Film Commentary: The Carthage Film Festival

What a brave, terrific festival. Like going to Mecca, shouldn’t every committed cinephile get to the Carthage Film Festival once in a lifetime?

Members of the crowd coming into the opening of this year's

Members of the crowd coming into the opening of this year’s Carthage Film Festival.

By Gerald Peary

I was honored and definitely humbled, invited to Tunisia to serve on the documentary jury, November 4-11, for the 28th Carthage Film Festival. Was I up to the task, someone whose first knowledge is of American and European cinema, to judge films made in the Middle East and Africa? And to find my bearings in a country where the languages are Arabic and French, of which neither I’m conversant?

And then there were my distinguished fellow jurors, all stunningly qualified for the task: a pioneering Tunisian cinematographer who now works in Italy; a Belgian documentarian whose specialty are socially engaged films shot in the Congo; a woman filmmaker from Egypt who has made countless documentaries about the history of her country; a Senegalese film critic who is considered the most important critical voice in Central Africa.

Was there any place here for an ugly American writing for The Arts Fuse?

There was. I got along superbly with my tough-minded, principled jury. I learned much hearing their shrewd, educated readings of what we watched, invariably from an anti-colonialist and deeply political vantage but also with a concern about form. A good film is, we agreed, more than its good message. It needs to be cinematic, well made. I thrived on a jury where political correctness in a documentary was less crucial than being politically meaningful, having an actual aesthetic impact.

As for the festival itself: what a friendly, enthusiastic, film-loving atmosphere! In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, where Tunisia overthrew its dictator for a fragile but working democracy, the Carthage Film Festival holds enormous importance in the ongoing cultural wars. In a country almost controlled, after the revolution, by the Muslim Brotherhood, this secular event says an adamant “No” to the agenda of militant Islamists and a resounding “Yes” to the spreading of human rights. Under the very capable leadership of Nejib Ayed, Director General, and Amine Boukhris, programmer of the Documentary Competition, our jury was shown an exemplary selection of non-fiction films, many made by women filmmakers, which were pro-democracy, pro-immigrant, and which supported a kind of incipient feminism sprouting everywhere in what Americans call (a prejorative label?) “the Third World.”

Theresa Dahlberg’s Ouaga Girls is a lighthearted visit with a group of young women in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, trying to improve their lot by attending a school for garage mechanics. Widad Shafakoj’s 17 shows the travails of female teenagers in Jordan when they decide they want to play soccer, and even at a highly competitive level. (For this winning film, the wished-for happy ending didn’t happen, as the Jordanian team, young and learning, is smashed in an international tournament.) More consequential is Dieudo Hamadi’s Maman Colonelle, a potent homage to a brave woman police officer in the Congo who fights against sexual violence aimed at females and children. Also this stirring short: May Odeh’s Gaza by Her, a collage work about four women in the Occupied Territories struggling to assert themselves as persons of ambition.

Notably absent from the Carthage Festival, where “Palestine” has the status of an existent country, are films from Israel. I guess it’s no surprise that, in an Arab nation, negative references to Israel in the films we saw was met by forceful applause from the audience. My jury colleague from Egypt, who lived in Jerusalem for two years, told me, “I will never set foot in Israel again after the assassination of Rabin.” There was no more powerful, persuasive indictment of Israeli policies than Raed Andoni’s Ghost Hunting, in which the filmmaker cast Palestinians, who had been shackled and tortured in a notorious interrogation center, to relive their experiences for the camera. For me, this documentary took a slightly unexpected psychological turn as the men, role-playing themselves and also their Israeli captors, came at each other with unleashed Genet-like, male-on-male violence.

Our winners? In the short documentary category, “Jackenson,” in which Nigerian woman filmmaker, Lindas Leila Diatta, traveled to the slums of Port au Prince, Haiti, to film a young boy boxer with a precocious two-punch. He hopes his pugilist talents will bring him sting-like-a-butterfly fortune. For best documentary feature, I’m pleased to say that our jury agreed with my personal favorite: Survivors of Faso, an extraordinary first film from Burkina Faso following 29-year-old Polo, who, despite his inventiveness and ambition, stagnates as a street person in Ouagadougou. As with the majority of young people in Africa, there’s no work for Polo. There was no more bracing, emotional scene in any documentary we watched than when we follow Polo to a rural village for his first meeting ever with his birth mother. It couldn’t be sadder, as this hard, unhappy woman cannot even look at the son who so wants her love. So it’s back, with no maternal comfort, to the parks and boulevards of Burkina Faso’s unwelcoming capital. “This film is like watching Pasolini,” said an admiring member of my jury. Hail the young filmmaker, Simplice Herman Ganou, a major new talent from Africa.

Much of the time ],Tunisian theaters are inundated with Hollywood product, like most of the world. During the Carthage Festival, locals fill the streets trying to find their way into the new Tunisian films. In our documentary section, three documentaries were native-made. Unfortunately, only one was reasonably successful. There is a negative lesson in filmmaking with the two failed but well-intentioned works, Couscous: Les Graines De La Dignitè and Gafsa Year Zero. No audience can stand being pounded by wall-to-wall talk; both films had rhetorical interview melt into interview melt into interview. There was no breathing space for viewers, no time to contemplate the worthy political messages.

The best Tunisian film in our section was by far the most controversial. It’s Upon the Shadow, an activist gay rights docudrama produced in a country where, despite the reform government, homosexuality remains a crime and can bring prison sentences. Filmmaker Nada Mezni Hafaiedh could have made a polite film with straight-appearing characters, easing Tunisian audiences into the need to extend human rights to homosexuals. Instead, she made a brazen provocation featuring a cast of swishy effeminate men, some of them cross-dressers, in scenes which could emanate from a Flaming Creatures-influenced Warhol movie.

Though the festival catalogue did not mention homosexuality in its cautious description of the film, obviously the audience knew what they were getting. Many gay people were in the audience, cheering whenever anyone in the film declaimed the need in Tunisia for gay rights. And the scene which sent many people rushing out of the theater in horror was the one most embraced and wildly applauded by the partisan crowd. For the first time in a Tunisian film, and maybe the first time in a film from any Muslim country, two men kissed on screen. I broke my jury discretion and wildly applauded also.

What a brave, terrific festival. Like going to Mecca, shouldn’t every committed cinephile get to the Carthage Film Festival once in a lifetime?

Gerald Peary is a retired film studies professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.

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