book is not a comprehensive survey of the New Tunisian Cinema. Nor is it primarily concerned with periodization or identifying this cinema’s masterpieces and most representative filmmakers. If I say the films are those of a generation and of an era, it is because most of the filmmakers were born during the ten years before Bourguiba became their country’s first president, and they (still) believe in Bourguiba’s vision of a modern, (p.xii) liberal, secular society that, while remaining true to its essentially Arab and Muslim roots, might, in Bourguiba’s phrase, successfully embrace “the best of the West.”7
Postcolonial Tunisia only partially realized Bourguiba’s early dream of building a modern, liberal, secular state—like France, or more realistically, Turkey—for Bourguiba would become a dictator long before his residence in the presidential palace in Carthage was brought to an end, and he had laid the foundations of the police state that his successor went on to expand and intensify. In retrospect, we can clearly see what the continuities between the two regimes would be, for Bourguiba’s ouster occurred only months after the first film of the New Tunisian Cinema burst onto the scene, Nouri Bouzid’s Man of Ashes (1986). There are wide differences of opinion about how long the New Tunisian Cinema lasted, and which films belong under its rubric, and even some question about why we should call a group of films the “New Tunisian Cinema.” For my purposes, it is the cinema of a generation making films during the Ben Ali era, where “era” is understood to refer to the authoritarian regime of Bourguiba’s last days and the twenty-three years of Ben Ali’s dictatorship that followed.8
Although Ben Ali fled the country on 14 January 2011, providing a definitive end to the era that gave rise to the films I discuss in this study, I designate Bouzid’s Making Of, le dernier film (2006) the last film of the New Tunisian Cinema (for reasons I explain in my final chapter). My concern, as I have said, is not to provide the last word on which films may be included under the rubric and which not (as we hear, for example, in the kind of argument that insists: “The first film noir is John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon , and the last is Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil ”). Rather, it is to identify and examine some important factors, themes, and key moments in Tunisia’s developing narrative about its national identity during a crucial period in the country’s history. It is a period when the filmmakers who came of age during Bourguiba’s heyday saw and understood that their shared vision of the Tunisia they believed in was embattled. Unlike the films made before Man of Ashes—which tended to locate the causes of oppression or injustice somewhere outside the society, or which implied that the stagnation of Tunisian society, such as there might be, was owed to a cycle of foreign domination—the films of the New Tunisian Cinema would be characterized by a certain intimacy and psychological realism of character development and would acknowledge that the sources of (p.xiii) oppression, or causes of malaise, were (or are) within the society, which is a way of acknowledging that Ben Ali’s police state was in a sense a symptom of social, historical, and cultural factors that all play parts in defining contemporary Tunisia and Tunisians.
In Man of Ashes, Bouzid tells a story in which we see a character resisting the tyranny of the Tunisian neopatriarchal family. “In our society the individual is nothing,” the filmmaker has said. “It’s the family that counts, the group. Our cinema is trying to destroy the edifice of the family and liberate the individual.”9 The film’s principal character, Hachemi, shows a disinclination to marry, which his uncomprehending family takes as an intolerable affront to societal expectations. Bouzid suggests that the pressure on individuals in his society to conform to the values and dictates of Muslim tradition and Arab neopatriarchy (symbolized on the one hand by the tradition of circumcision, and on the other by neopatriarchal society’s insistence on heterosexuality and marriage for all its adult members) is nothing less than a form of rape, which he believes occurs at every level of socialization and experience.
In Férid Boughedir’s first feature-length film, Halfaouine (1990), the director offers an allegory of the Tunisian police state’s metastasizing reach into nearly every corner of social life, as the spaces of liberty for the film’s young hero Noura are threatened, one after the other. While the real police state can be seen penetrating his neighborhood (in the form of the police agent, “Columbo,” or the volunteer police informant, Khemaïs), Noura’s authoritarian father is the film’s chief agent of repression in the private sphere. Along with the neighborhood’s self-appointed guardian of morality, the local sheikh, Noura’s (hypocritical) father represents a pervasive climate of interdiction that Boughedir fears has become the hallmark of postcolonial Tunisia. As an allegory that privileges a dialectical relationship between the public and private spheres—in which police violence and arbitrary arrest and imprisonment by the state are scarcely distinguishable in character from the father’s style of governance at home—Halfaouine implies that the Tunisian police state is inscribed in neopatriarchal structures that derive from a patriarchy that has outlived its useful and proper functions and lost its legitimacy. As a boy who in the course of the film grows into adulthood, and who will remember his childhood with a keen sense of nostalgia, Noura would appear to represent a “lost” Tunisia that, in Boughedir’s wistful phrase, was once “a Mediterranean society, exuberant (p.xiv) and affectionate, where humor and eroticism always have their place, along with tolerance.”10
Five years after Man of Ashes, and following The Golden Horseshoes in 1989 (a tragedy about political repression and Bourguiba’s betrayal of the dream—at least for its artists and intellectuals—of a modern and bilingual/bicultural Tunisia), Bouzid made Bezness (1992), which attempts to comprehend the impact on ordinary Tunisians of the burgeoning international tourist industry in their country. The three films form a kind of trilogy, in which we see that, as Bouzid wrote:
The [Arab] male is not [as] strong as he is traditionally portrayed. On the contrary, he is lost and confused and is plagued with a set of dilemmas that shake him to the core. … The projected image of a constantly victorious and honorable Arab hero has been abandoned. Admitting defeat, the new realism proceeds to expose it and make the awareness of its causes and roots a point of departure.11
The dilemmas experienced by Roufa, the protagonist of Bezness, are those of the would-be capitalist whose only commodity is his body. The young hustler becomes increasingly angry and despondent, as he tries to maintain his sense of masculine honor and dignity in a rapidly changing economy that is undermining his sense of agency. The film is fully aware of the “causes and roots” of his malaise, such that it becomes impossible not to read his feelings of subalternity and response to his condition as an allegory of postcolonial Tunisia’s struggles to resist neocolonial domination in a context of Western-led globalization.
Alia, the protagonist of Moufida Tlatli’s The Silences of the Palace (1994), is similarly plagued by a sense of malaise. The narrative is organized as a series of flashbacks, giving it, if not a sense of nostalgia for a happier past, then a feeling that Alia, who grew up in the eponymous palace as the illegitimate daughter of one of the servants, is doomed to suffer a perpetual melancholy. (Alia is never told who her father is, but she infers—and the viewer is in no doubt—that it is Sidi Ali, one of the resident princes.) In a boldly melodramatic and allegorical stroke, Tlatli has her heroine leave the beylical palace at the same historical moment that Tunisia frees itself from colonial domination by the French. It is also the moment that Alia truly becomes an orphan, for it coincides with her mother Khedija’s death, which is caused (p.xv) by the botched abortion of the pregnancy resulting from her rape by Sidi Ali’s brother, Sidi Bechir. Alia’s departure from the palace—the only world she has known—is both an expulsion and an attempt at self-liberation, following an act of resistance that displeases her royal masters. She is inspired to perform her act of resistance by Lotfi, a young revolutionary temporarily hiding out in the servants’ quarters; and she will live with him when she leaves. But he will not marry her (because she is a singer and is illegitimate), even though she is now pregnant with his child; and Alia’s future—like that of Tunisia itself in the allegory—remains uncertain at the end of the film.
In Mohamed Zran’s Essaïda (1996), the discourse on social class so eloquently articulated by Tlatli in The Silences of the Palace is reprised as a persistent postcolonial problem that has been exacerbated by the so-called “economic miracle” that transformed Tunisia’s social landscape under Ben Ali. With the departure of the beys and the establishment of a republic in Tunisia, the plight of the poor and politically powerless (as we see them represented by the servants in Tlatli’s film) is not alleviated. The social class to which Khedija’s rapist belongs in The Silences of the Palace has left its palaces in Tunis and Le Bardo and moved to the northern suburbs (Carthage, Sidi Bou Saïd, La Marsa), where Amine, the protagonist of Essaïda, lives. Amine (Hichem Rostom, who plays Sidi Bechir in The Silences of the Palace), an artist and aristocrat—in a society that cares little about art, or about what Amine’s social class has to offer, but cares a great deal about amassing personal wealth—appears to be undergoing some kind of identity crisis. His (unconscious) search for a muse leads him to befriend Nidhal, a boy from Essaïda, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Tunis. In its depiction of their friendship, and of the consequent tensions between Amine and his upwardly mobile, middle-class girlfriend Sonia, and of Nidhal’s spiraling descent into increasingly criminal behavior, the film suggests that the gap between rich and poor in Tunisia has become dangerously wide. The poverty of Nidhal’s milieu contrasts with Amine’s easeful existence and solipsistic character. And when Nidhal is recruited by Hatem (who in the allegorical reading represents Ben Ali’s kleptocratic family and corrupt cronies), the film in effect offers an explanation of the dialectical relationship that exists between the desperation of Tunisia’s growing poor and the rapine of the newly rich.
The global revolution in communications technologies that occurred in the 1990s would bring about profound changes in the Tunisian public (p.xvi) sphere during the two decades of Ben Ali’s presidency. The spread in Tunisia of new media such as satellite television and the Internet would dramatically redefine the relationships of Tunisians to authority, each other, and the world—especially after the 9/11 attacks, which Ben Ali, like many other authoritarian leaders and dictators, would use as a pretext to reinforce his suppression of oppositional voices—and it would eventually lead to Ben Ali’s ouster. The youngest of the New Tunisian Cinema’s filmmakers, Nadia El Fani, offers an allegorical representation of the impact of this new media revolution on Tunisian society in her quite remarkably prescient film, Bedwin Hacker (2002), which protests the surveillance-obsessed state that Tunisia became under Ben Ali, while celebrating the media literacy and technological savvy of ordinary Tunisians confronting the dead hand of censorship.
With the filmmakers of the New Tunisian Cinema engaged in both a kind of national-cultural historiography and what documentary filmmaker Hichem Ben Ammar describes as “a revolt against the injustice of society,”12 it would be only a matter of time before one of them would make a self-reflexive satire about the state’s own role in writing the national narrative. The French historian Pierre Nora has observed that “history [now] belongs to everyone and to no one and therefore has a universal vocation”13—but in a dictatorship with an image problem, this is not quite true, as we see in Moncef Dhouib’s The TV Is Coming (2006). The principal characters of the film are members of a village cultural committee engaged in the organization of a pageant representing three thousand years of Tunisian history; and in keeping with Tunisia’s status as a country that depends to some considerable extent for its hard currency on attracting international tourists to its shores, the committee seeks to project an image of Tunisian society as one that is stable, tolerant, and open, with a rich history and a long tradition of hospitality. The film takes an amused look at the fraught politics of representation in a state that is not as progressive as it claims to be, offering insights into what is at stake for Tunisians as they attempt to (re)write their history as a streamlined narrative about a people with a “Mediterranean” identity.
In many ways, The TV Is Coming summarizes the project of the New Tunisian Cinema, as the filmmaker and his characters on the one hand try to highlight and celebrate the best of Bourguiba’s legacy (equal rights for women, a commitment to family planning, an inclusive notion of national (p.xvii) identity, religious tolerance, and so on), and on the other hand critique that legacy’s betrayal (the descent into authoritarian, single-party rule, corruption at the highest levels of government, the routine abuse of human rights). The film is an example and illustration of the role played by the filmmakers of the New Tunisian Cinema in the writing of national history and shaping of national consciousness. As we see throughout this study, they seek to construct narratives that, in Nora’s phrase, will serve the civic as well as intellectual needs of their time; whereas the objectives of the state, despite the similarity of the discourse and rhetoric it uses, are above all to keep the president and his party in power.
What I attempt in the following pages is an analysis of the efforts of the New Tunisian filmmakers to help define Tunisian collective consciousness and reinterpret Tunisia’s past and present in symbolic terms.
A Note about Transliteration and Names
In my attempt to address the inherent problems of rendering written and spoken Arabic in the Latin alphabet, I have not used a consistent transliteration system, such as the one provided by the IJMES Transliteration Guide, nor have I taken a purist approach with a phonetic transcription system. My system for romanizing Arabic is idiosyncratic: while not entirely ignoring the ideologically motivated trend to get rid of the colonial transliterations that are in common use (where Koran becomes Qur’an, for example), I normally go with the most common local usage in Tunisia, however frenchified, that is, the usage most Tunisians would recognize and use themselves, the usage we would most likely find in Tunisian newspapers (for example: chechia, rather than sheshia; or Zitouna, rather than the classical Arabic Zaytuna, or Al-Zaytuna). This rule of thumb goes for individuals’ names as well, especially when the individual’s own preference is unknown to me, as in the case of Aboulkacem Chebbi (أبوالقاسم الشايب), which is variously rendered as: Abou-Al-kacem El-chebbi; Abou el Kacem Chebbi; Aboul Kacem Chabbi; Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi; Abul-Qasim Al Shabi; Aboul-Qacem Echebbi; or (as I am told his mother in Tozeur most certainly would have called him) Belgacem (or Belgassem) Chebbi. (p.xviii)
(1.) The Constitution of Tunisia was adopted on 1 June 1959 and amended in 1988 and 2002, after the Tunisian constitutional referendum of 2002. Throughout this work, unless otherwise indicated, all references to Tunisia, its history, society, and so on, are to the status quo prior to the Tunisian revolution of 2010–2011.
(2.) In Morocco, “les années de plomb” (the years of lead—the 1960s through the 1980s) were marked by state violence against dissidents and democracy activists. After the death of King Hassan II, levels of state repression dropped perceptibly, but restrictions on freedom of expression remained draconian. In their 2007 report on the “10 countries where press freedom has most deteriorated,” the New York City-based NGO Committee to Protect Journalists announced: “Morocco joins Tunisia as Arab world’s leading jailer of journalists.” (www.cpj.org/backsliders/index.html.)
(3.) Jameson, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” 65. (It is the article’s opening sentence.)
(4.) Cf. Friedman, “Newt, Mitt, Bibi and Vladimir,” in which he remarked: “I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Friedman’s remark (and the theme of his article) is an early example of a growing trend in the United States of mainstream journalists and public intellectuals trying to make the argument that the activities of the Israel lobby do not reflect the majority opinion of American (p.282) Jews. As one of the anonymous, online responses to Friedman’s article put it: “Israel is no more a democracy than we are. Neither government represents its people anymore.”
(5.) A notable exception is my colleague, Warren Goldstein. See, for example, his response in the Huffington Post on 31 May 2010 to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, and Israel’s attack on a flotilla of activists attempting to break the blockade and supply humanitarian aid to the beleaguered territory: “What Will Israel Not Do?” Goldstein concludes his posting with an address to the U.S. president: “It’s high time for President Obama to hear this, not just from me, but from millions of American Jews. I do not want my tax dollars—any of them—supporting the military of a government that continues illegal settlements, continues the illegal blockade, and then blames the people being displaced and blockaded for not wanting peace.”
In 2001, Steven Rosenthal, a professor of history at the University of Hartford, published Irreconcilable Differences? The Waning of the American Jewish Love Affair with Israel, a brisk and well-written compendium of factors informing the relationship between American Jews and the Jewish state, focusing on the first Palestinian Intifada, the case of the American Jewish spy Jonathan Pollard, the conflict between American Jews and Israelis over the “Who is a Jew?” question, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. (Despite its title, this admirable book is singularly weak on the American Jewish community’s efforts to influence the U.S. government’s involvement in Zionism- and Israel-related matters, i.e., the manifold activities of the Israel lobby.)
Starting in February 2011, Don Ellis, also a colleague, for a time maintained a blog at: http://www.middleeastmirror.com, which took “conflict resolution” as its theme and claimed to hold up an objective “mirror” to debates about politics and conflict in the Middle East, with particular attention to Israel and its neighbors.
(6.) Cf. Hacker and Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class; Herman, Taking Liberties: The War on Terror and the Erosion of American Democracy.
(7.) The filmmakers whose works I discuss in this study were born between 1944 and 1960: Férid Boughedir (b. 1944); Nouri Bouzid (b. 1945); Moufida Tlatli (b. 1947); Moncef Dhouib (b. 1952); Mohamed Zran (b. 1959); and Nadia El Fani (b. 1960).
(8.) I thought I would be the first to name this group of films the “New Tunisian Cinema,” but Sonia Chamkhi beat me to it, with her Cinéma tunisien nouveau: Parcours autres, published in 2002. Chamkhi looks at the Tunisian cinema of the period 1980–1995 through five representative films of the “second generation” of filmmakers (her filmmakers include: Néjia Ben Mabrouk, Nouri Bouzid, Moncef Dhouib, and Moufida Tlatli). In an article about Bouzid’s It’s Scheherazade We’re Killing (1993) and Making Of (2006), published in spring 2011, Jeffrey Ruoff refers to “the Tunisian New Wave,” which he describes as “a period, from approximately 1986–1996, when Tunisian cinema was simultaneously popular at home and abroad, attaining critical success at international film festivals. Many of the landmark works of this period—Man of Ashes, Halfaouine, The Silences of the Palace—were produced by Ahmed Attia of Cinétéléfilms. Not as consistent in its aesthetic and social vision as the French nouvelle vague, the Tunisian New Wave consists of a loosely affiliated group of filmmakers who all knew each other and often collaborated together.” (Jeffrey Ruoff, “The Gulf War, the Iraq War, and Nouri Bouzid’s Cinema of Defeat: It’s Scheherazade We’re Killing  and Making Of ,” 33n8.)
(p.283) Rather than rely on the notion of a “new wave”—which in effect ends when the public feels the novelty of the “new” cinema has worn off—I make the claim that the New Tunisian Cinema emerged as “new” because it was different from what came before it; and until another, recognizably new approach or style began to emerge in response to new or changed conditions, it remained the “new” cinema. The New Tunisian Cinema, thus, comes to an end around the time of Moncef Dhouib’s The TV Is Coming (2006) and Bouzid’s Making Of (2006), when the filmmakers of this cohort begin decisively to change their strategies of subversion and resistance vis-à-vis the Ben Ali regime.
(10.) Férid Boughedir, in publicity material for Halfaouine to accompany the screening of the film in the 1990 Cannes Film Festival.
(11.) Bouzid, “New Realism in Arab Cinema: The Defeat-Conscious Cinema,” 249. Bouzid is talking about Arab cinema in general, not only Tunisian cinema; and he identifies the symbolic beginning of the contemporary sense of defeat experienced by all Arabs as the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, which “brought into question all belief systems and ideologies, thus upsetting any sense of confidence that had been engendered in the people and replacing it with suspicion and skepticism” (242). He singles out the Egyptian Youssef Chahine’s 1972 film, The Sparrow, as “the ultimate in Arab cinema…. the only film to probe, as it were, into the hidden causes and roots of defeat; exploring and exposing not just its military aspect, but all its social ramifications, and rendering it, finally, as a sort of logical extension of the course of events” (245).
(12.) While some films like Bedwin Hacker are rooted firmly in the present or look toward the future, others seek to make a record of the past, before the past’s vestiges in the present disappear from view or fade from memory. The documentary film genre, which until recently did not seem to lend itself as readily as the fiction film to the purposes of national allegory, belatedly found its place in the project of the New Tunisian Cinema, particularly in the films of Hichem Ben Ammar. (Owing to space limitations, and the dominance of the fiction film in the imaginary of what constitutes the New Tunisian Cinema, I have not included any documentary films in this study.) Perhaps contrary to expectations of what the documentary form can accomplish under a regime such as Ben Ali’s—a regime that filmmakers understood could not bear the truth about its repressiveness, unless disguised as allegory (which the regime hoped, or assumed, the viewing public would not pick up on)—Ben Ammar’s sympathetic, “character”-centered documentaries have found a way to tell a story that is both personal and national. El Fani acknowledged in an interview that with Bedwin Hacker she consciously chose the genre film (the cyber-spy thriller) to mount her indictment of the Tunisian police state; and we see that fiction films like Halfaouine (a comedy) or The Silences of the Palace (a melodrama) are distinguished by their authors’ personal stamp, implying that their autobiographical qualities are inseparable from their pervasive nostalgia. But Ben Ammar’s And I Saw Stars (2007), for example—an historical documentary about boxing in Tunisia—succeeds as an allegory of resistance, because Ben Ammar clearly understands what his political motives were in making it. “I made it my responsibility to listen to [the boxers’] voices without betraying them,” he has said, for “the boxer is by definition the incarnation of a revolt against the injustice of society. How to restore the force of his protest? How to render it audible? There’s the (p.284) challenge.” (Hichem Ben Ammar interviewed by Leïla Elgaaïed: “Le documentaire comme combat.”)
After the Arab Spring, there was a veritable explosion of documentary filmmaking in the Maghreb, prompting Le Monde to ask, in an article reporting on a roundtable discussion by filmmakers and critics held at La Clef theater in Paris on 1 December 2012: “Do we have a new ‘golden age’ of the documentary film in the Maghreb?” The discussion topic was the Tunisian revolution according to its films (“Quelle révolution tunisienne à travers les films?”). The discussants agreed that this proliferation of documentary films should not be described as a “new wave,” because the films have been made by filmmakers of all ages: “It is not a question of one generation overtaking another; what unites the filmmakers is their fierce insistence on independence, to the point where some of them even refused aid from their countries!” (Fabre, “Vers un nouvel ‘âge d’or’ du documentaire au Maghreb?”)