By Matthew Fullerton. 

Conceived in 1966 by legendary Tunisian film critic Tahar Cheriâa (1927-2010) to bring together Arab and African cinema, the Carthage Film Festival (JCC) has always had a reputation for breaking taboos: In its fifty years of existence, it has been a platform for filmmakers to question, confront and unite against censorship, and encourage freedom of expression. The JCC is also the oldest festival of its kind on the African continent and in the Arab world, and its main prize, the Tanit d’or, has introduced and honoured many key directors over the years, including, but certainly not limited to, Youssef Chahine (in 1970, for his overall body of work), Nouri Bouzid (for Man of Ashes (1986) and Making of (2006)), and Merzak Allouache (for Les Aventures d’un héros (1978)) and Salut cousin! (1996)).

Filmmaker Ibrahim Letaief (Cinecitta (2008); Hizz Ya Wizz (2013)) is the festival’s current director. Since his tenure began in May 2015, he has proven to be a determined, creative, and brave director: On the fifth day of the 26th edition of the JCC in late November of last year, Tunis was struck by a terrorist attack that killed a dozen Presidential guards; but, the JCC persevered. The day after the tragedy, and despite security threats and curfews, Tunisians lined up for tickets for JCC screenings and events around the capital, and the Tanit d’or was eventually awarded to Mohamed Mouftakir’s L’Orchestre des aveugles (2015). Since the tragedies, the JCC has also become an annual event, a source of immense pride for Mr. Letaief.

In this interview, Ibrahim Letaief reflects on the JCC’s history, its achievements and challenges, and the upcoming 27th edition, which also happens to be the festival’s fiftieth anniversary.

To start, I would like to congratulate you for having been appointed, in May of this year, Chevalier des arts et des lettres of the French Republic. What was your reaction to this honor?

Thank you. My reaction was very natural. I was, and still am, honored and happy with this distinction. The appointment confirms my status as a citizen of the world and proves beyond a doubt that culture has no borders.

Unfortunately, there are people who try to minimize your appointment, seeing it as an “award coming from a coloniser.” In your opinion, where does this negativity come from? What do you tell those who criticize the honour?  

Unfortunately, there are, and there always will be, people who live in the past. These critics in no way affect the importance of this appointment, which comes from a country that is so close to me culturally and which some of my fellow countrymen received before me! But, these naysayers don’t bother me at all. We are in a democracy and everybody is free to express themselves and give their opinion. To answer your second question: I have nothing to say to them.

In May 2015, you became Director of the Carthage Film Festival (JCC). Can you explain the importance of the festival for Arab and African cinemas? How is it different from other Arab film festivals, like Cairo’s or Dubai’s?

Our festival is small when it comes to resources but rich in history. One of the nicest legacies Tahar Cheriâa left us has persisted for fifty years and introduced Arab and African talent, including Youssef Chahine, Ousmane Sembène [La Noire de… (1966)], Nouri Bouzid, Mohamed Malass [Dreams of the City (1985), La Nuit (1992)], [Mohammed] Lakhdar-Hamina [Chronicles of the Year of Fire (1975)], and most recently, Laila Bouzid [As I Open My Eyes (2015)], to name just a few.

As I Open My Eyes (2015)
As I Open My Eyes (2015)

The JCC was the first festival to unite Arab and African cinema. It gives a voice to young pan-African and Arab talents in total freedom, and it provides everybody with a chance to see films that are seldom shown in other countries. I also must add that the JCC does not only take place in spaces in the capital. All of Tunisia benefits from screenings thanks to the programme JCC Cities, which includes screenings and talks in different regions. Prisons benefit, too, with the programme The JCC in Prisons.

What festival achievements are you most proud of?

First and foremost, we are proud of the success of the 26th session in light of the context and the particular conditions under which the JCC was held. The fact we have succeeded in making the JCC an annual event since 2015 is a big step. For the first time, the documentary has joined fiction in a single category that brings together all full-length features. We are also proud of the Tahar Cheriâa Prize for First Work, which has become its own category. Furthermore, during the 26th session, we successfully met the challenge of creating Carthage Ciné Promesse, a category that is competitive on the international level, bringing together fiction, documentary, and animation.

The next session, which takes place from October 28th to November 5th 2016, will be the JCC’s fiftieth anniversary. How do you plan to celebrate this important and historic step?

Big festivities are planned on October 28th to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the JCC’s existence and during the whole week the fiftieth will be honoured. For the occasion, but not meaning to give away too much, there will obviously be some screenings, tributes to certain figures of Arab and African cinema, exhibits, conferences, and a big concert.

For the first time, and also for the occasion, the festival will make its own production, in effect eight short films entitled “Tell me about your JCC”, where each will tell in its own way the history of the JCC. These will be screened on October 29th, the day after the festival’s opening.

You have said that the fiftieth will be a very important, but also a very delicate and difficult, session because of the polarisation of views between those who think the JCC needs to return to its militant, indie, and transgressive fundamentals, and those who prefer broadening its scope by opening it to other cinemas. How have you handled the challenge of finding the right balance?

The spirit of the festival evolves each year through discussion of ideas and differences of opinion. I am not a mediator, but, as you’ve said, Festival Director, and my main task is the longevity and success of the JCC.

Promoting artistic expression among youth is an important cause for you. How do you attract the interest of young Tunisians, especially those who dream of becoming directors, screenwriters, etc., to the JCC?

Since the beginning, the festival has been a hotbed for young Arab and African talents. A lot of famous directors emerged through the Short Film Competition, like Abderrahmane Sissako. [The festival attracts young people] through the new category devoted to films from film schools, Carthage Ciné Promesse. Discussion forums have also been created for young people, as well as themed workshops and the JCC program at universities. Several masterclasses during the week are organized where different cinematic professions are talked about. [There is] the session Producers Network, which strives to promote networking for young directors seeking help and guidance. [There is also] the Takmil competition, which awards a post-production grant. The list is long…

In the past, you have expressed your disappointment with the Tunisian press. How are your relations with the press now?

I can only respect all those who work in this difficult and often complicated field. I have no conflict with the Tunisian press. There are sometimes misunderstandings, which is normal. We can’t agree with everybody in all subjects. I have a good relationship with my colleagues and journalist friends.

And my last question: Are you currently working on a movie project?

Certainly. I have a full-length feature on standby. But, at the moment, the priority is the success of the JCC.

Interview translated from the French by Matthew Fullerton.

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

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