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Tunisian documentary smashes taboos with gay love story

Nasreddine Shili’s hyperreal documentary takes a tender look at homosexuality, poverty and drug use in Tunis slums.

It took Tunisian director Nasreddine Shili nearly seven years to make “Subutext,” a daring documentary on poverty, drugs, homosexuality and sickness in Tunis’ slums.

The actor-turned-director became more and more attached to the subjects of the documentary, two young men from an impoverished neighborhood of Tunis, during this long period. “The moment of discovery that [one of the two main characters] had Hepatitis C was one of the most difficult moments in my life,” he told Al-Monitor.

Subutext,” a 142-minute documentary screened at the Carthage Film Festival in November, hit Tunisian cinemas on Dec. 5. Critics praised its realistic take on Tunisia's marginalized gay community and their despair when faced with illness.

The documentary revolves around Abdul Razzak Shahar Rzouga and Lotfi Shahar Fanta, two homeless drug addicts who live in Bab-Jedid, a Tunis slum. Their love affair is tested when Rzouga finds out that Fanta has Hepatitis C. Then they embark on a journey seeking treatment and trying to kick their drug addiction.

Shili’s description of the love between the two men is simple and compelling. The director, who has not shied away from eroticism in his past works, deliberately omitted sexual scenes in the film in order to focus on the emotional side of the love affair.

“I wanted to shed light on their emotional and psychological state. Lotfi’s need for his lover Rzouga is deeper than sexual desires. It is a means to compensate for the lack of tenderness of a harsh mother, the loss of a father and the cruelty of society,” Shili explained.

He added that he treaded carefully around sexual content also to avoid invading the men's privacy or putting their safety at risk, as Tunisia's conservative society can be hostile to the gay community. “They are not just actors playing a role, according to the director’s limitations. They are two people behaving spontaneously and candidly in front of the camera and in real life,” he said, explaining that directing them and editing had been minimal.

The film casts a tender, affectionate eye on the conflicting emotions of two men in a tumult of love, passion, violence and addiction. It also gives a glimpse of the director's personal friendship with the actors.

“I did not choose the movie, it chose me,” Shili told Al-Monitor. “I met Rzouga and Lotfi by chance while I was filming parts of my feature film [Suçon] in 2011 in a popular neighborhood in Tunis.”

He said he chose to film the main characters of the documentary on and off for nearly seven years — from the end of 2011 to September 2018 — so that he could develop a relationship with them and capture their real lives. He rejected the “question-answer” method used by many directors and producers in documentaries, opting instead to use scenes that showed the men’s lives as they are.

The discovery of Lotfi Fanta’s illness was a difficult moment for everyone. “This was the hardest moment in my life, as well as in the lives of the two men. Medical tests proved Lotfi had Hepatitis C. I thought about stopping filming. But then I became more insistent than ever on documenting the suffering of this young man who was rejected by the state and society. Abdul Razzak Rzouga was bent on saving his companion and seeking treatment for him.”

There were also moments that bolstered the filmmaking team's morale. For example, a doctor sympathized with them and volunteered to treat Fanta for free in one of the most moving scenes in the film.

Movie critic and journalist Kamal al-Sharni told Al-Monitor that the documentary targeted society’s prejudices toward gay people and drug users. “The documentary is unique and special because it reflects a humanistic approach toward relations between the marginalized and underprivileged in society.”

He said, “Although the movie depicts the devastating situation of two addicts, it reminds us of their humanity and love for one another and for life, despite the difficulties they face.”

He noted that the movie established a portrayed homosexual characters in a way unprecedented in Tunisian cinema, while admitting that the sexually implicit and violent language used in the film shocked Tunisian audiences. Still, the turnout was high.

Writer and journalist Hadi Yehmed told Al-Monitor that “Subutex” is a landmark in Tunisian cinema as it impartially documents the situation of the most marginalized groups in Tunisian society. “The film touches on homosexuality rather than focuses on it,” he said. “Homosexuality here is a minor detail amid the chaos of drugs, poverty, hunger and emotional deprivation that the characters live in.”

Shili said he was happy that the film was able to give some hope to the two men after it was screened at the Carthage Film Festival on Nov. 3. He expressed hope that the movie will not only help save the two young men from addiction and poverty but also call the authorities' attention to similar cases and make them regard this marginalized group with more empathy.

The Tunisian Anti-Drug Organization has warned of an increase in drug addiction among young people and called on the state to take action. In a study published in the local press, the organization confirmed Nov. 23 that cannabis and other drugs reached one million consumers in 2017 in the 23-25 age group. The study asserted that one third of addicts began taking drugs between 20 and 25, and 3.5% were infected with AIDS and Hepatitis B.

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