By Matthew Fullerton.
As Hollywood grapples with diversity issues, it is interesting to note how Tunisia, an emergent democracy since its 2011 revolution, has witnessed women filmmakers moving into the forefront of a traditionally male-dominated film industry. Emboldened perhaps by the 2014 Constitution guaranteeing freedom of opinion, thought, and expression, and by international interest in the Tunisian condition since the Arab Spring, women directors have emerged in Tunisia’s resurgent cinema to create films that capture their country’s zeitgeist and confront head-on taboos and subjects traditionally censored, or treated allegorically, by Tunisia’s most famous, and largely male, New Arab Cinema filmmakers. Kaouther Ben Hania’s latest, Beauty and the Dogs (2017), is an example of one such film: Consisting of nine chapters, each consisting of long-takes, Beauty and the Dogs treats the female condition in Tunisia in a gritty and audacious manner as it follows Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani), a twenty-one-year-old rape victim navigating a cruel system stacked against women and still clutching to its past.
In chapter one, Mariam is a happy-go-lucky and confident young woman attending a university party she has helped organize. Despite her makeup, dress, new stylish purse – a gift from her friend Najla – and the ease with which she socializes, there is the sense that she is actually quite vulnerable. This is heightened by subtle hints about her life and background – a university student from a conservative family living in a dorm in the city and surrounded by liberal friends and classmates – and the stalking quality of the long take. When she is introduced to Youssef, a young admirer in the nightclub, they speak into each others’ ears. Although their conversation is unheard because of the music, it is obvious that Mariam is in control and suggests they leave the bar together.
Chapter two opens with a terrified Mariam, a striking contrast to the vibrant young woman above, running through a dark suburb. Youssef is in pursuit, but when Mariam becomes hysterical at a passing police car, it immediately becomes clear what has just happened. From there, Youssef leads Mariam first to a clinic for treatment and then a hospital for a medical certificate. At both establishments, however, she is denied services by women receptionists and doctors alike, who uphold laws they are unwilling, or unable, to justify humanely. The clinic’s middle-aged security guard is sick with a cold – “a virus going around,” he tells the receptionist – and coughs at Youssef, an early allusion to the sicknesses permeating Tunisian society. After the receptionist kicks them out, Youssef and the guard decide, without consulting Mariam, that she needs to go to a public hospital to get a medical certificate.
At this stage in Beauty and the Dogs, it would seem that men are the only ones willing to assist Mariam. Regardless of this subtle blurring of gender roles in traditionally patriarchal Tunisia, however, it is difficult not equating Mariam to some prop in the men’s own desire for justice. When he is unsuccessful getting her medical attention in the public hospital, the setting of chapter 3, Youssef approaches a news-crew covering the chaotic ER, which is a glaring contradiction to the calm cleanliness of the private clinic and testimony, perhaps, to persistent inequalities in Tunisian society. Youssef whispers to the reporter, who promptly turns her cameraman on Mariam. Again, he is acting without consulting her, and Mariam panics and demands she not be filmed. “To keep them accountable,” Youssef replies. “I’m not giving up. People have died for the revolution!” This element of ulterior motives and secret plotting threads throughout Beauty and the Dogs and heightens Youssef’s ambiguity: his whispered conversations intensify this intrigue and the idea that men are ultimately calling the shots here, that Tunisia is still firmly patriarchal, despite this co-called revolution. Furthermore, the idea of others having given their life in the name of change belittles Mariam’s experience and what she will have to endure in the film to see justice. This idea of using the media, whether it be news media or social media, to exercise Youssef’s ultimate goal harks back not only to Tunisia’s young revolution but also, ironically, to its previous dictatorship.
People sincerely willing to assist is a rarity in Beauty and the Dogs. There is, in fact, an overarching resistance to help. Characters frequently hide behind unexplained laws and pass the buck as Mariam moves from the clinic, to the chaos of the public hospital, to police stations, on her journey for humane treatment and justice. Denying a rape victim both services seems to be the modus operandi of the State, which is omnipresent in Beauty and the Dogs. It permeates hospitals and police stations. Ironically, some of Mariam’s harshest deniers and critics are women: the status quo and a bureaucracy particularly cruel toward women being defended and upheld by female nurses, doctors, and police officers alike seems to plague Mariam. Consequently, women become defenders of Tunisia’s patriarchy, which, like the State, lingers throughout the film. Women show little outward sympathy, choosing instead to uphold bureaucratic laws they fail to justify, ultimately enforcing existing roadblocks, or creating new ones. As an interesting aside, one of the only women to show an interest in Mariam’s case is a lowly hijab-wearing hospital attendant. She seems to take Mariam under her wing, bringing her first to a westernized female gynecologist, who, unsurprisingly, denies her service by hiding behind some law. But the attendant seems more curious than anything about Mariam’s plight (“What exactly did they do to you?” she asks), her traditional ways, highlighted by her attire and her reference to God (“May God protect you,” she tells Mariam), indicating she has likely lived a somewhat sheltered existence.
Though women seem to be complicit in aggravating Mariam’s plight, the true oppressors in Beauty and the Dogs are men. When they are not tormenting Mariam directly, they lurk in the background, out of focus, but always predatory. Even the seemingly benign Youssef incorporates an exploitative edge to his relationship with Mariam. Most of the policemen in chapters four onwards are utterly hostile and cruel defenders of the State, which casts a long shadow over the whole narrative. “We are the State,” Mariam’s first interrogator declares. “We don’t do these things.” By this definition, therefore, policemen are only willing to deal with unnegotiable absolutes. The shadows of the State and the patriarchy eventually blend, which is exemplified by the interrogators insisting on knowing who Mariam’s father is, blaming Youssef for not having protected Mariam and appealing to her patriotism. Ben Hania also emphasizes the burden of the State and the patriarchy through this scene’s claustrophobic setting, a narrow, cigarette-smoke-filled office in which Mariam is the lone woman.
Her case, then, quickly becomes wrapped up in the politics and posturing of post-revolution Tunisia. Mariam finds herself caught between the State apparatuses and the patriarchy, both of which want to bury her case, and the revolution, whose slogans Youssef shouts. Caught between these worlds, she frequently falls into their traps: when pushed on her relationship with Youssef during the first interrogation, for instance, Mariam identifies him as her fiancé. Youssef, too, cannot escape his country’s patriarchal past. Though he presents himself as a revolutionary hell-bent on justice, he can’t shake off the lingering influence of the patriarchy on his own personal fabric. In the back of a cab following the first interrogation, Youssef falls prey to toxic masculinity in an attempt to curb his own embarrassment in front of Mariam. In Beauty and the Dogs, therefore, nobody is immune from the weight of the patriarchy.
Ben Hania’s biting social critique of seemingly all levels of Tunisian society as it reels from revolution while still grasping at old habits is not the only elements of note in Beauty and the Dogs. There is much else to praise, in fact. The long takes are effective and powerful, an integral part of the film’s overall character, both stylistically and narratively: they mirror the actual progression of Mariam’s maze-like journey through red-tape, cruelties, and eclectic characters who help, or harm, her. Ben Hania uses long takes to best effect, allowing the film to progress naturally. One particularly impressive unbroken take occurs during the aforementioned cab scene: as Mariam exits the back of the vehicle, the camera follows her out from the front seat, leaving the viewer wondering how such a fluid scene had been mastered both sonically and technically.
With such a structure to the film, a challenge for any actor, newcomer Mariam Al Ferjani’s performance is nothing short of extraordinary: She appears in all nine unbroken takes, during which her emotions fluctuate most convincingly between fear, hysteria, rage, confusion, shame, desperation, and resoluteness. Ghanem Zrelli also impresses as Youssef: He conveys masterfully, through facial expressions and body language especially, the guilt and conflicting sentiments and motives of his ambiguous character. Mohamed Akkari, who passed away not long after the completion of Beauty and the Dogs, plays evil convincingly as a misogynistic and sadistic cop who sets his sights on tormenting Mariam after she refuses to drop her case. His sleaziness is tangible, and he dominates the frame even through such simple actions as walking and smoking.
Tackling taboo subjects like misogyny, corruption, rape, and the lingering effects of the patriarchy, Beauty and the Dogs is a continuation of a recent trend of bold filmmaking in Tunisian cinema. Kaouther Ben Hania and other women filmmakers have been at the forefront of this cinematic movement, a revolution so to speak, by breaking down barriers to chart bold new courses for filmmaking in their native Tunisia. At only forty-one years of age and with already three feature films under her belt, all of which have received international recognition, we will hopefully see more bold oeuvres like Beauty and the Dogs from her in the future.
Matthew Fullerton interests include the cinemas of Tunisia and Japan, two countries in which he lived, worked, and studied before becoming an Educator in Canada. His essay, “Folktales, Female Martyrs, and Flaubert in Tunisian Films,” was published as a feature article in Film International 13.4 (2015). Beauty and the Dogs: A Revolution in Tunisian Cinema is his fourth review for Film International.