By Matthew Fullerton.
Cinema has long been an integral part of the economy and culture of Tunisia: Major Hollywood blockbusters have been filmed in full, or in part, in this small North African country, including Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The English Patient (1996), and since 1966, the nation has hosted les Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage (JCC), an internationally-recognized film festival that highlights Arab and sub-Saharan African cinemas.
For a country of under eleven million, Tunisia has also produced its fair share of world renowned filmmakers who have helped shape the country’s national identity. So it comes as no surprise that, since 2011’s Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia has been witnessing a resurgence of sorts not just in filmmaking, but also in film appreciation: In the last year alone, like-minded Tunisians, driven by nostalgia and commitment to their communities, have been working at reviving long dormant movie theatres in Tunisian towns, including Bizerte, a picturesque seaside community long bereft of cultural opportunities. Here Dhia Eddine Felhi, a mid-twenties entrepreneur, has renovated and reopened Le Majestic (founded 1935, closed 2007). In this interview, Mr. Felhi shares what drove him to take on such a project, the challenges he has had to overcome in reopening a derelict movie theatre in post-revolution Tunisia, and the challenges he now faces in the day-to-day management of its affairs.
In your opinion, why did the number of movie theatres start dwindling in Tunisia?
Movie theatres gradually disappeared in Tunisia because of the rise of the Internet and the fact that there are just so many movies out there. This started happening well before the revolution.
Could you explain the importance of movie theatres during your childhood?
There were four movie theatres in Bizerte. I remember when I couldn’t wait for the weekend just so that I could go watch a movie, but the theatres started closing down one after another and cinephiles became more and more rare.
You did not receive training in filmmaking or theatre. So, what inspired you to reopen Le Majestic? Why did you choose this theatre in particular?
It’s true that I didn’t do my studies in cinema or theatre. I did my training in engineering, but that never dimmed my love of cinema, theatre, music…For the past eight years, we have been living in a cultural desert in Bizerte, which was really breaking my heart with each passing day. It’s because of this situation that I thought about bringing life back to this wasteland by salvaging Le Majestic, which was the only theatre available. The others had been transformed into a restaurant, a banquet hall….
It took you less than a year to bring it back to life. How did you accomplish such a feat in so little time?
Yeah, the theatre’s refurbishment took nearly six months, and if I had had more funds at my disposal it wouldn’t have taken as long because they were limited to the expansion of the theatre’s stage and the entrance, which was transformed into a cultural café. In my opinion, this challenge has not been accomplished yet; it’s still missing a lot of organisation.
In what condition did you find the theatre? How did you bring attention to your project?
During salvaging, the theatre was in such a pathetic state: an ailing roof, torn seats, a faulty electrical system…The theatre was so utterly abandoned that we thought we were in a public dump. It was unfortunate seeing a movie theatre that had existed since the fifties in such rough shape. The first weeks of work we tried to involve the townspeople in the project by inviting them to rediscover the theatre so that they could get used to the idea of it reopening and the people were really excited. They came almost every day to help out or even take trips down memory lane…
What was the State’s reaction to your ideas? Was it supportive?
The State? The State had promised to open one hundred movie theatres during the course of last year. It was only a promise, but at least I was able to keep my promise despite the conditions. The State is still not aware that my project is saving culture in Bizerte and that my project needs funding to survive. The State makes promises but doesn’t follow through.
What were the biggest challenges to overcome in realizing your project?
As you know, Le Majestic reopened its doors as a cultural space and not just a movie theatre. Apart from the lack of funding that I still haven’t solved, the biggest challenge is the audience. I’ve been facing a public deprived of art and culture for the past eight years.
What are the most difficult aspects now?
The most difficult aspects….I would say that nothing is more complicated than having a movie theatre without DCP (Digital Cinema Package) that can project movies in 2K and 4K definition and in stereoscope (3D) as well. As a result, the spectators are deprived of seeing new movies on their international or national releases. The DCP will cost about 200 thousand dinars [nearly 100 thousand US dollars]. With the help of the CNCI (Centre National du Cinéma et de l’Image), I am eligible for a 50% reduction, which is still impossible given our resources. I actually project films through a Blu Ray player and a 7000 Lumens projector. The image quality is not always satisfying.
Your theatre is also a cultural space. What cultural dimensions have you integrated?
Le Majestic, like all cultural spaces, gravitates towards the Arts: Cinema, music, theatre, dance, poetry…But, that’s not all: The space also has the means to create workshops in many artistic realms whose purpose is to train young amateurs and produce new shows and, despite the funding, we’ve succeed in finishing our first production which is a theatrical adaptation of an Albert Camus novel.
Interview translated from the French by Matthew Fullerton.
Matthew Fullerton (MA, BA) has a particular interest in the cinemas of Japan and Tunisia, 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).