A Book Review by Matthew Fullerton.
New Tunisian Cinema is a timely book, released three years after the revolution that toppled Ben Ali, the dictator under whom the directors featured in Robert Lang’s study worked for much of their careers. It focuses on eight oeuvres from New Tunisian Cinema, a generation of filmmakers that emerged in the eighties and whose works Lang considers allegories of resistance to a Tunisian national identity, or tunisianité, perpetuated by the messaging of consecutive dictatorships. Lang’s purpose is to analyze the New Tunisian Cinema efforts at defining the collective consciousness and reinterpreting Tunisia’s past and present in allegorical terms.
The films featured in the study are, therefore, political and preoccupied with tunisianité. According to Lang, their role, like that of literature in the colonized and decolonized world, is to re-establish a national cultural identity. The filmmakers of the New Tunisian Cinema attempt to influence the debate about tunisianité by exploring, through allegory, contemporary issues in ways that are not completely in sync with the message of the State, whose purpose, ultimately, was to keep the president in power and promote Tunisia globally as a tolerant society and a beacon of modernism, secularism and freedom in the Arab world. In other words, they provide a counter-tunisianité against official tunisianité. As such, the films are also allegories of resistance against the authoritarian state that Tunisia became, first under Habib Bourguiba, the country’s independence leader and first president, and then reinforced by Ben Ali, who came to power in 1987 after a bloodless coup. New Tunisian Cinema, films made between the end of Bourguiba’s reign to four years before the Jasmine Revolution according to Lang’s definition, also seeks to challenge audiences by putting forward new ideas and interpretations of Tunisian malaises; in particular, the destruction of the individual by, and/or his/her liberation from, oppressive elements within the society itself, namely the State, the family, and religion.
The book is a well-researched document, blending cultural and political history and theoretical and practical knowledge. Lang, a professor of Cinema at the University of Hartford, is clearly the pre-eminent Western scholar of Tunisian film, having lived and researched in Tunisia during, and in the aftermath of, major global crises (9-11, in particular), and during various Middle East conflicts—events that influenced how the country defined itself in the Ben Ali years. During his research, Lang was able to interview leading cultural figures and New Tunisian Cinema filmmakers and, as a Westerner approaching the films of a country with a lengthy history of French colonialism, an ‘infantilizing’ (118) experience for Tunisia, he takes pains not to treat them and their cultural representations as, historically, an orientalist would.
It is likely for this reason that he structures his book around both the theories and films of Nouri Bouzid (the first and last films analyzed are his), Tunisia’s pre-eminent and most outspoken filmmaker, in order to identify and analyze key factors, themes, and moments in Tunisia’s evolving narrative about national identity. According to Bouzid (whose theories Lang references frequently from a lecture the director gave in Amsterdam in 1994), there are “six constants” in his films that give them an identity. However, Lang applies them to the New Tunisian Cinema as a whole to conclude that their films are committed to resisting feudal ideas that threaten to overtake Tunisian society and to democratic and liberal ideas.
There is much to praise about Lang’s thorough study of a heretofore relatively unknown topic to Western cinephiles. His chapter on Bouzid’s Man of Ashes (1986) is particularly strong, convincing this reader that it is an essential film for its confronting taboos (child rape, a major Jewish character, homosexuality and homophobia, loving whom we choose to love, the freedom to be different, etc.) and that Bouzid’s audacity, inventiveness, and ambitiousness, which helped forge a new path in Arab cinema in general, are put on full display. Same for the chapter on Halfaouine (1990), perhaps the most celebrated and commercially successful Tunisian film. Here, Lang demonstrates how Férid Boughedir skillfully blends a dark and pessimistic narrative and critiques of the police state with a largely “amused and affectionate portrait of Tunisian society” (67).
Praises aside, there are some criticism-worthy moments. Take the Preface, where Lang blatantly takes one side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although the tragedies and failures of the various crises in the Middle East have helped shape and transform tunisianité, Lang’s stance on them really has no place in such an academic study. He even goes so far as to lambast both his university colleagues for being mute on the issue, and his students for talking about Palestinian terrorists and defending Israel in the same breath. He relates his stance, and the direction he has taken with this book, to his own “colonial past,” having grown up in white Rhodesia, and to 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and the subsequent collective search for the answer to the question: who are we as Americans? In my opinion, he overly personalizes his seemingly benign study. He justifies doing so in his belief that Tunisian society can inform our own place in the world.
Except for a brief mention of censorship at the level of script approval, Lang says very little about the constraints under which the directors had to work in Tunisia’s police state. To give him the benefit of the doubt, such information was likely unavailable, or off-limits, before the Jasmine Revolution, at least in official format; but, it would have been beneficial to have had a chapter that gave a more precise sense of the context in which Tunisian directors were forced to work and produce such allegory-rich films of resistance. Judging from the number of leading figures Lang spoke with during his research, he surely would have had enough eyewitness testimony to these constraints. Did he avoid this discussion in order to protect his sources, some of whom asked not to be named in his acknowledgements for fear of reprisals, or is he holding off for a future project if and when post-revolution Tunisia grants access to government documents on film to scholars?
Regardless of Lang’s intentions, and despite Bouzid, Boughedir, Dhouib et al. going against the norm of official tunisianité, it is impossible viewing New Tunisian Cinema without noticing instances of the government’s initiative to develop a national identity, or at least the regime’s vision of the Tunisian reality, both past and present, particularly in cultural, social and historical representations, infiltrating the films. This is evident in the obsession with the plight of women, a theme that permeates New Tunisian Cinema: the evolving role of women and the liberalization of women’s rights were, of course, crucial to the Ben Ali regime’s version of tunisianité. Another common thread is the danger of Islamic fundamentalism. Strict Islamists, against whose organizations the dictator Ben Ali had waged political warfare throughout the nineties and until the revolution, appear frequently as antagonists in the films discussed in Lang’s book. I am not saying that the New Tunisian Cinema filmmakers were simple shills of the dictatorships. However, Lang, by being relatively mute on identifying the State’s fingerprints in his chosen films, overstates, perhaps, the rebellious nature of his subjects and the degree of subversiveness of their films’ allegories.
Despite the above criticisms, the scope of Lang’s book makes it appealing to a wide audience: film scholars of Arab cinema, students of post-colonialism and Edward Saidian cultural criticism, and those interested in the roots of modern revolutions would benefit from New Tunisian Cinema. Though it is a thoroughly researched and enlightening work, it leaves promise for further study in the realm of Tunisian cinema, particularly of post-revolution film culture and production. The number of films made by both seasoned and younger directors that have appeared since the Jasmine Revolution is somewhat staggering and one could argue that the country has been witnessing a resurgence of sorts in film making and appreciation. This new era of Tunisian cinema, in which directors confront the realities of post-revolution Tunisia, will certainly merit a study of its own and I am hopeful that somebody like Lang will take up the task.
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 (The Insurrection of Time, Vol. 13 No. 4/2015).
New Tunisian Cinema: Allegories of Resistance was published by Columbia University Press in 2014.