The Independent Film Scene in Tunisia: Dynamics from the Margins
A state-ruled industryFilm production in Tunisia started in the mid 1960s, ten years after its independence in 1956. Omar Khlifi’s The Dawn (al Fajr, 1966) was the first Tunisian feature film made by an entirely Tunisian crew, though the idea of setting up a national film industry had been formed long before. In 1957 the first production company – SATPEC (Société Anonyme Tunisienne de Production et d’Exploitation Cinématographique) – was created. It was a semi-public company in charge of managing the film industry from production to distribution. Until 1966, its activities were limited to institutional movies and newsreels. The “socialist” turn that the Tunisian political economy took in 1962 led to the nationalization of SATPEC, which was granted a monopoly over all aspects of film production, importation and distribution.
The real date of birth of the Tunisian film industry was 1967. The Gammarth film studios in the northern suburbs of Tunis were inaugurated, providing the company with an infrastructure it had lacked up until then. The “liberal” reorientation of the Tunisian economy at the beginning of the seventies, however, did not lead to a reconsideration of SATPEC’s monopoly over production. Its domination lasted until 1981, when the company was dismantled and the liberalization of the production process began. But although it gave birth to private production companies, this shift was illusory. It transferred the task of subsidizing the film industry to the Ministry of Culture through the creation of an aid fund for cinema. Private production companies remained (and still remain) totally dependant on state subsidies, increasingly working as executive producers.
Independence, from a political perspectiveThese historical developments contributed to a situation where film productions can be labelled as independent; the lack of private investments in film precluded the existence, and therefore a discussion around, an "industry" or a "mainstream cinema" in Tunisia. Until the late nineties, which witnessed the birth of the first national film school, independent cinema in Tunisia meant committed non-professional cinema. Filmmakers avoided working with the state’s money because it was against their ideology. From this politically oriented perspective, the productions of the Tunisian Federation of Amateur Filmmakers (Fédération Tunisienne des Cineastes Amateurs, or FTCA) can be considered as independent. Founded in 1964, this extreme left-wing organization functioned (mainly in the 1960s and 1970s) both as a production company and as an informal film school that promoted committed cinema. While not all of its productions can be considered relevant, this organization has given the opportunity to hundreds of filmmakers to express themselves freely and without the burden of censorship.
Independent cinema as an aesthetic alternative?The creation of film schools from 2000 onwards, along with the accessibility of digital technologies, introduced a more democratic system of filmmaking. The production of short films and documentary films significantly increased, now bordering on 250 films a year. Productions subsidized by the Ministry of Culture remained at a modest level despite an increase in the amount of support assigned to filmmakers. With five feature films and almost ten short films financed by the Ministry per year, the state’s efforts are widely below the expectations of the hundreds of graduates of newly founded film schools.
In the last few years, the film scene has shifted from being characterized by state subsidized productions to becoming one in which they play a minor role. Low-budget film has recently acquired a prominence and centrality that it never intended to seek. In Tunisia making a no-budget or a low-budget film is imperative. Perhaps in other contexts, independence is a choice and marginality a philosophy. In Tunisia, it is one of the only means to make films since possibilities offered by the state are limited.
The counter-cultural position of the FTCA has not found continuity in the new generation of filmmakers. Independent cinema emerging from film school graduates is depoliticized, self-centred and more concerned with aesthetics. The independent position of these filmmakers no longer means a political break with the dominant ideology. Their approach corresponds with a will to make another kind of cinema, but it is still unclear what directions they are following.
Nonetheless, there are still some pockets that have not split entirely with the positions of the FTCA. Formed in 2009, Collectif Independent d’Action pour le Cinéma, a collective of young people working in cinema, is working within a politically engaged paradigm, but it cannot be considered as promoting any specific aesthetic manifesto, and recently compiled a report focussing on the ways in which this young cinema can be encouraged further by the state.
FreedomThis programme is composed of a selection of short films that provide an outline of the most significant trends in Tunisia’s contemporary independent film scene. Running through this selection is a freedom, freshness and a desire for formal experimentation that breaks away from the gravity of previous Tunisian cinema.
Once again this freedom of speech must not be considered as entirely meaningful and without an agenda. In spite of its authoritarian character, the Tunisian government is very accommodating where cinema is concerned. Indeed it has understood for some years that its benevolence towards a “transgressive” cinema can bring benefits, especially in terms of cultivating a liberal political image. If official censorship seems lax, self-censorship is not, and this is visible in a large portion of subsidized films. All that could disturb or strike the sensibility is generally expurgated from projects eligible for a subsidy application. This is increasingly obvious in the practices of young filmmakers who seem to have turned away from politics. The current – questionable – view is that the more “clean” the script the higher its chance of being subsidized. The cinema of the margin with its tight or nonexistent budget does not have to make this kind of compromise, and displays a reassuring boldness.
The real break lies elsewhere. It is situated in the realm of the aesthetic. The most interesting films of this program distance themselves from the naturalism which has historically hurt Tunisian cinema. Their formal quest (even if not always successful) is the sign that something is happening. Experiments are still in their infancy and would have been impossible in a classical production context. Not only would they have not have found a producer, but they would have remained totally misunderstood by the Ministry of Culture and the scene over which it has a hold. In the current context, the trends seem to say that the more marginal the film, the higher the chance of making a cinema which proposes a true alternative. Motives for hope exist. But the risk persists that even the most promising will be lured into quietude in order to reach the controlling subsidies of the state.