Dubbed ‘The Shore of Death’, the coastal city of Gabes has made headlines over the past decade for being an environmental wasteland. 13,000 tonnes of phosphate are dumped into the Mediterranean Sea every day, causing the city to have the highest rate of cancer in the country.
Penurious, conservative, and neglected by the country’s cultural elite, Gabes nonetheless have always enjoyed a strong civil society and affluent patrons adamant on changing the fortunes of the city.
Tunisia: sole survivor…?
Despite its insurmountable economic woes and the political instability that rocked the North African nation following President Kais Saied’s dismantling of the government and freezing of the parliament, Tunisia has remained the one nation in the Arab World where democracy is not entirely dead. Bolstered by the most strident civil society in the region and a plethora of talents spanning diverse art-disciplines, the post-revolution Tunisian art scene has maintained a remarkable growth over the past decade in spite of economic turmoil and a bureaucracy that has been inherited from the Ben Ali regime.
No single event managed to capture the unpredictability and spirit of the recently concluded Tunisian digital arts fest, Gabes Cinema Fen, than the discussion that followed Eliane Raheb’s award-winning Lebanese documentary, Miguel’s War. An investigative portrait of gay Barcelona-residing Lebanese interpreter confronting his past as a tormented closeted ex- Phalanges solider, the post-film discussion saw a young queer activist accusing the filmmaker of allegedly failing to condemn her protagonist’s involvement in the bloody 1975-1990 civil war, implying that advocating for queer rights should not come at the expense of brushing off the larger, thornier political context.
The heated discussion is not only unique to the region in its directness, but in the open fashion with which a queer activist can express himself so openly. Tunisia has been the sole Arab country to host a public screening of Miguel’s War, and that speaks volumes about the enviable freedoms the country has gained since its 2010 Jasmine Revolution.
After breaking away from the Carthage Film Festival – Tunisia and Africa’s oldest film fair – having resigned in protest of the fest’s management, documentary filmmaker and programmer Fatma Cherif joined forces with a group of art and film curators to set up the first major international art festival in Gabes.
The challenge of reviving cultural life in a country with an erratic cultural policy was monumental. After the 1956 independence from the French protectorate, Tunisia had 110 movie theatres. By the beginning of the ‘90s, and until the 2010 revolution, a mere 17 were left. In Gabes, there were only two cinemas in the ‘90s, which were subsequently shut down.
The festival had a dual objective: to reacquaint the viewers with auteur cinema, and to present different art-forms in fashion that blurs the boundaries between the myriad types of image-making, be it video art, visual arts, or virtual reality. Another key objective for the fest’s management was to present an alternative programming to that of the orientalist west. “For us, this is a means of resistance: to present our vision and our voices free of any Western influence,” Cherif tells The Africa Report.
For us, this is a mean of resistance: to present our vision and our voices free of any Western influence
This daring vision comprises the introduction of challenging art that deviates from the simplified narratives and fast rhythms of Hollywood and Netflix. “We wanted to cultivate a relationship between the audiences and new artistic propositions and not simply to put bums on seats,” Cherif says. “We invited students from across Gabes and neighbouring cities to watch and discuss these films. We also set up film criticism workshops aiming to change the students’ relationship with cinema.”
Variety is the spice of life
The eclectic programming in the recently concluded edition, for example, included a retrospective of the Lebanese patron of slow cinema, Ghassan Salhab; environmental and kids film section; an exhibition on the little-known history of football in Gabes (whose fall from grace mirrors the misfortune of the city); a musical performance by Tunisian African futurism pioneer, Nuri, that combined traditional motifs with electronic sound; and, most impressive of all, a sundry collection of VR videos that included promising efforts by first-time Tunisian storytellers.
Over a course of four editions, Gabes Cinema Fen single handedly changed the city’s cultural landscape. The presence of the fest is palpable everywhere in the city; from the posters and gigantic billboards adorning every neighbourhood, to the roaming cars with blaring speakers advertising the daily happenings and screenings.
The various branches of the fest are scattered across the city: in the El Kazma corniche and the centre of the city; in the Centre culturel universitaire where the hugely popular VR section is set. The bulk of the film screenings, meanwhile, takes place at the Agora, a former headquarters for Ben Ali’s party and a symbol for police repression that has been turned into an exhibit space after the revolution.
The extensive reach-out programs over the past four years have resulted in the biggest audience turnout Gabes Cinema Fen has enjoyed thus far. In its online edition alone, the films recorded 10,000 admissions, half of which are from Gabes and its neighbouring counties.
‘There is no trust among us, cultural workers’
The success of Gabes stands in contrast with the otherwise stagnant and regressive state of Tunisia’s culture policies. “Heads of institutions are being fired; festivals are unjustifiably cancelled; and personnel belonging to the old [Ben Ali] regime are reinstated to their former positions. The propositions we have presented for the reform of cinema laws have never been responded to,” Cherif says. “There is no trust in the government; there is no trust among us, culture workers.”
The economy has little to do with this debacle, Cherif says. “The culture budget is 0.86 from the government budget. That’s not a lot. The problem is not with lack of money; it’s how this money is spent and where it’s being directed.”
There are traces of post-colonialism in this approach, an approach we reject,
As authoritarian regimes deny festivals across the region from adopting any political position, Gabes wears its defiant liberal politics on its sleeves, emerging as an independently-run platform free from the governmental influence that has tainted the older and better funded Carthage. “The main preoccupation of festivals in the region is the red carpet and fighting over premieres – a strategy modelled after western festivals. There are traces of post-colonialism in this approach, an approach we reject,” Cherif says.
The rise of Tunisia’s cinema
With a record three films from Tunisia in Cannes this year and a recent Oscar nomination for Kaouther Ben Hania’s The Man Who Sold His Skin, the profile of Tunisian cinema and culture has been on the rise over the past decade – a reflection of the freedoms gifted by the revolution. This success, however, does not reflect any institutional competence; the success of every filmmaker, of every successful event like Gabes, is entirely rooted in private efforts rather than progressive cultural policies.
What’s even more remarkable about the Gabes project is its diligent work that goes beyond the parameters of the festival. A pioneering VR workshop – the first of its kind in the region – has been organised twice a year to teach students the specificities of writing and directing for the new medium.
Various workshops for film programming, editing, sound, directing and event-organisation are held at different intervals of the year to sustain the momentum of the festival and nurture this cultural bud. The fest’s activities are not solely restricted to Gabes: more workshops and screenings are planned for surrounding cities, utilising the cultural centres that have been discarded for years by the government.
The physical and online editions of Gabes Cinema Fen took place from 6-28 May.
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