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Film explores how things have, and haven't, changed for Tunisia's women

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Article Summary
The female-directed drama "Beauty and the Dogs" shows how much Tunisia has changed since the revolution in which it was set.

"Why did we have a revolution? People have died for their rights," snaps a character in “Beauty and the Dogs,” the latest film from Tunisian writer and director Kaouther Ben Hania. His stubbornness is directed at Mariam, a college student who has just been raped and resists filing a report at the police station.

Having made major advancements in women’s rights in recent years and benefited the most from the Arab Spring, Tunisia has gradually become the most progressive state in the region. Thus, Ben Hania’s film, which takes place after the impeachment of Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, can be seen as both a period piece set at a time of transition and a dissection of Tunisia's remaining bureaucratic and chauvinistic ills that have yet to be fully eradicated.

On a cinematic level, the bravura filmmaking, immediacy and dexterity of Ben Hania’s craft is a testament to the great leap that post-Jasmine Revolution Tunisian cinema has made. What it still largely lacks is original ideas, or rather inventive treatments of the abiding concerns of the day. “Beauty and the Dogs” is a case in point, as its formal ambitions eventually get the better of it, plunging the narrative into the type of angry, simplistic and redundant rhetoric from which North African cinema is still struggling to move away.

"Beauty" commences as Mariam, played by newcomer Mariam Al Ferjani, slips into a moderately sexy dress for a college party at a Tunis disco. Light flirtation ensues between her and Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli), and the pair hit it off on the dance floor. In the next scene, we find out that Mariam has been raped by a group of policemen in a car — an incident that occurs entirely off screen. Youssef escorts her to document the rape in a hospital, the first stop of a long, Kafkaesque journey of bureaucracy, misogyny and violation. She is refused entry on the grounds that she must first file a report at the police station. Later on, the police, in repeated breaches of the law, attempt to shelve the case by terrorizing her to withdraw her testimony.

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In her horrific ordeal, Mariam receives little to no sympathy from the male and female officials she encounters. The veracity of her story is constantly questioned; her revealing dress is judged and disparaged and her plight is casually dismissed. The picture Ben Hania paints of Tunisia is unreservedly bleak: a callous, morally bankrupt society, light years from the egalitarian wonderland dreamed up by the revolution.

Ben Hania emerged on the regional film scene with her second feature, “Challat of Tunis” (2013); a mockumentary that follows the trials and tribulations of Tunisia’s favorite slasher who attacked 11 women from his motorbike in 2003. Also based on a true story, “Challat” — one of the funniest, smartest Arab films of the century — was a revelation: an impassioned, yet refreshingly detached dissection of the country’s threatened and crumbling masculinity.

Ben Hania’s next film, 2016's “Zaineb Hates the Snow,” cemented her reputation as one of the region’s established filmmakers. This drama is a warmhearted coming-of-age story chronicling the titular 9-year-old heroine’s transformation from a naive, wonderstruck pupil in a religious school in Tunis, to a secular, cynical teenager in Canada. Shot over the course of five years, "Zaineb" is Ben Hania’s thoughtful and distinctive record of the middle-class Arab experience.

“I wanted to go for a different tone, for a different atmosphere” in "Beauty," Ben Hania told Al-Monitor. “The real story of the film occurred in 2012. It was a story that shook the country at the time. The trial of the policemen went on for two years, after which they received 14-year prison sentences. I was in awe of the girl’s courage: an ordinary, fragile girl put in the limelight and pushed to discover her real self in the course of a harsh and tragic journey.”

Ben Hania was more concerned with depicting the psychological metamorphosis of Miriam than accurately depicting the particularities of the real story that inspired the movie. The victim, Meriem Ben Mohammed, narrated her story in a 2013 book, “Guilty of Being Raped.”

Ben Hania resisted meeting her while writing her script, shielding herself within a sanctuary of fiction to focus on creating a coherent narrative. Ben Mohammed read the finished script a few days prior to shooting. “She complained about the changes I made. I told her that she should regard it as a story similar to hers, and not her actual story,” Ben Hania said. “After she saw the movie, she told me that she forgot about the actual events of the incident, because what she emotionally experienced was there, on screen. She understood that I had to take a different course to represent the emotionality of her experience as honestly and authentically as possible.”

Ben Hania said her film is something of a snapshot of the early aftermath of the revolution, when the entire system was being overhauled. “Those policemen were the old guard, part of the Ben Ali regime. They’d been accustomed to a certain way of work, where they had free rein. You could tell, though, that they were afraid of the girl, because they knew that things were changing,” she said. “This incident marked the end of an era for them.”

The very existence of the film — which was co-funded by the Ministry of Culture and had no problems whatsoever with Tunisia’s famously permissive censorship — proves that things have indeed changed. Ben Hania points out that it would have been impossible to produce a film like "Beauty" before the revolution.

“People are the same people, though, and there are still some police violations every now and then. The main difference now is that the civil society is stronger than ever,” Ben Hania said. “What’s happening now is a continuous standoff between the police and the civil society that exposes their encroachments. As the police are constantly under pressure, they are forced to change their ways."

Ben Hania believes that male chauvinism is not restricted to the Arab world. “The rapist cops in my film are no different from Harvey Weinstein,” she said. “The tactics they employed were the same: intimidation, blackmail, etc. Men are men everywhere. That’s why the movie resonated with a global audience; this story could happen anywhere.”

A key component in what some consider Ben Hania’s flimsiest narrative to date is the cartoonish, one-dimensional male characters. The male characters are either lying, savage brutes (the policemen), self-serving pacifists with secondary agendas (the activist) or apathetic bystanders (the doctors, the police aide). Ben Hania’s rage and contempt for the men of her story is understandable, yet it deprives the narrative of richness and complexity. 

“I don’t think all men in the story are either black or white,” Ben Hania protested. “The police superiors, for instance, believe that maintaining order is more important than bringing the girl’s rapists to justice. Same with the doctor, who’s only doing his job. The elderly aide is also not one dimensional. He’s acting cowardly for most of the film, only coming to his senses at the end.”

Ben Hania showed enough gravity and inventiveness in her previous work to show that she still has still plenty to unearth in themes that have grown tiresome and stale over time. “Beauty and the Dogs” shows a filmmaker at her technical peak and a visionary striving to experiment and challenge herself with every project, but she has her work cut out for her in drawing fresh insight out of straightforward, realist chronicles.

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Joseph Fahim is an Egyptian film critic and programmer. He is the Arab delegate of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival and member of Berlin Critics' Week. He is also the former director of programming of the Cairo International Film Festival. He co-authored various books on Arab cinema and has contributed to numerous outlets in the Middle East, including Middle East Inistitite, Al Jazeera, Egypt Independent and The National (U.A.E.), along with international film publications such Verite. To date, his writings have been published in five different languages.

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