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Knowing Our Past: An Interview with Legendary Tunisian Actor Fatma Ben Saidane

Halfaouine (Férid Boughedir, 1990)

Halfaouine (Férid Boughedir, 1990)

By Matthew Fullerton.

With a career spanning some forty years and upwards of fifty films, plays, and radio and television shows, Fatma Ben Saidane is one of the most recognizable and important performers, not only in Tunisian theatre and cinema, but also in the entire Arab world. She has worked with virtually every director of the New Tunisian Cinema, including Nouri Bouzid (Making Of 2006), Férid Boughedir (Halfaouine 1990) and Moncef Dhouib (TV is Coming 2006). As such, her lengthy and varied career gives her a unique perspective on developments in Tunisian arts and culture, namely its theatre and cinema, through the ages, from the decades of intense censorship before the Arab Spring, to the years after the 2011 Tunisian revolution, and the establishment of a new Constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression.

Her activism is not limited to the stage and the silver screen, however: In recent years, she has emerged as a vocal and staunch defender of women’s rights and gay rights in her native Tunisia, a country that continues to punish homosexuality. Her acts provide testimony, not only to her social engagement, but also to a societal shift in Tunisia after the revolution: In March 2017, she appeared on the cover of Shams Mag, the country’s first LGBT magazine.

In what follows, Fatma Ben Saidane speaks with earnestness and passion for her craft and country and the social causes that are close to her heart. She also reflects on both constants and changes in Tunisian theatre and cinema since the revolution and what it was like working during a period of dictatorship notorious for muzzling directors and filmmakers.

This interview was conducted by email with Fatma Ben Saidane in August 2017 and translated by the author.

While you were still in your twenties in the seventies, you immersed yourself in the world of theatre and it’s obvious that, to this day, you find happiness on the stage. Could you tell us how your passion for theatre began? 

My passion for theatre is linked to many factors and started from childhood.

When I was a kid, I was fascinated with children’s stories. My grandmother would often tell us stories from A Thousand and One Nights and our father had a book of French tales that he’d translate for us into Arabic and read to us at night. Stories like La Chèvre de Monsieur Seguin [Mr. Seguin’s Goat], Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and other great tales. So, from an early age, I was immersed in this dreamlike world that colored everyday realities and gave me a creative outlet for my imagination.

Not having grown up with television but rather with radio, like a lot of people from that era young and old, I listened to radio plays every Tuesday and Saturday evenings, the rare arts shows of the sixties that most Tunisians awaited feverishly. I didn’t grow up with video games or Internet either, so the games my friends, cousins and I played also contributed to my passion for theatre. We’d dream up and invent games of all sorts and give life to our dolls. Sometimes we’d be school teachers or doctors, other times lawyers or pilots, jobs in demand in those days of long ago when the country was trying to combat illiteracy. Games that took up all my free time. In that respect, I’d say that my childhood was happier and richer than a typical childhood of today, with these kids glued to their televisions and video games, and, in certain circles, their Smartphones. The nature of our games, and this period of post-independence [the French colonial protectorate officially came to an end in 1956], where the future held promise and school was encouraged by parents who were often illiterate but respected writing and learning, led me to live a thousand and one adventures by proxy, thanks largely to Ibn al-Muqaffa, Jules Verne, La Fontaine, The Brothers Grimm and many others. Indeed, I could hardly see myself, once an adult, working as a government employee or doing a routine job. As a teenager, I was already aspiring to find a profession that would allow me to flourish and to live many extraordinary lives: I yearned to play characters that were both similar to, and different from, me.

Then, while in school, I’d frequent drama and art clubs, and even dance. One fine day, when I was thirteen or fourteen years old and part of a music club, a drama teacher came to school and I was able to participate in a theatrical creation for the first time in my life. Since then, playing characters, from the most realistic to the most outrageous, became my sole ambition. Amateur theatre followed. A local troupe led by Hamadi El Mezzi, La Trappe, allowed me to win the first award for best actress in 1979, thanks to the play Mère Courage [Mother courage], in which I played the primary role. Being on stage and facing an audience became a way for me to overcome the stage-fright that all young actors experience.

My university career started at the only theatre school in Tunis: Le Centre d’Art Dramatique (known today as L’Institut Supérieur d’Art Dramatique). Two years later, I joined the Tania Balachova Theatre School in Paris where I got to know several talented actors and actresses.

In 1985, I joined my husband in Boston, where he was writing his thesis. I stayed for six months and during that time I took a mime course offered by Laura Sheppard. Once finished, I joined a troupe that participated in the annual Charles River Festival in Boston, where we performed the play L’Amphiparnaso. This theatrical experience showed me an artistic universe that was completely new to me.

On my return to Tunisia at the end of 1985, I entered professional theatre by joining the Troupe du Nouveau Théâtre led by the already experienced Tunisian director, Fadhel Jaïbi, who was assisted by the actor and director Fadhel Jaziri. The play Arab was very successful and sealed my adherence to this troupe, which, since 1987, is known as Familia Productions. Arab was adapted for the screen in 1989, which prompted the general public and several Tunisian directors and filmmakers to request my involvement.

My true calling, needless to say, remains the theatre and I consider myself, first and foremost, a woman of the theatre. At the Nouveau Théâtre, the work is collective: The actor is not simply an interpreter of a text, but participates actively in the creation of the character and their evolution throughout the story.

In my opinion, cinema is very different from theatre: A film script with dialogues is entirely written. The filmmaker is in command and the actor has little leeway. Even if an actor has opportunity to discuss the character with the filmmaker, their role is reduced to learning the script and interpreting it purely and simply. This doesn’t mean I don’t like cinema. Far from it. However, theatre offers me more freedom. In cinema, once a sequence is finalized and packaged, it is near impossible to change anything. The character is frozen, which is very frustrating. No change is possible and a bad scene remains. In theatre, on the contrary, the character, created completely by the actor, belongs to the actor. Every night on stage, the actor improvises, corrects, rectifies, refines and exults in seeing themselves applauded by an audience that is receptive to the wonders of these men and women they can only associate with, like or dismiss but, either way, admire their performances and share their emotions. On the hundredth performance, once the actor truly masters their character, performing on stage becomes the pleasure of the gods.

The stage is my area of freedom and it’s there that I express myself and speak against injustice, terrorism and darkness in all its forms, which pit people against people.

Recently, the play Peurs [Fears], in which you play a vital role, was performed in Germany. Your country’s theatre, like its cinema, seems to be witnessing a sort of renaissance, perhaps even a renewal in appreciation around the world, in Europe especially. What do you attribute this to?

03An earlier play, Violence(s), was performed in Germany in 2015. Peurs was also performed in Germany, in Müllheim, in 2017. Well before that, the play Corps otages [dir. Khamsoun] was performed for the first time at the opening of Paris’ prestigious Théâtre de l’Odéon in 2006. Before the revolution of 2011, which brought theatrical productions to a standstill, several other plays of the Nouveau Théâtre were performed overseas in many towns in North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, South America, and Asia.

I don’t think the 2011 revolution led to a reappreciation of Tunisian theatre overseas. Contrary to many foreign theatre critics, I don’t believe in the prophetic value of the play Yahia Yaïch – Amnesia. We don’t predict the future; we are simply very intimate with Tunisian society and we touch upon major themes that engage Tunisians and artists. Foreign critics, whether they are in Paris, Buenos-Aires, Seoul or Tokyo, always ask us the same question: Did you perform this play in your country? The answer is always yes. Theatre is for us a militant act because it’s subversive by definition. Local content attains universality because we’re interested in all that is human and transcends borders, such as marriage, the young and the old, madness, the world of music and medicine, religious fundamentalism, and dictatorship.

The trilogy of plays, in which Corps otages is a part, tries to retrace the history of post-independence Tunisia: Corps otages deals with the delicate and complex problem of Islamic fundamentalism from 1956 to 2006, the first openly political play describing the emergence and dangers of fundamentalism in Tunisia. This was followed by Amnesia, which denounces the contradictions of a struggling dictatorial regime that uses political fundamentalism to survive, and finally the play Tsunami, which describes a Tunisia divided and disfigured by Islamism in power.

I often get asked: “And after the revolution?” Well, we continue to fight for a modern and tolerant Tunisia that respects personal freedoms! During the seesawing transition to democracy, Tunisia remained more than ever our key concern. It’s for this reason the play Violence(s) came into being: As indicated by its title, the play highlights all forms of political, economic, social and cultural violence that have prevailed in the country since the advent of the revolution. Tunisian society is threatened by terrorists, smugglers and criminals, as well as a political class alienated from a citizenry suffering from unemployment, poverty, instability, a lack of civic engagement, government corruption, police that are republican in name only…I could go on…Violence is master of the country today and nothing seems able to stop it at the moment.

Therefore, we continue to talk about Tunisia and its many problems. Here’s a little story: After a performance of Corps otages in Tokyo, I remember a Japanese woman coming to see us in tears. I thought that I’d see her during the debate afterwards, but she’d disappeared. The performance had touched her deeply and her tears had touched the entire troupe. It was a reminder that what separates people is artificial and what unites them is huge.

Tunisian theatre is anticipated when it’s performed overseas because it has a loyal audience in Rabat, Casablanca, Beirut, Amman, Cairo, Baghdad, Paris, Marseille, Milan, etc. We’ve always played to full houses. Many people come to discover Tunisian theatre and are pleasantly surprised by the quality, the actors’ performances, the production, the design, and the music

You occupy a special place among actors and actresses of Tunisian cinema: During your career, you’ve worked not only with legendary filmmakers from your country, but also with the new generation of filmmakers. How do these last stand out?

There is a new generation of filmmakers in Tunisian cinema. Some excel at documentaries and have even been awarded at big international festivals, while others have opted for fiction. These young artists talk about the problems of their generation, such as unemployment, illegal immigration, homosexuality, drugs, prostitution and juvenile delinquency, themes rarely touched upon by the older generation or treated in a whole other way. It’s a generation with promise that includes Mehdi Hmili [Thala My Love 2016], Nasredine Eshili [Amère patience (Suçon) 2012], Walid Tayaa [Embouteillage (Traffic Jam) 2016], Ismahane Lahmar [N’importe quoi 2013], Leila Bouzid [As I Open My Eyes 2015], and many others. These young filmmakers talk a lot about the revolution and its impact on cinema. I’ve also worked with many students from The School of Cinema on their final projects and I’ve played roles in some of their short films.

Your career encompasses the decades before the Tunisian revolution and the years immediately after. How has the life and work of actors and actresses changed since the revolution? How has Tunisian cinema in general changed? 

If there is one remarkable thing since the revolution, it’s certainly the freedom of expression after more than twenty years of a police dictatorship that muzzled the opposition, the press, culture and even passions…

Before, we needed a double permit for our theatre work: A permit approving a text and a second one authorising its performance in front of the public. This double approval system with the authorities weighted heavily on our work and hindered theatrical creation, which was already in difficulty because of the lack of funding from the Ministry of Culture.

Since the 2011 revolution, the troupe only needs to answer to its audience because censorship has disappeared thanks to the new constitution. But other problems have arisen: Some in the general public protest when a play touches upon subjects still considered taboo, such as religion, the sacred, etc. Before the revolution, the people didn’t complain and contented themselves with plays authorised by the Ministry. But today everybody becomes judge and critic of theatre, from the public to the Union of Imams and to certain fiercely anti-secular media. The incident involving the dance performance Fausse Couche is testimony to a hidden censorship. The title alone, inspired by the Koran, stirred the anger of the Union of Imams, which insisted the title be changed and threatened the troupe with reprisals. It was only after several months and various interventions from artists, journalists and civil society that the title was finally reclaimed. There had been no reaction from The Ministry of Culture, even though it involved a performance of the National Theatre, which is under its supervision, and the director was harassed and assaulted on the street by unknown assailants…Don’t forget that Tunisian Islamists have been in power since the advent of the revolution. Obviously, I prefer this power struggle between artists and citizens over having a government that wants to control public opinion and censor everything. Another example would be the first feature-length film from Sonia Chamkhi, Narcisse [2015], which deals with homosexual love, a taboo subject for many citizens who refuse to look at themselves in the face.

You often play the role of the eccentric woman, as in, for example, Halfaouine, A Summer in La Goulette [dir. Férid Boughedir 1996] and even The TV is Coming [dir. Moncef Dhouib 2006]. What attracts you to this type of role? 

Since you’re touching upon the realm of cinema, you might want to ask this question to the filmmakers who recruit me for roles in their films. I think that all the roles I’ve played, starting with Arab and Démence [Dementia], have something to do with this. Obviously, almost all my characters are inherently dramatic but, when we push drama to its limit, the character becomes humorous, all the while inspiring compassion, or even pity.

I embody characters with the utmost sincerity. I inhabit them, and I’m no longer myself as I become the other entirely. This, in my opinion, is what lends credibility and realism to the most whimsical and eccentric characters.

For a long time, you’ve been considered a favourite artist among Tunisians and a sure bet for guaranteeing a film or play’s success. How do you handle the pressures of such a reputation? 

There really isn’t much pressure. It’s a privilege. For me, theatre or cinema is a profession, like any other. When you do your job well, people respect you and will go as far as loving you. What’s the difference between a surgeon and any other job, or a craftsperson and another job? It’s the love of the profession we’ve always aspired to. Gravitas and self-sacrifice are also two inseparable qualities for carrying out this very challenging artistic work. Theatre is building, carefully and generously, a character from a story and identifying oneself with them completely, whether they be ugly or beautiful, arrogant or pleasant. One must always be daring on stage and ignore the audience in order to challenge it to its very own core. Whether it’s a gift or skill, I really don’t know. What is certain is that theatre is my true calling. All the pains of creating and building a character are erased once the show is ready and they give way to this immense pleasure of being somebody else or yourself on stage. I don’t cheat with the characters I create: If they’re hideous, I will not look to embellish them. Ultimately, the secret to this job, which many of my fellow citizens still consider a secondary activity since it doesn’t always provide, is to put heart and soul into the character we are embodying.

Mehdi Hmili’s Thala My Love was one of the films that attracted the largest Tunisian audience at the last session of the Carthage Film Festival [October 28th to November 5th, 2016]. To what do you attribute this interest?

Thala My LoveThala My Love speaks about women, love and freedom. It’s a film that Mehdi Hmili made with a lot of sincerity. For me, he pays exhilarating tribute to the Tunisian woman who has always advocated for and fought against all odds for herself and her country. Love for the homeland and love for others make virtually one.

You’ve played roles in several films situated in a Tunisia of yesterday. Likewise, your next film, El Jaida from Selma Baccar, takes place in Tunis during the fifties. In your opinion, how is the Tunisian past presented differently in this film from how it’s presented in your earlier films located in the past, such as A Summer in La Goulette?

Férid Boughedir’s A Summer in La Goulette describes with tenderness and humour the totally natural fellowship that united for centuries the three communities – Muslim, Jewish and Christian – in Tunisia through a story of abnormal love between teenagers of different faiths. All changed at the end of the fifties when politics and the Israeli-Palestinian problem dominated the world stage.

I am witness to these glorious years where religion was actually a uniting factor. I was born in the heart of the Medina, in the neighbourhood of El Hafsia, where Tunisia’s largest Jewish quarter in Tunis, El Hara, was. Many of our neighbours were Jewish and everybody’s religious celebrations made the children happy. I remember how during Yom Kippur, we would eat galettes and taste, young and old, liqueurs whose content we didn’t look upon with suspicion. The day of Aïd es-Seghir, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, we’d offer cakes to our Jewish neighbours and their children would eat without shame mutton that was obviously not kosher during Aïd el-Kebir and their fathers would share beer in the meantime. When a family was in mourning, all their neighbours’ radios would be muted for the entire day as a show of solidarity.

For us, it’s very important to show the youth of today, and a world dominated by fanaticism, intolerance, hatred and terrorism, that only a couple of decades ago, Tunisians were living in harmony and peace, regardless of religious affiliations. Religious fundamentalism must be fiercely combatted because it’s a poison that aggravates societies and leads to bloody wars.

Salma Baccar’s first film, La Danse du Feu [The Fire Dance 1995], describes the dramatic journey of Habiba Msika, a young Tunisian Jewish singer and actress who lived in the first half of the twentieth century and paid with her life for a great passion. Like a lot of people from her community, such as Cheikh Afrit, Raoul Journo et Louisa Tounsia, she brought happiness to many Tunisians and her songs are still played on national radio.

Baccar’s second film, Fleur d’Oubli [2005], has again Tunisia as its central theme. The director tackles the problem of homosexuality through the story of a married man who is tormented because he can’t own up to his bisexuality in a society where manliness has ultimate value.

Baccar’s El Jaida, or Dar Joued, closes the trilogy and concerns the subjugation of women in Tunisia before the enactment of the Personal Status Code. The film relates the story of reform schools where rebellious women (those who refused to sleep with their husbands for one reason or another, or those who turned against the tyranny of the mother-in-law, or those who found themselves with a handicapped, impotent or powerless, etc. husband) were imprisoned. Their husbands would come to visit and fulfill their marital rights. Their wives couldn’t get out until they repented, often pregnant. Some refused to put themselves under the yoke of marriage and remained prisoners. These reform schools were closed for good by President Habib Bourguiba in 1956, the year of the country’s independence and immediately after the enactment of the Personal Status Code, a key judicial article that granted essential freedoms to Tunisian women well before their European sisters! The abolition of polygamy, another unique case among Arab countries sixty years later, came into being smoothly, not only because of the popularity and stature of modern Tunisia’s first president but also because some marriage contracts during the colonial period prohibited bigamy or required spousal consent. El Jaida is therefore a very important film because we cannot live in the present without knowing our past: If we don’t know where we came from, we don’t know where we’re going, as the old saying goes.

What is more, Salma Baccar made another film, Fatma 75 [1976], which treats the drama of female virginity in post-independence Tunisia. We can see clearly that Tunisian cinema made giant steps well before the Arab Spring of 2011.

Outside of your work in theatre and cinema, you have the reputation of being a courageous woman and activist. For instance, you advocate for the rights of women and homosexuals in a country that still punishes homosexuality. What attracts you to these problems confronting your country? What inspired you to bare your soul and fight for these causes? 

Firstly, as a Tunisian and as a woman, the verbal and physical abuse suffered by many women here and around the world has become even more intolerable to me considering the key slogan of the 2011 revolution: respect for the dignity of the citizen, which the Constitution would guarantee three years later. This injustice, which goes back centuries, is unacceptable today when girls grab top spots in many university programmes and Tunisian women hold very important positions in nearly all domains, including politics and sports. To paraphrase Sartre, man does not understand that by enslaving and brutalising a woman, it is ultimately himself he defiles and demeans. This is the reason I’ve always advocated, through cinema, for denouncing this evil that affects all social groups, erodes our societies, destroys our families and dehumanizes both men and women. Quite recently, I took part in a campaign denouncing violence against women by having myself photographed partially nude and carrying marks and injuries from domestic violence. In some cases, in the transition to democracy and despite the enactment of a constitution that preaches equality between man and woman, some wives are made handicapped, blinded and are even sometimes killed to the disgust of civil society and politicians. What’s almost as shocking is that many women, often illiterate and having lived in servitude since childhood, refuse to lodge complaints against their husbands. These women, often alienated in the patriarchal system, are fierce defenders of the tyranny of their men. That said, a counseling system has been put in place and many battered women have used its services and testified against their spouses.

Regarding the problems homosexuals face in Tunisia and around the world, a subject that has for a long time been denied in this country even though homosexuality is more common here than most Tunisians would like to admit, it should be stated, quite simply, that homosexuality is a form of sexuality like all others. Thanks to a number of demonstrations and studies from around the world, the WHO itself has finally joined the defenders of individual liberties, including sexual orientation. Aside from the right to be different, the body, just like faith, is a private matter that concerns only the individual, not the State. Simplistic and puritan moralism preached by most Islamists is a cynical political approach that targets a good chunk of the country’s conservative electorate. That said, some secular and modernist political parties don’t protest when they witness assaults [on gay victims] that are growing in number and becoming more and more brutal; however, thanks to Shams, the Tunisian association for the defence of the rights of homosexuals, newspapers are talking about these attacks. Homophobia is not the order of the day, they say hypocritically, and Tunisians have other fish to fry…In the meantime, the police are arresting young people because of their sexual orientation and make them undergo anal-tests (still today, we make girls undergo vaginal tests), imprisonment, moral and physical torture; they turn their families against them, etc. I believe the role of the State, just like the enactment of our new constitution, is to protect its citizens, no matter the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation or their religion.

The freedom and the dignity of the citizen are inseparable, and the State must therefore be their defender and pursue fanatics on all sides who threaten our young revolution.

What theatrical and cinematic projects are you currently working on? 

I am currently working on a theatrical project, entitled Peur(s), with Familia Productions, in collaboration with Tunisia’s National Theatre and Müllheim Theatre. This play was already performed at the Ruhr Theatre in Mulheilm last April and will be performed at the Théâtre de l’Union in Limoges on September 30 and in Tunisia next October.

Regarding cinema, I’ve been sent some scenarios, but full-time work at the theatre will occupy my time all of September.

Matthew Fullerton (MA, BEd, BA) has a particular interest in the cinemas of Tunisia and Japan, two countries in which he lived, worked and studied before becoming an Instructor in History and English Literature and Writing in Canada. His essay, “Folktales, Female Martyrs, and Flaubert in Tunisian Films,” was published as a feature article in Film International 13.4 (2015).

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