At the Oscars, a booming Tunisian cinema

From the foreground of The Man Who Sold His Skin, the viewer is hooked by a pictorial photograph. It was in the imposing City of Culture in Tunis that the premiere of this lyrical and political work took place, which earned Tunisia its first Oscar nomination. Its director, Kaouther Ben Hania, has become the international face of an innovative and rapidly expanding cinema.

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Ambitious, this feature film brings together an international cast with Monica Bellucci, Koen De Bouw and Yahya Mahayni. This one camps Sam Ali, a Syrian forced to flee Raqqa for Beirut at the start of the war, in 2011. A Faustian pact will link his destiny to that of a Belgian artist met in the Lebanese capital and Sam Ali will agree to get a tattoo a Schengen visa on his back to join his beloved in Belgium.

An epic love story that questions the excesses of contemporary art, the violence of borders, the commodification of bodies and humans… The film, which has not yet been able to be released in France due to the pandemic, shone in many festivals.

Carried by a main actor with physical and expressive acting, the film also earned Yahya Mahayni the Orrizonti prize for best actor at the last Venice Film Festival. Hoping “not to be the last in Tunisia” to reach the Oscars, the director would like this distinction to allow her to make her next films more easily. The budget of The Man Who Sold His Skin2.4 million euros, rest “low budget”.

A “breath of air” for creation

Kaouther Ben Hania is proud to introduce Tunisian cinema to the United States. The filmmaker had already distinguished herself with Beauty and the Pack. Selected at Cannes in 2017, the work cut into sequence shots told the struggle of a young Tunisian to file a complaint against the police who raped her. The director, who began her career in the 2000s, welcomes “that there are no longer the red lines that we knew under the dictatorship, it gives a breath of fresh air to creation”, she explains.

Other Tunisian directors have stood out at major international festivals in recent years. Mohamed Ben Attia, Ala Eddine Slim, Abdelhamid Bouchnak or Mehdi Barsaoui, whose first feature film A son, released last year, enchanted critics despite a career battered by the closing of theaters. The film won Sami Bouajila the César 2021 for best actor for his role as Farès, a distraught father when his son is injured by terrorists in southern Tunisia. There follows a drama questioning family relations and the modernity of Tunisia.

“I think it would have been impossible to make my film under Ben Ali, and to talk about this organ trafficking between Tunisia and Libya”, says Mehdi Barsaoui. This co-production between Tunisia, France, Qatar and Lebanon is one of the few Tunisian films visible internationally on Netflix. democratize the Tunisian dialect ». “We are moving away from the image of a Tunisia that only exports oranges, olive oil or jihadistssays the 36-year-old director. We also export art. »

A “subjective” approach to the social

A cinema in full dynamism and also more social. More than a revival, there is a continuity between the generations, he believes. But, since 2011, thanks to freedom of expression, there are absolutely no more taboos. » For the academic and film critic Hédi Khelil, Ihe strength of Tunisian cinema is explained by the mixing and continuity between the generation, pioneers with Abdellatif Ben Ammar, Brahim Babaï, Férid Boughedir, then that of the 1980s and 90s, with Moufida TlatliNouri Bouzid who was only able to make films thanks to the previous generation like young filmmakers today».

evoking Dashra (2018) by Abdelhamid Bouchnak or My dear child (2019) by Mohamed Ben Attia, the critic highlights the variety of talents “who made us discover after the 2011 revolution the Tunisia of the lowlands”. Young filmmakers who stand out for their approach “very subjective of the social”according to Hédi Khelil who has the first time the feeling that Tunisian cinema is on the threshold of the international”.

Behind these successes, there is national aid and above all the creativity of producers, like Habib Attia who produced the films of Kaouther Ben Hania and Mehdi Barsaoui. Saluting “the rebirth of Tunisian cinema”the producer nevertheless considers that the shoe pinches in terms of funding and laws in Tunisia ». The funds are more and more selective and the amounts allocated are falling, according to him. You have to be creative and have a very personalized approach for each film in the search for funds. »

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The outstanding films of Tunisian cinema

– Such a Simple Story (1970) by Abdellatif Ben Ammar.

– The ambassadors (1975) by Naceur Ktari.

The man of ashes (1986) byNouri Bouzid.

-Halfaouine (1990) byFerid Boughedir.

– The Silences of the Palace (1994) byMoufida Tlatli.

The men’s season (2000) by Moufida Tlatli.

fatma (2001) by Khalid Ghorbal.

Hedi, a wind of freedom (2016) by Mohamed Ben Attia.

Beauty and the Pack (2017) by Kaouther Ben Hania.

My dear child (2018) by Mohamed Ben Attia.

The Last of Us (2018) and Tlamess (2019) by Ala Eddine Slim.

– Dachra (2018) by Abdelhamid Bouchnak.

Noura dream (2019) by Hinde Boujemaa.

A son (2019) by Mehdi Barsaoui.

The Man Who Sold His Skin (2020) by Kaouther Ben Hania.

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At the Oscars, a booming Tunisian cinema