France 1911

By Matthew Fullerton.

New technologies continue to bridge distances, and the importance that Tunisia has accorded the seventh art of filmmaking in the realm of culture and the organization of events surrounding this art has helped.”

Tunisia has for many years – and even in the midst of long periods of dictatorship – valued the seventh art. Film festivals have a solid history there, such as the JCC (Journées cinématographiques de Carthage), which was conceived in 1966 by the late Tunisian film-critic Tahar Cheriâa. In the decade since the Jasmine Revolution, which ended a 23-year old authoritarian regime and ushered in a period of new freedoms, modes of creativity and cultural initiatives, varied, unique and specialized film festivals have sprung up. These include Manarat, a week-long summer Mediterranean film festival that screens movies on beaches, MQFF, Tunisia’s first LGBTQ+ festival, and Panorama International Short Film Festival (PISFF), which showcases cinematic productions from young directors and is the first festival dedicated to short films in Tunisia. Filmmaking has also taken off in the country in the ten years since the Arab Spring, with young directors emerging to explore genres not traditionally associated with Tunisian films, such as documentaries and docufictions, and to make films that capture the post-revolution zeitgeist.

In the following interview, Kamel Aouij, the founder and director of PISFF, and 21-year old Mohamed Feki, “Tunisia’s youngest director”, whose France 1911 (2020) is one of four Tunisians films in competition, speak about what’s in store for the PISFF sixth edition and how a small festival and the Tunisian film industry are persevering during trying times for cultural events and the creative classes as a result of the global pandemic.    

(The interviews were conducted by email on January 13th, 2021 and Facebook Messenger on January 27 and were translated from the French by the writer.)

The last time we spoke was in January 2020, a few days before the festival’s last edition.  Please talk about the successes and highlights of the PISFF fifth edition.

Kamel Aouij (KA): The audiences were enthusiastic, and we got great satisfaction from the assistance we received from our partners and supporters. 

Please tell us about the upcoming sixth edition and, particularly, the Tunisian films in competition.    

KA: The 6th edition has seen an overall improvement in the quality of films selected for competition and the implementation of a tradition of dialogue with our partners, Cinémathèque tunisienne and APAHT [Association des Parents et Amis des Handicappés de Tunis], in particular. The selection committee chose twenty-two films from around the world, including African films from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Togo. Of course, the big challenge this year is how the sixth edition plays out with all of the issues surrounding Covid 19.  

The Tunisian short fiction film, La dame et le roi [dir. Anis Absi], will be screened out-of-competition, as a kick-off for the festival. It was also scheduled to be screened during the January 19th press conference, which got cancelled because of Covid 19. La dame et le roi tells the story of Leila, an 11-year-old girl who lives in France and returns to Tunisia once a year on vacation with her family. The boy Ahmed is her only Tunisian friend and she decides to help him get a visa to live in France.

Four Tunisian films will be screened for competition. There is the short fiction Thin Line from director Faouzi Djemal, which follows Ramla, a 24-year old woman, as she navigates personal problems on the day of the revolution and the climate of terror and insecurity in the days that followed. In the realm of documentaries, we have Thorn Tissue [dir. Wajdi Jhimi], Pipou [dir. Manel Katri], and Mohamed Feki’s France 1911, which is based on a burglary committed against Pablo Picasso.

Mohamed Feki (MF): France 1911 is a short, animated docufiction about the great painter Pablo Picasso. The film reveals his artistic universe and his strong feelings about the link between man and his art. I was inspired by John Jack Cripsel’s book Pablo Picasso 1910, which delves into the artist’s life in Paris, including the infamous theft. Ever since reading it, I wanted to make a short film of the incident, but with a distinct style. 

The film was released on June 1st, 2020, and since then, it has participated in seventeen international festivals in several countries, including Italy, the US, Iraq, Syria, Morocco, Japan, and England. It has so far garnered three international awards [Festival indépendant du premier film des deux rives; Domum Film Festival; Mitreo Film Festival] and is currently participating in three festivals, including PISFF. 

Recently, the Tunisian government declared a four-day period of confinement because of a sharp rise in Covid 19 cases. How has this impacted your work, and what steps are you following to ensure that it is both safe and exciting for attendees? 

KA: The most recent confinement has resulted in the cancellation of our press conference, which had been scheduled for January 19th and was intended to announce the festival’s detailed program. Fortunately, cultural activities are scheduled to resume on January 24th. Steps have been put in place to avoid problems, and we will be enforcing up-to-date health protocols. This includes venues being limited to 50% capacity and, when necessary, going to remote Internet access. If the period of general confinement continues, we have measures in place to conduct things remotely.  

MF: I’ve seen a negative impact of coronavirus in all areas, including on the cultural side. The number of active film festivals has plummeted, and some have shut down. However, on my own personal creative side, I am in the early stages of a feature-length fiction, which will involve famous Tunisian actors, a major production company, and several sponsors. I’m happy that they have confidence in my skills and the training in filmmaking that I received from Institut Supérieur des Arts et Métiers de Sfax [ISAMS].   

Please tell us how you bring an international flavour to your festival.

KA: New technologies continue to bridge distances, and the importance that Tunisia has accorded the seventh art of filmmaking in the realm of culture and the organization of events surrounding this art has helped. This year, the Jury consists of Dora Bouchoucha, a very well-known producer, Tunisian actors Lassaad Jamoussi and Amel Olouane, as well as Algerian actor Hassan Kechache.

The sixth edition of Panorama International Short Film Festival will be held February second to the fourth in Tunis’ Salle Tahar Cheriâa. 

Matthew Fullerton is an educator and part-time academic (Dalhousie University) in Atlantic Canada. He researches and writes about the cinemas of Japan and Tunisia, two countries in which he used to live, work and study.

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