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Tunisian film 'The Secrets' shocks Cairo film fest

By Jamel Arfaoui for Magharebia in Cairo – 17/11/09

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A Tunisian film chronicling a woman's struggle with sexuality and freedom is making waves at the 33rd Cairo International Film Festival, which began its 10-day run on Tuesday (November 10th). The festival is showcasing 150 films from 67 countries.

"Dawaha" ("The Secrets"), from director Raja Ammari, spurred controversy among theatre-goers when it was unveiled on the festival's opening night. The new work grapples with the issues of family control and violence and breaks new ground for Arab film. Two other Tunisian entries are being screened at the festival: "Thalathoun" from director Fadhel Jaziri and "Safra ma Ahlaha" from director Khaled Ghorbal.

"The film tried to show that suppression and oppression will only lead to violence," actress Rym El Benna said in a statement to Magharebia. Banna plays the role of Salma, a rebellious girl who forms a friendship with a mentally disabled woman.

"[The film] addresses the state of loss and bewilderment that women live in, something that made one of them resort to violence, killing as a last solution for expressing herself," she said. "However, I don't really believe that this is the real solution. I don't advocate violence; I tried throughout the film to make the logic of dialogue prevail."

In "Dawaha", the mentally disabled girl, Aicha, is born to a single mother in Tunisia. The film chronicles how her relationships with her mother and grandmother change after she becomes close to Salma, a liberal student. Both of Aicha's relatives have reservations about this new girl's presence in their lives, and try to hide further from the world in their dark enclave in a deserted palace. Tensions run high between the three main characters throughout the film, and climax when Aicha, in frustration, brutally kills both her mother and grandmother.

"I think that the events in the film could happen in any Arab country," said Wassila Dari, who plays the character of the mother. "The film just wanted to reveal the hidden and to pose the questions that are banned in Arab countries."

Egyptian director Issam Nahhas praised the film for its gripping portrayal of an emotional trauma. "Although the events of the film take place in just one place, I never felt bored for a single moment," said Nahhas. "The film was bold, in terms of directing and acting. All the actresses did exceptionally well; it's a daring work."

Festival attendees expressed admiration for the film's message, if not for the way Aicha ultimately articulates her anger.

"[The film had the audacity] that we need in our Arab countries, where many women feel that they are living in a big prison that prevents some of them from even going out on the street, and looks at them as just a body and nothing else," said Egyptian cinema enthusiast May Adli. "This creates many complexes in women, the most prominent of which are perhaps the sexual complexes."

"The act of violence committed by Aicha is the thing that many women think of deep inside, but I don't support that. Rather, I call on women to break their silence with the help of liberal men who acknowledge gender equality," said Adli.

Not all audience members embraced the film. Egyptian student Tarek Abou Khir was visibly upset by the work's head-on treatment of delicate themes.

"The film has violated all the taboos, and this can't be accepted in any country that respects our traditions and habits," he told Magharebia. "In addition, I found no reason for the nude scenes. I think the message that the film tried to convey was confused and didn't defend our Arab and Islamic values."

"Dawaha" was selected for recognition last year at the prestigious Venice Film Festival.

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  1. Anonymous thumb

    Essid 2010-7-29

    To ABDELMOULA- You are exactly the reason this sort of film needs to be made. You do not understand the difference between in-depth analyses and mockery. Insecurity coupled with the fact that you identify yourself with an imaginary homogenous nation of Tunisia, which is in fact very diverse and much more like a gathering of various peoples and individuals, makes you unable to tolerate anyone who points out a problem. Every society has problems. You need to understand that and stop with your vanity. If we cannot admit there are problems, how can we ever analyse them? How can we ever hope to solve them? I watched this film with my mother, who is Tunisian. She easily recognised parallels between her life and those of the women in this film. The point of the film, as far as I understand it, is that women are made to feel ashamed for that which is beyond their control. This shame acts as leverage, which forces them into various forms of submission. The submission can be to the community or to men or, in the case of this film, to other women in the family, who out of their own shame, abuse each other into submission. Yes, this is right, shame, leverage and forced submission all lead to anger and ultimately to violence and abuse. That is the story of this film. And the moral of the story is that instead of accepting this shame and everything that follows from it, we should openly discuss it and change it.


  2. Anonymous thumb

    bonnie 2010-7-27

    Finally, a Tunisian feminist film that breaks the taboos. When will the Arab world rediscover the intelligence it once imparted to us and stop turning towards obscurantism? Yes, I am free and I respect differences in culture, but I always fight for the freedom of choice. I ran into Moncef Dhouib and we spoke. This was a rich conversation about cinema and such. Other citizens of the Maghreb took part in it, without being judgmental. Now words and no people should alienate others from their lives. I incline towards Aristotles and Averroes! What wisdom!!! Bravo Raja Ammari!


  3. Anonymous thumb

    rania 2010-1-23

    it is a nice film i've seen because it talks about the acts of violence and this is an important thing in our society.really i liked this film...


  4. Anonymous thumb

    ABDELMOULA 2010-1-3

    How do you address yourself first to a Tunisian audience when you mock what Tunisians expect from a Tunisian film? No Tunisian can recognise himself in this film, neither in terms of its psychological nature, nor in terms of its dramatic nature. We all expect something else from Tunisian film. This is why we are continuing to encourage it. I have no further comments for this film that is not a film!