Filmmaker: Fatma Riahi
“If people want life, destiny will obey. The night will become clear, chains will be broken. Oh protectors of this homeland you make a glorious history.”
A slogan of the Tunisian uprising
On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian fruit seller set himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid. This act of self-immolation triggered what has become known as the Arab Awakening.
It was the continuation of a battle that, according to blogger Mohamed Boukram, had begun long before:
“Our battle against the government started in 2008 following the incident in al-Haoud al-Menjami. We lost that battle. After the incident with Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid we came up with a new strategy. We learned the lessons from 2008. This time, bloggers published videos. We assumed the role of the media. People became totally dedicated to this. We formed several groups of bloggers who were in constant contact with each other via Skype.”
Mass protests broke out across Tunisia and a state of panic and fear gripped much of the country.
A month later, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country.
Amid the insecurity and lawlessness that accompanied and followed the revolution, citizens formed vigilante groups to protect their property and neighbourhoods from looting, unrest and a possible fightback by Ben Ali loyalists. As police stations were burned down, one Tunisian explains, the people became the guardians of their own neighbourhoods.
“This is what Ben Ali did to us. He divided us. He made us quarrel with each other. But it reached its limits and so we exploded and the revolution was born,” another says.
What started spontaneously, gradually became a well-organised practice with groups forming to protect local shops and businesses as well as homes.
This film follows those citizens who came together to offer a sense of security to their families and neighbours as well as those who participated in the protests and reveals the emergence of a sense of unity among Tunisians.
As one protester says: “Thank God the day has come when we are all united. Everyone now knows how to think for themselves and we are no longer just distracted by football games. No one expected this to happen in Tunisia. It all started spontaneously – from what Mohamed Bouazizi did up until this day when we all came together. No one knew of Bouazizi before. God’s mercy be upon him. He has brought all Tunisians together. He made us support and care for each other.”
When the Tunisian uprising erupted, the Al Jazeera Documentary Channel asked me to consider the best way to document some of the most critical phases of the unfolding revolution. Following several discussions, we came up with the idea of focusing on how the Tunisian people had, in the wake of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s departure, spontaneously united to form public neighbourhood committees in order to maintain security.
We began filming, but in a time of revolution developments can be sudden and unexpected so our initial plan continued to change and evolve. We quickly discovered that the subjects of our film had expanded their activities. They were no longer guarding just their neighbourhoods but had also taken on the duty of protecting public facilities. They were helping the protesters who were staging a sit-in in Kasbah neighbourhood, organising “gratitude” visits to thank the people of the areas where the protests began and checking up on the families of those who had been killed or injured during the revolution.
As we followed these citizens to document their activities, an alternative image of Tunisian society began to emerge; it was an image we would not have seen had it not been for the revolution.
Much of the film was shot at night as the prevailing state of insecurity and disorder made shooting outside of the hours of curfew difficult. On many occasions, army patrols – fearing for the safety of our crew – asked us to stop shooting, but our team insisted upon continuing what we had started.
I tried to avoid interviewing politicians, officials or political analysts as I wanted to show the real Tunisian society that had been ignored by the media. We visited public neighbourhoods like Tadamun, where people played a significant role in escalating the situation and confronting Ben Ali’s forces.
During the long and difficult hours of filming, we established close relationships with our interviewees -moving beyond the merely professional to become friends. I am still in contact with all of them via telephone and Facebook. Some became members of political parties, some remain unemployed, while others still fear what is coming next. Their contrasting circumstances have made me consider making another film in the future that will perhaps tackle the way the revolution has influenced each of their lives.
Tunisia’s revolution has started but it is not over. The Tunisian people still suffer from injustice, illiteracy, poverty, unemployment and oppression, hence the choice of title for our film, Tunisia: The Revolt Continues .