The cinema clubs of Tunis: Art and resistance

Article published on March 13, 2014
Article published on March 13, 2014

Since their establishment in the 1960s, film clubs in Tunisia have been spaces of creative and intellectual freedom. They’re a breeding ground for trainee film-makers passionate about the seventh art as well as activists from across the left-wing spectrum- the opposition to the regimes that have ruled the country since its independence.

The Tunisian cap­i­tal's film of­fer­ings are con­fined to a hand­ful of rooms scat­tered away from Av­enue Bour­guiba, the main artery of Tunis. Le Mon­dial, Le Rio and Le Colisée are old colo­nial build­ings, sin­fully ap­peal­ing to the un­fa­mil­iar eye, yet sadly in­ad­e­quate for lovers of the sev­enth art. Cam­ou­flaged among them flows an­other stream: film clubs, the get­away from the Hol­ly­wood track, the sav­iours of Tunisian cin­ema and the refuge for a plethora of dif­fer­ent ac­tivists.

Until the Arab Spring sparked off here three years ago, peo­ple lived under an au­thor­i­tar­ian regime in which cen­sor­ship was chok­ing free­dom of ex­pres­sion and crip­pling Tunisian cin­ema. Whether you like it or not, pol­i­tics per­me­ates every­thing in film clubs. This was the story be­fore the rev­o­lu­tion on 14 Jan­u­ary 2011 and now it is even more so.


"Too much pol­i­tics," em­pha­sises Amel Saadal­lah after a few sec­onds of thought, when asked why she founded Cinémadart, one of the first in­de­pen­dent clubs in the Fed­er­a­tion of Tunisian Cin­ema Clubs (FTCC). For the last seven years, every Tues­day, this no­madic space, lo­cated within walk­ing dis­tance of the Carthagin­ian Ruins, played all kinds of films which couldn’t find a place in the closed cir­cuit of na­tional film list­ings. For in­stance today, three short films made in Tunisia, aroused a heated cin­e­matic de­bate when the lights came back on. The abun­dance of horn-rimmed glasses, skinny jeans, red lips, and berets that fill the room would make any­one think that were in an in­tel­lec­tual-bo­hemian-chic gath­er­ing in a Eu­ro­pean cap­i­tal. If it were not for the lan­guage, of course- Ara­bic in Tunisian di­alect, pep­pered with French words and ex­pres­sions. From her cin­ema seat, Amel lis­tens at­ten­tively to the dis­cus­sion be­tween the film di­rec­tors and the mot­ley mass of the pub­lic. Later on she tells me, "it some­times seems that the film is just an ex­cuse to dis­cuss other po­lit­i­cal is­sues. We want it to be the other way round." This girl with gen­tle man­ners and a com­bat­ive coun­te­nance be­lieves that film clubs have lost the essence of what they rep­re­sent, and she as­pires to re­move her­self from the '”ac­tivism” to focus on "the love of cin­ema, for cin­ema’s sake."

Of course, striv­ing to live the sev­enth art in a coun­try where the num­ber of fea­ture films pro­duced per year can be counted on one hand, and where there are lit­tle more than a dozen pro­jec­tion rooms in the back­ground, is an­other form of strug­gle. Fatma Bchini, pres­i­dent of the Tunis film club, the old­est in Tunisia, knows it only too well. "Buy­ing a cin­ema ticket in Tunisia is al­ready a drag,"ar­gues this 23-year-old med­ical stu­dent, who is also part of the Fed­eral Com­mit­tee of Film Clubs. Fatma talks pas­sion­ately about the work of the film clubs, and she is hope­ful that these places will play an im­por­tant role in the new Tunisia.

“We want to open film clubs for chil­dren, to cure their gen­er­a­tion's col­lec­tive am­ne­sia, to teach them to cre­ate and to build." Today, there are three times as many film clubs as there are rooms, re­marks Fatma proudly, "not a day goes by with­out the Fed­er­a­tion re­ceiv­ing a new ap­pli­ca­tion."


"They were so un­pleas­ant and strict, the League could tell they were cops," mocks Maher ben Khal­ifa, an in­te­gral part of this un­der­world since he first landed in a film club as a 7-year-old boy. He refers to the un­der­cover agents who reg­u­larly at­tended the meet­ings of his am­a­teur film-mak­ers club, not­ing down who said what.

Iron­i­cally, as they were ob­serv­ing closely, the pow­ers that be put up with these pock­ets of dis­sent, in part be­cause of their low vis­i­bil­ity among the bulk of the Tunisian pop­u­la­tion and partly as a strat­egy to save face in the eyes of West­ern democ­ra­cies. In any case, "re­gard­less of whether you take part, film clubs teach you to dis­cuss. And the de­bate is free from pol­i­tics. Here you learn to de­fend your ideas. And to com­mit to them," ex­plains Maher, who is a stu­dent of graphic de­sign.


Maher be­longs to the Tunisian Fed­er­a­tion of Am­a­teur Film­mak­ers (TFAF) and thanks to this, at the age of 17, he made his first short film, Kari for dogs, a spoof ad­vert, which, in­spired by the tor­ture of pris­on­ers at Abu Ghraib, ad­ver­tised dog food made of human flesh. Quite openly, he ad­mits that, at least on a tech­ni­cal level, his first foray into film was "some­thing of a dis­as­ter."

His ex­pe­ri­ence re­flects well on how this pro­fes­sion works in Tunisia: for a long time, the clubs were the only film school in the coun­try. Sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of di­rec­tors were trained under that set up, as well as an as­sort­ment of anony­mous cit­i­zens who sim­ply wanted to tell their story. Today Maher is part of the cen­tral com­mit­tee of the TFAF, and en­sures every­one is rep­re­sented, "from en­gi­neer­ing stu­dents to bak­ers and taxi dri­vers. It's sim­ple, we as­sume that every­one who wants to, should be able to make films," he as­serts, re­call­ing that film clubs have even seen the likes of min­is­ters from the Ben Ali régime.

When it comes to pro­duc­ing films with lim­ited re­sources, you draw upon the imag­i­na­tion and your DIY skills, pluck­ing ma­te­ri­als and ideas out of thin air. "I started my film ca­reer by steal­ing two cam­eras," says di­rec­tor Sami Tlili, with­out any major hang-ups. He is an­other film nut who went into di­rect­ing after set­ting up a film club in his home­town of Sousse.

Like any good am­a­teur film­maker, he scoffs at big bud­get films. "If a sin­gle screw goes miss­ing, it spreads panic and shoot­ing comes to a halt!” he mar­vels. His first film, a doc­u­men­tary ti­tled Cursed be the phos­phate, tells the story of the re­volts in the Gafsa min­ing basin in the spring of 2008, what many con­sider today to be the real heart of the Arab rev­o­lu­tions. "De­spite the hur­dles, it was worth it." On the al­ter­na­tive cir­cuit, we have been the only ones deal­ing with this type of issue," says Tlili, "In the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion we had, the regime was killing our dreams. Film helped us keep the dream alive."

This article is part of the Euromed Reporter project, conducted in partnership with I WATCH and Search For Commong Ground and supported by the Foundation Anna Lindh.