Tunis – With some sitting on the floor or standing in the aisles, fans packed a Tunis movie house earlier this year to watch a documentary many believed would never see the light of day.
La Memoire Noire (The Black Memory) by director Hichem Ben Ammar examined the years of imprisonment and torture suffered by leftist activists under the regime of former President Habib Bourguiba. Since the ouster of authoritarian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisian cinema appears to have entered a new era.
“After the fall of Ben Ali, there was [a] wave of people who simply took their cameras and went out to the streets to film what was happening, and that was the first impact of the revolution,” Alaeddine Slim, who co-directed a documentary about refugees in Tunisia, told Al Jazeera.
Documentaries, a genre virtually nonexistent under Ben Ali, have been gaining traction, and fictional films such as the acclaimed 2013 feature Bastardo – which depicts a violent struggle for power in a poor neighbourhood – by director Nejib Belkhadi, have addressed political and socioeconomic issues that were previously off limits.
The newfound cinematic freedom is being further tested by projects such as Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche’s award-winning Blue is the Warmest Color. The film’s graphic lesbian intimate scenes have sparked fierce debate over whether it can be screened in the country.
Tunisian cinema is nearly as old as the medium itself. The Lumiere brothers, pioneers of the industry, shot one of their first films in the country in 1896, and after Tunisia gained independence more than a half-century later, filmmakers began producing influential works such as Ferid Boughdir’s Halfouine: Child of the Terraces and Nacir Khemir’s Wanderers of the Desert. (Halfouine is a coming-of-age tale about a teenage boy in working-class Tunis, while Wanderers depicts a grade-school teacher sent to work in a remote desert village where ancient customs still predominate.)
Decades of dictatorship discouraged filmmakers from addressing heated political topics, although some earlier works examined softer social taboos, such as sexuality and the role of women.
“Under both Ben Ali and Bourguiba, artists and intellectuals feared talking or expressing themselves,” cinema critic Mahrez Karoui told Al Jazeera, noting something as seemingly innocuous as featuring a policeman could cause a movie to be censored. Director Mahmoud ben Mahmoud was unable to complete his film The Professor until after 2011, Karoui said, because it addressed the history of the Tunisian League for Defense of Human Rights, an organisation that could not freely be discussed under Ben Ali.
Tunisian director Mohamed Zran said filmmakers and artists alike have felt increasingly liberated in recent years. “There is definitely the freedom to talk about any subject,” he said. “After the revolution, people even filmed without obtaining a filming permit from the government, and documentaries were produced by people who simply walked around filming what they saw.”
Zran’s Degage, about the days of the revolution, is one of several documentaries to win international acclaim since 2011. Sami Tlili’s Damned be the Phosphate, about a 2008 uprising in a mining region, won the best Arab film award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2012, while Babylon’s depiction of a refugee camp in Tunisia earned it an award for best documentary at the Marseilles International Film Festival the same year.
Still, Tunisian cinema continues to struggle financially. While Tunisian filmmakers receive funds from the Ministry of Culture, some complain the institution does not encourage young filmmakers. According to Slim, the ministry is dominated by the same people as before the revolution and it continues to favour mostly the old guard in Tunisian cinema.
The industry lacks producers and funding. Apart from the ministry, which buys and funds movies, there are only a few production companies.
“The industry lacks producers and funding,” Slim said. “Apart from the ministry, which buys and funds movies, there are only a few production companies.”
But Imed Marzouk, who produced Bastardo, believes the biggest obstacle may be the quality of the film projects emerging in Tunisia. “When filmmakers propose interesting projects of good quality, they will get the funding they need,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is the quality and the talent that is now lacking in film projects, which is discouraging for producers.”
Zran, who serves on the Ministry of Culture committee that chooses which projects to fund, agreed there are deeper problems facing Tunisia’s film industry. “We suffer from lack of innovation and creativity… We are actually lucky to have the ministry fund projects,” he said, noting five of the seven long features approved in 2013 were the works of novice filmmakers.
Today, films such as Blue is the Warmest Color could help define the new limits of Tunisian cinema. Blue has gained numerous international awards, including the prestigious Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival. But it has not yet been screened in Tunisia, and the culture minister – who was supposed to attend Cannes as part of the Tunisian committee – reportedly cancelled his participation after finding out the topic of the film. A ministry official told local radio station Mosaique FM that the minister had other commitments.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Karoui was sceptical that Blue would ever be screened in Tunisia, noting censorship would be a serious issue: “The movie will have to pass before the [Ministry of Culture] commission which will ask to cut out some scenes. If they do so, there will be nothing left of it.”
The Ministry of Culture did not respond to Al Jazeera’s multiple requests for comment.
Zran says he is concerned the movie could incite violent reactions from the same local groups that attacked a theatre showing Nedia el Feni’s 2011 documentary Secularism, Inchallah, about the relationship between Tunisians and religion.
“We have a fragile intellectual and cinematic culture that is the result of the politics of the regimes that ruled the Arab world… This movie definitely has great quality, but we need to be careful about the reactions it would trigger,” Zran added.