Tunisian cinema. The 1960’s/70’s
Tahar Chikhaoui - 11/11/2010
Beyond the impure dimension (of which the measurement should be taken), it is important to analyse the “history” of Tunisian cinema from a transcultural perspective. Like in the case of theatre, we can consider cinema as an art that arrived from elsewhere or that was “imported”. And like theatre, we can consider that it arrived in the wake of our societies’ modernisation. But unlike theatre, the gap between the birth of cinema and its spreading is derisory or insignificant as in Egypt.
Nevertheless, the Maghreb countries have lived this history in the still enduring convulsive way that they react to colonization and modernity. It was therefore a custom to draw a demarcation line between “colonial” and “post-colonial” cinema.
This means that the birth of Tunisian national cinema, despite its “nationalist” character, did not prevent the resurgence of its elements as important as they are often unconscious, inherent to foreign culture, Western culture in this case. It is interesting to analyse the levels at which this influence was exerted and the degree of consciousness that accompanied it.
One can straightaway and schematically put forward that the euphoria of independence and all the resentment it repressed at the background, did not facilitate the emergence of a true consciousness assumed by the first filmmakers who owed a lot to Western heritage. And conversely, the national disenchantment led to a "recognition" from their part, that was more openly expressed, but not always equally assimilated.
In Tunisia, three steps seem to emerge in this transcultural history. The construction period of the 1960’s and 70’s, the one of the 1980’s and 90’s and lastly the current one, that of the years 2000.
During the first one, filmmakers put forward what they believed to derive from Tunisian culture. A clear determination to root the film in a local reality be it political, social or cultural. A re-appropriation of cinema whose precise features were not clearly defined from the beginning (but what would Tunisian cinema be?) but that we can retrospectively define like an illustration or a narration of the linguistic, geographical and historical features that form its national identity. After a series of short films promoting national heritage, the first filmmakers have clearly chosen themes related to the birth of independent Tunisia. The fact that the inaugural film of this history is entitled “L’Aube” [Dawn] (1996) is not just a coincidence is quite evident. It deals with the struggle for independence in an eulogistic way. All the following films of Omar Khlifi are in the same vein. Khlifa le teigneux [Khlifa the Nasty] (1968) of Hammouda Ben Halima, is increasingly quoted as the most delicate film of these uneasy beginnings and the adaptation of a new derivative of Tunisian contemporary literature. He depicts a reality that is deeply rooted in the country’s cultural humus. Même Mokhtar [Even Mokhtar] (1968) of Sadok Ben Aicha, a strange film, considered as intellectualist, portraying the emergence of a student and film enthusiast youth i.e. the modern face of the country, is carried by the same desire. Abdellatif Ben Ammar, Naceur Ktari, Ridha Behi, Taieb Louhichi, Salma Baccar and Brahim Babai who are essentially the 1970’s filmmakers are those who have also had a strong motivation to build a national culture. The fact that their proposals are the most criticized ideologically does not reduce their essentially “developmentalist” vocation as the historians would have it. The predominance of social themes (immigration/Ktari, rural depopulation/Louihiche, tourism/ Béhi, the status of women/Baccar) does not hide the desire to participate in an activist way to the construction of a national consciousness.
However, the transcultural marks that this cinema conveys are less visible. A comprehensive study might identify invisible traits drawn from Western aesthetics and the manner of their inclusion in the apparent configuration of these films. The most paradoxical case is the one of Khlifi who repeatedly loudly reclaims a founder status. And yet, without him knowing, his films are elaborated from the inside with a mimetic desire that sometimes has its eye on the western genre that is typically Western and sometimes towards Egyptian melodrama, a genre that is also criticized from an artistic point of view. When the nationalist activist is a Bedouin, he looks more like an upholder of the law in a western film than the imagined reality of a local nationalist. And when he is a city dweller, he seems to be closer to the young leading man of a musical film. Among the filmmakers mentioned above, “multiculturalism” is less unconscious but it is not always recognized or assumed. It is so to speak, techno-ideological. The case of Sejnane (1973) of Abdellatif Ben Ammar is the most interesting. It is this period’s emblematic film and considered to be the sum of Tunisian cinema of the 1970’s.
Like L'aube, Sejnane comes back over the national movement but takes other routes, those of proficient technique, narrative effectiveness and the acuity of analysis. In this case, cultural interference is les unconscious but it takes the form of Universalist abstraction that evades criticism of Marxist connotation. A sort of modernity that preaches the regime of the time in a more liberal version.
This vein had to do with what European cinema will go through after May 1968, but from the point of view of Yves Boisset in France or Miklos Jancso in Hungary or Francesco Rosi in Italy. This cinema has accompanied the culture of that time, the expectations of youth carried by the wave of political protest that crossed all over Europe and beyond the Mediterranean.
Translated to English by Elizabeth Grech