Hollywood’s Favorite Desert Nation, Post-Revolution
Essay by Jesse Dukes
Storyboard by J. Todd Anderson
Photo: Star Wars sandcrawler set at Chott Al Jerrid, Tunisia, 1976. (courtesy of lucasfilm ltd.)
The best time is sunset. Drive west from Tozeur, Tunisia, past the date palm oasis of Nefta, and you will find the northwestern reach of the Chott El-Jerid — a seasonally dry salt lake that glistens slightly under orange skies. Keep the scrubby dunes and silhouetted dromedaries on your right as you drive straight toward the Algerian border for seven kilometers. Look left across the endless dry lake bed and you can just make out a gleaming white dot against the pinkish gray of the flat. Aim for the dot. Soon enough jeep tracks appear, which you follow over crunchy salt dust to arrive at a small igloolike structure next to a small, shallow crater. Look familiar?
If, like probably more than a billion other humans, you’ve seen the 1977 film Star Wars, directed by George Lucas, you’ve seen Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, standing in this very spot, gazing wistfully at the descent of two suns over the desert planet Tatooine. The igloo itself has been recently restored— not by Tunisia’s Ministry of Tourism—but by members of an international fan organization, "Save the Lars Homestead," who visited the spot in June 2012 to repair the slowly collapsing structure. You would not have spotted the site from the highway without the newly gleaming white paint.
In fact, the igloo has been built and rebuilt four times—twice in 1976 for Star Wars and again in the 1990s for the Star Wars prequels, and now a fourth time. Star Wars left behind just a handful of movie sets, but the film changed Tunisia in profound ways, introducing the small North African country to Hollywood and the micro-economy of moviemaking. Since then, hundreds of American, European, and Arab productions have filmed in Tunisia, employing small armies of local technicians, designers, carpenters, cameramen, and drivers. Some have even made the leap to filmmaker or producer.
But the future of Tunisia’s film industry — like that of the country itself — is uncertain. Filmmakers prefer stability in their working
conditions, and while many Tunisians are proud to have touched off the Arab Spring revolution, and are relieved to be rid of a dictator seen as corrupt and oppressive, the instability triggered by the revolution has threatened a once reliable industry, which over a generation has evolved its own cultural significance. No major film has been shot in Tunisia since before the revolution. Rumors circulate that Western producers can’t get insurance to shoot here. And while the best of this country’s line producers and technicians are finding work on small projects, over a thousand film students graduated in 2012, hoping to make a living in the industry. According to government statistics, most haven’t found jobs. For years, Tunisia was the premiere budget destination for American or European filmmakers looking for something exotic and desert-y, but the Moroccan industry made a serious effort to compete in the 1990s, pulling even with Tunisia in the 2000S, and the instability after the revolution might win them the race. Nearly forty years after Hollywood landed here, the twin suns may have set on Tunisia’s golden age of foreign film production.
Simple Tricks and Nonsense
Tozeur, Tunisia, 1976
When thirty-one-year-old director George Lucas left Tunisia in April 1976, he was certain his ambitious film project, "The Star Wars," was in jeopardy. Tunisia had been scouted by production designer John Barry and production supervisor Robert Watts, who were looking for an alternative to Morocco, which they felt was already familiar to moviegoers. Tunisia’s architecture and deserts had a more alien, otherworldly quality; it was relatively unknown. Best of all, it was cheap. It seemed like the perfect location.
The downside was that Tunisia, at the time, lacked the professional line production industry it has today. Lucas would have to overcome a cascading series of logistical disasters, supported only by a local crew who at times took a laid-back attitude toward production.
The first inkling of trouble came not to Lucas, but to one of the film’s young stars. Mark Hamill was twenty-four when he arrived by charter plane on the island of Djerba, on Tunisia’s southeastern coast. Having spent a couple of his high-school years in Japan, Hamill considered himself worldly. "But nothing really prepares you for Tunisia," he says. Star Wars was his first major film; even better, he was the lead, an idealistic farm boy named, at the time, Luke Starkiller. He boarded a hired car with his costar Anthony Daniels, who would portray his robot sidekick C-3PO, and the taxi began the three-hour trip over narrow curvy roads to Tozeur in Tunisia’s southwest. "These guys would travel at ridiculously hazardous speeds," Hamill says. "It’s kind of a macho thing that you drive right toward whatever’s coming at you, and try to make the other guy go off onto the soft shoulder. It sounds funny now but Tony and I were terrified." Hamill wasn't worried about being injured so much as he was worried about being replaced. "The producers could easily go to the second person that was lined up to play Luke, and the second person that they were thinking of for 3PO."
Both actors made it to the town of Tozeur, in the province of the same name, near the Chott El-Jerid salt flats where the first location scenes would be filmed. The first four days went well, despite some problems with the robot costumes. On the fifth day, the cast and crew woke to a downpour. “We’re supposed to be in the sun-drenched southern part of Tozeur, it’s pissing rain and there’s a wind like you wouldn’t believe,” Robert Watts later recalled. You can drive a regular car on the crust of the salt flat when it’s dry, but according to Watts, “When the crust breaks, it’s like grease underneath.” Several vehicles got stuck in the bog. They hired cranes from the Tunisian Army to haul them out, but some of those vehicles got stuck, and didn’t move until things dried out, some days later. The same storm blew away the Lars Homestead “igloo,” necessitating the first of the four rebuilds. Director George Lucas later said that he was able to film maybe half of what he hoped in Tunisia.
Still, what they were able to film succeeds in creating the illusion of another planet, one more fully realized than in any preceding film. As film director James Cameron later said, “All of a sudden I saw this film, and it was like somebody had reached into my hind brain and yanked out a lot of stuff that was in there, and I was seeing it on the screen.” Part of the illusion came from painstaking creative misdirection— what magicians refer to as the use of a few small parts to create the sense of a coherent whole. For instance, early in the film, Luke’s Aunt Beru calls to him off-camera. We see him divert his path and jog past the “igloo” to the surface of a crater. The film cuts to an interior of the crater, which we then see is a two-story hole with some space-age technology and several caves facing a center courtyard in which the family apparently lives. The crater was built for the set. “I was looking at two feet of saltwater,” Hamill remembers. The actual hole in the ground with caves is about 150 miles to the east, in the Berber hill town of Matmata.
Matmata is one of those places that feels both familiar and otherworldly, as though alien travelers crash-landed here a few centuries ago and made a few architectural suggestions before finally catching a return ride to their home planet. The Matmata-style “troglodyte dwelling” consists of a two-story pit, maybe thirty feet across. The dirt floor of the pit has a cistern at its center, which serves as a courtyard for each extended family. Then, in an underground approximation of the compound home common in Morocco, small caves, carved radially from the pit, surround the courtyard. Some caves are for storage or cooking, and others offer privacy to the patriarch and matriarch or the married sons and wives of the family who can even close heavy wooden doors across the cave mouths. The pits themselves are joined to other cave compounds, or to the outside world through curved and sloping tunnels. Nobody knows when the dwellings were built—centuries ago, if not millennia. In 1967, several of them collapsed after a twenty-two-day rainstorm. The town still has dozens of cave homes, though many locals have moved into more universal aboveground houses. “It’s easier for the women to clean the modern house,” is one local man’s explanation.
When I visit the Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata in July, the practicality of these homes is immediately apparent. It’s 122 degrees Fahrenheit outside, but in the small cave in which Luke Skywalker drank blue milk and argued with his uncle, it’s cool enough for a sweater. The mystery of the caves’ origins is replaced by a simple question—why doesn’t everybody in Tunisia live in a cave? Geology provides the answer. Matmata, like only a handful of similar towns across the country, is situated in unique terrain: a shelf of sandstone that is soft enough to excavate with hand tools, but sturdy enough to sustain caves for centuries.
During tourist seasons, one or two buses roll into town every day, disgorging dozens of tourists who make a beeline for Hotel Sidi Driss. You can order a meal or a beer there, or even stay in a cave for the night, but the guidebooks recommend staying in other hotels free of Star Wars fans trying to peer into your cave. The bar is decorated by Star Wars posters and memorabilia, and one gets the feeling the management spends more energy catering to Star Wars visitors than creating a good experience for the hotel guests.
Many Matmatans remember the filming of
the Star Wars prequels in the last fifteen years, but it takes some digging to find anybody who remembers the 1976 shoot. I do manage to find two men who helped build sets in 1976, but their memories are unspecific-—a few weeks of well-paid labor, painting the hotel, helicopters ferrying Lucas, cast, and crew. They’ve never actually seen the movie. Laborers in Matmata may have had little opportunity to see Star Wars, but I found that many Tunisians in bigger cities haven’t seen the film, either. Younger people enjoy global blockbusters, along with Arabic and Persian films, and there’s a small but loyal audience for Tunisia’s auteur films. And yet, despite its significance to the local film industry, to Tunisians, Star Wars is just another foreign movie, if a bit more fancy than some. As one of the Matmatans tells me, “We had no idea people would be coming here asking for Star Wars thirty years later.”
A Time of Civil War
Tunis, Tunisia, February 2011
In December 2010, a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi dramatically burned himself to death in the streets of his hometown, Sidi Bouzid. Some allege Bouazizi had endured disrespectful or even abusive treatment at the hands of the police. Others suggest he was a deeply troubled college dropout, frustrated by his lack of economic success. In any case, his act was the “spark in the tinder box,” as many Tunisians say, which set off a firestorm of protest and rage at the government. Protests broke out in Sidi Bouzid and quickly spread throughout the county. Tunisians had grown increasingly frustrated with their president of twenty-three years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who allegedly made millions through corrupt dealings. Unemployment was rising, especially for the growing class of college-educated Tunisians. In January 2011, thousands began gathering in the expansive median of the Habib Bourguiba Boulevard to demand Ben Ali and his allies step aside. Ben Ali clung to power for days with a series of compromises and crackdowns but finally bowed to pressure on January 14 and fled the country. Al Jazeera news ran a story titled, “Will Tunisia Be the First Domino to Fall?” Just a few weeks later, protests erupted in Egypt and Libya. Tunisians were ecstatic. “We’ve achieved the unimaginable,” proclaimed one young activist.
Ben Ali had been a secularist dictator, and while artists and intellectuals felt oppressed by the regime, so did their political counterparts, conservative Muslims. Ben Ali exiled or imprisoned many Salafists, the most conservative and traditionalist Muslims, for opposing the regime. Before the revolution, women who chose to wear the hijab—a head scarf that covers a woman’s hair and neck but leaves her face exposed—were stigmatized as being old-fashioned. Now the hijab is common in workplaces, and most Tunisians across the political spectrum agree this greater freedom and tolerance is, while complicated, a step in the right direction.
However, after the revolution, it became clear most Tunisians don’t necessarily agree about what the identity of Tunisia should be. The Salafists and other strict Muslims want an Islamist state, where Islamic conventions and laws are upheld. Others, characterized as “secular,” “modern,” and “Western,” hope Tunisia will remain tolerant and cosmopolitan, maintaining a liberal attitude toward women’s rights and freedom of expression. In June 2011, the reconstituted Islamist party Ennahda presented itself as modern and democratic, calling press conferences to extol the virtues of a free-market economy and to assert that women have a right to choose whether or not to wear the hijab. Many “seculars” worried the increasingly popular party was a Salafist wolf in West-
ern clothing, and would prove far less liberal if it took power. “Freedom is a great, great adventure,” the author and activist Fathi Ben Haj Yathia told the New York Times a month after Ben Ali left, “but it’s not without risks.”
Mark Hamill Remembers Tunisia
Twenty-four-year-old Mark Hamill auditioned for the role of "Luke Starklller" on December 30,1975. Based on Director George Lucas's apparent lack of enthusiasm, Hamill assumed he didn't get the role.
But just two and a half months later, he landed in Djerba, Tunisia, took a harrowing taxi ride to Tozeur, and began playing the role that would define his early career.
I had lived in Japan because my father was in the Navy, so I felt like I'd seen more of the world than most of my contemporaries, but nothing really prepares you for Tunisia. When we were going around to our various locations for Star Wars, we would be following the locations recently vacated by Jesus of Nazareth. It was weird, because they were shooting something with medieval architecture, and the fact that things hadn't changed for centuries really worked in their favor; ours was using that same kind of terrain and architecture to try and project an unearthly look.
We would go out to the salt flats and erect what we called moisture vaporators. Just nonsense machinery. Or we would put additions on certain buildings to make antennas or radar scopes and take what existed and just tweak it a little bit. One thing I thought was really well done in the early films was the organic look of things. Even the spacecraft were sort of beat up and dented, with oil drips. It wasn't a pristine, antiseptic kind of look to the hardware, which sometimes you would expect in something that is supposed to be "futuristic." But it was such a great melding of what was there in North Africa and what we brought to it.
There was an Absolutely Fabulous where Patsy and Edina go to Morocco, and the hotel they were staying at was really a flashback for me. I remember there was white adobe and a nice swimming pool. I think we were doing six days a week and having one day off, and we were trying to stay away from getting sick; we were careful about what we ate. I mostly ate blood oranges and eggs or bananas—things that had natural casings. I was sort of dubious about eating stew and all that. Tony Daniels—who played C-3P0—and I went off to do touristy things like ride camels, and we saw this big procession coming down the street. People were firing blunderbusses. And it was startling, the sound they made. We sort of joined in at the end of the procession and were following behind, and a couple members that were in the procession got very enthusiastic, and through our sort of broken French we were able to understand that this was a wedding procession. But we got self-conscious and thought, "Oh, the last thing you want to do is offend somebody's cultural traditions." But they were thrilled! We got invited into either the bride's or the groom's father's abode, and that's where it got a little dodgy because they got us a bowl of stew. We were always nervous about eating anything because people could get violently ill, and we couldn't afford it! We weren't staying long enough where they could wait for me to get over food poisoning.
At first, he offered us a puff of his hookah, and as he passed it to us, there's a long string of brown saliva. We're assuming it was tobacco, but I sort of covered myself by putting my hand over the end of the thing that you're supposed to drag on, and sort of sucked through my fingers and made a token puff at it because it was offered to us. With the stew, we sort of pushed it around and ate bread. I can't remember how we actually got out of that because you couldn't actually dump it somewhere and not be seen—like trying to get out of eating your lima beans at your mom's house.
THE TUNISIAN LABORERS
We were climbing up to the location [Djerba], where we were supposed to be overlooking the space port and it took all of five hours to walk all the way to the top. We didn't have helicopters and Sir Alec [Guinness] was not a young man. On our way up, trekking up this mountain, we had to stop, and we asked, "Why are we stopping?" Well, one donkey had mounted another donkey on the way up, and when they're in the mood, they stop everything because they need baby donkeys. We had to wait until they finished, so we sat and just cooled our heels for forty-five minutes. Yeah, the film company will be gone in a month's time or less, but for [the Tunisians], it was much more important to have baby donkeys.
I was a real fanatic for Famous Monsters of Filmland and Ray Harryhausen and the black-and-white King Kong and all the Universal horror films, so I knew what storyboards were. I made sure that I always knew what I was supposed to be looking at and what was going to be put in later. So it was easy for me, especially when you really got out there and turned your back on the camera crew and you just had your little floating car, you had your two robots, and you had your lightsaber. I was a comic-book freak. I used to play this stuff in my backyard. Everything from Robin Hood to Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, so I was totally into it, and I could really imagine it. I'd seen it drawn, whether it was in storyboards or in Ralph McQuarrie's paintings, I had a good idea of what it was intended to look like. When I was standing up there looking at that setting sun, I knew that they were going to double print it and put another sun right next to it so that I was looking at two suns going down.
And that became a kind of a running joke because the lighting had to be just perfect—there was a window of about forty minutes when they could get anything usable—and no matter where we were, they'd say, "Have Mark standing by to get into
the jeep," because we kept shooting that over and over and over again. I must have looked at that setting sun at least half a dozen times because they wanted to get the widest range of sunsets as they could. We couldn't put it in with CGI the way they do it now.
I had a great time. When we left Tunisia, it was really with a heavy heart because I could have easily stayed there. I mean I really loved it. I know Tony Daniels felt the same way. Tony and I bonded so well. Han Solo has Chewbacca but Luke had C-3PO. And I really bonded with Tony, and he felt very slighted when we went back to England. First Harrison [Ford] came over and I was hanging out with him—you know, I had to get to know everybody. And then Carrie [Fisher] came over, and I wanted to go out to dinner with her, and Tony was sort of lamenting the fact that it'll never be the same again as when it was just Guinness, the robots, and me.
Mark Hamill is currently raising funds for a film adaptation of The Black Pearl, a comics series he co-authored in 1996. The project's producer is Peter Kohn, whom Hamill met on the set of Star Wars. The two have been good friends since 1976.
I Have a Bad Feeling About This
Ong Jemel, Tozeur, 2012
"Have you flown by car before?" my guide, Tijani, asks as we speed across the desert in his white Toyota SUV.
“No,” I say, confused. “Only by airplane.” “Okay, then we will see if it will fly.”
With that, he veers off the main track onto softer ground, making for a reddish-brown limestone hill, which has several jeep tracks along its steep slopes. Tijani pushes the SUV up a rather steep track fifty feet to the summit where I think he’s going to gun the engine to catch air. Instead, we stop at the apex and seesaw on a sharp edge. In the far distance, we can see what appear to be three floating rocks: sandstone hills submerged in mirage. “Ready?” He asks. I swivel my head down ... and down. The ridge in front of us is roller coaster steep. “I have a bad feeling—”
Tijani hits the throttle, and we careen down the slope—briefly in free fall before landing on four wheels again.
The roads in the south of Tunisia have improved considerably since 1976, when Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels survived their terrifying ride across the desert, but the drivers here apparently still enjoy scaring the hell out of foreign visitors. Still, it’s all in fun. As we drive along, Tijani talks about the five kinds of deserts in Tunisia, each with distinctive flora and fauna: the scrubland, the rocky desert, the salt flat, the mountains, and the sandy Sahara. He describes the aquifers that nourish date palm oases in nearby Nefta, where Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones chased a truck full of Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Tijani learned how to be a tourist guide from his father, an international guide and zookeeper who owned and trained Tunisia’s last Atlas lion. When he was young, he rode along in his dad’s Land Rover and helped entertain tourists. As a jack-of-all-trades, he sometimes works for filmmakers, helping facilitate transportation or other local logistics.
Tijani supports the revolution. “For me, it’s like a dream,” he says. “No Tunisian thought there would be a revolution like that.” But, he acknowledges, there’s been a cost. Tourism is Tunisia’s second largest economy—after manufacturing, but ahead of agribusiness. Since 2011, tourism revenues have fallen by more than a quarter, and according to Tijani, the film industry has mirrored tourism’s woes. Since 2011, only small films and documentaries with tight budgets have been shot here. We pass by a large sandy plane surrounded by sandstone formations. “If you remember Black Gold, by Jean-Jacques Annaud, here is where many horsemen fought a great battle,” he says. That film, a 2011 epic about the early days of Saudi oil drilling, was the last major film shot in Tunisia.
Last April, Tijani worked for the German director Berengar Pfahl on a World War I adventure film called Die Manner der Emden. If the time-conscious German had known Tunisia was going to be in the aftermath of a popular revolution, he might have chosen to go elsewhere—or delay the shoot. But a schedule was a schedule, and Pfahl’s team went to Tozeur hoping for the best. Emboldened by the recent street protests, and frustrated by the lack of jobs, some local youths from what Tijani calls a “rougher” part of Tozeur began showing up on set, threatening to disrupt the film if they weren’t given work. Pfahl’s budget was small, and he couldn’t afford to hire all of them. “But it was no problem,” Tijani says. “We hired the oldest and most influential in the gangs, gave them good jobs, and they actually helped us calm down the others.” He says the only reason they were able to disrupt the film at all is that most police were busy keeping order during the Arab Spring protests. “And even without the police, sure, we had a few small problems, but Pfahl was satisfied.”
A distinctive red-brown formation heaves into view. It has a sloping saddle and round outcropping that gives it its name—Ong Jemel, “the head of the camel.” In Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Darth Maul used this hill as a lookout while searching for Queen Amidala. Now, seven or eight Land Cruisers are parked at its base and several dozen tourists, mostly Russian and Polish, are climbing the hill or bargaining for souvenirs at a small, makeshift market at the base.
South of Ong Jemel, the desert becomes less rocky and more sandy, as if foreshadowing the great Sahara that is still over fifty miles to the south. Tijani downshifts and takes us up a forty-foot dune, again pausing at the top before letting the Toyota skid gently down the other side. Just around the hill from this dune, there appears to be a small white city surrounded by a concrete wall—incongruous because there are no power lines, roads, or any apparent reason to live here. This is the set for Mos Espa, built in 1997 for The Phantom Menace, destroyed by a storm, and then rebuilt for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
The set was inspired by the architecture of Djerba: whitewashed adobe buildings with domes and arched entranceways. Up close, it’s easy to see how the designers used simple tricks to make the set seem space-age. The doorways are lined with painted wooden trim that seems like futuristic cast-iron on screen, and the streets are filled with plywood “moisture vaporators”—what Mark Hamill calls “nonsense machinery.” Next to one, a couple from Poland—a publisher and his wife—pose for a picture. The husband wears a black garbage bag and Darth Vader mask; his wife beams at the camera. Inside the adobe huts, I glimpse a few sleeping palettes and what appears to be a Renault motorcycle. Is somebody living here?
Three teenage vendors have a stall near the entrance of the city, where they sell a mix of desert and Star Wars souvenirs. The “desert rose” is a particular flower-shaped mineral formation made by concreted sand, gypsum, and seasonal water that locals mine and sell to tourists. One of the boys hands me what I take to be a rubber snake. It has the diamond markings and triangular neck of a rattlesnake, and when I ask what species, he only says, “Essnake normal. No cobra.”
“It’s plastic, right? C’est plastique?”
“No, no plastique. C’est vrai! C’est vrai!” It’s real. I notice the fangs have been removed from the mouth and reattached above the snake’s eyes, giving the impression of fearsome horns. Massoud, Salem, and Said mime using a forked stick to catch snakes and put them in a bag where they eventually suffocate. The boys live in a nearby village, and in high tourist seasons take some food, blankets, and wares on their motorbikes and camp out here in Mos Espa, living in the movie set like Bedouins in tents. I snap a few pictures. They try to sell me a snake. We haggle over a Star Wars DVD. In Tunis, you can buy a pirated version of nearly any movie you can think of. Tozeur entrepreneurs travel to Tunis to buy and duplicate DVDs, which they then sell to these boys, who cram all three prequels onto one disc and all three original films onto another. “How’s business?” I ask.
“Comme ci, comme ca,” he says. “So-so.”
Return of Jallouli
Carthage Studios, Tunis, 2012
Taieb Jallouli, the man who built Mos Espa,
chuckles when I tell him his set is inhabited. “They live there, eh?” he says, a little distracted. Then he looks up a ladder at a carpenter and shouts directions in Arabic. Taieb Jallouli is the art director on an Italian production of the story of Barabbas, the zero a.d. criminal who was spared crucifixion by Pontius Pilate. His team is building a New Testament Jerusalem at Carthage Studios, part of Tunisia’s largest production company. We’re walking through a street made from adobe houses much like the Berber villages in the south. Jallouli’s carpenters have been using horsehair and plaster to build this set, for historical integrity. They clearly admire their boss, who augments his English with bits of French when he’s excited or doesn’t quite know the right phrase.
“I began at le fond de l’echelle, and I climbed up the ladder to the top of this business. My first job was a propman on an Italian film, II Ladrone—“the robber” or “the thief” or something. Then I became set dresser, then art director, then designer, but it took thirty years to do that. I had the chance to work on the first Indiana Jones—it’s a great honor to work with Spielberg. Later I had the opportunity to work with Polanski, Schatzberg,
and George Lucas.” Now Jallouli is one of the most respected art directors in Tunisia. He’s won major awards; he helped design and build the sets for all three Star Wars prequels, The English Patient (which was also partially filmed in Tunisia), and a host of French, German, and Italian films. He considers himself charmed.
“Absolument! I’m lucky because I’m doing the best job in the world. Make movies is the best job.” He emphasizes the last thought as if confirming that the world is round. “Every year, I meet new people, new directors, new characters, new friendships.” He’s well paid and says he never lacks for work, but he allows there’s something missing. In the air-conditioned cool of a conference room, he pulls out a massive Acer laptop and shows me his baby: a sixty-second preview of a Pixar-style animated film. The milieu is the “1001 Nights” genre of Arab folktales. The protagonist is a doe-eyed young woman named Delilah who reminds me of the doe-eyed prep cook in Ratatouille. “I hope it will be the first animated feature in Tunisia, North Africa, and the Arab world.” The preview includes a martial arts fight scene, complete with complicated acrobatics and a dynamic camera angle. To my eye, it’s high-quality work.
Jallouli self-financed most of The Adventures
of Delilah. He’s been working on the film for three years, and estimates he has two more years to go. But he’s run out of money, and hopes he can attract a coproducer to help him finish it. Like Jallouli, many line producers have passion projects they work on when time and money permit. “Absolument,” he agrees. “It’s very common, and it’s very common to find people doing three or four jobs—director, art director, production manager—because we cannot live with just one.”
Jallouli and his peers dream about a more robust North African cinema. They want Tunisia to lead the way. “We’ve grown up with American movies. I’ve seen all the American Westerns like tout le monde. It’s the first wave of cinema that we came to know. Then the Italian movies and the French movies, and then we discovered again the American movies with Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola. They’re part of our culture.” But while many Hollywood films were made in Tunisia, he says, they weren’t made for Tunisians, or North Africans, or even Arab speakers. Jallouli’s mission is to produce films that are made by Tunisians for a North African audience. Putting together an early cut of Delilah with twenty-five film students from the University of Tunis was one important step. “I want to tell young people in Tunisia that they can do this,” he says. “It’s difficult, but it’s not unreachable. I’ve met with a lot of people with big talent but no way to use it. We start together with this idea that animation is possible. If the Americans or Japanese can do it, Tunisians can do it.”
The Salafists Strike Back
In October 2011, the Tunisian television station
Nessma TV broadcast Persepolis, Marjane Sa-trapi’s autobiographical account of life in Iran in the 1970s and ’80s. The film includes an almost comical depiction of Satrapi’s adolescent perception of God: an avuncular, bearded man with whom she carries on imaginary conversations. The French version of the film had played in Tunisian theaters without incident, but this time, it was broadcast into people’s homes in Tunisian Arabic, considered much less formal than the Classical Arabic of the Quran.
The next day, a small group of Salafists protested the broadcast in front of Nessma’s headquarters, infuriated that the film contained a literal depiction of God, something Islam forbids. This captured the attention of Tunisians across the country, and in a surprising parallel to the revolution nine months before, thousands began to demonstrate against the broadcast of Persepolis. The protests grew hostile, then violent, as traditionalists clashed with more liberal counter-protesters who defended artistic freedom. Some analysts concluded that the outrage over Persepolis helped mobilize more conservative Muslims, which in turn helped the “moderate Islamist” party Ennahda prevail in the October constituent-assembly elections.
In January, Nabil Karoui, the owner of Nessma TV, was arrested and charged with “violating sacred values” and “disturbing public order.” After a publicized trial involving more protests and counter-protests, he was convicted and fined $1,500—a relatively small amount that seemed designed to mollify both sides, but which also established a principle of censorship on religious grounds in Tunisia. Karoui’s lawyer called the decision “a strike against creativity and freedom of expression.” Karoui is in the midst of an appeal.
At first, the taxi in front of us refuses to
budge, and Dora Bouchoucha, one of Tunisia’s most respected producers of independent films, laughs. “This is exactly what it will be like at Ramadan,” she says from behind the wheel, gesturing at the taxi driver. “Everybody is hot, nobody is patient.” Finally, the taxi backs out of a narrow alley and allows her to drive by.
We’re in La Marsa, an airy and fashionable seaside suburb of Tunis where many filmmakers and producers have offices. Bouchoucha is devoted to helping encourage, promote, and fund auteur-driven films in Tunisia and the region—which includes founding the Sud Ecriture workshops, where emerging film-
makers in Tunisia and North Africa develop screenplays in the company of other international filmmakers.
“When Ben Ali was here,” she says, “we were always complaining about the lack of freedom. But in the end, it was political.” Now she’s worried that a more subtle form of censorship will replace the old political kind. “We moved from a political dictatorship to a religious one. I can’t compete with religion. You cannot even have a dialogue with the person who is accusing you of not wearing the veil, for example. The thing is, you cannot say anything because you will be totally accused of being against the Quran, so you have to say, ‘This is my perception of the Quran.’ You end up talking religiously whereas you don’t want to.”
Bouchoucha is striking, dressed in a well-tailored skirt suit, heels, wearing her silvery-blond hair below the shoulders—with no veil over her head or face. She is a world citizen, speaks several languages, and regularly travels to Europe to meet with other filmmakers and producers. She doesn’t seem so much angry at what she characterizes as censorship, just disappointed it didn’t end with the revolution. “It’s a pity,” she says. “We’ve always lived with a sort of self-censorship since I was born, and it’s really tiring. Instead of going forward, we are going backwards.”
Understandably, most of Tunisia’s film community is troubled by the Persepolis ruling. Even Fathi Kharat, the head of the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Film, acknowledges it makes Tunisia look bad to foreign directors who might imagine bearded fanatics blockading and protesting their movie set. While this scenario seems far-fetched as I conduct these interviews in July, another movie has since contributed to unrest throughout the region.
In July 2012, a mysterious video mocking the Prophet Muhamed appeared online in the US. By September, an Arabic-dubbed version went viral, outraging many people in North Africa and the Middle East. While it’s unclear if the September 11, 2012, attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi had anything to do with the movie, we know protests against the film turned violent in Tunisia. On September 14, Salafist Muslims attacked the American Embassy in Tunis, breaching the outer walls and starting fires inside the compound before being dispersed with help from the local police. The nearby American Cooperative School of Tunis was also attacked and set aflame, and Al Jazeera broadcast video of looters carrying computers from the rubble. The State Department advised all Americans to leave Tunisia. Moderate Tunisians expressed horror and chagrin at the attacks, noting that Tunisia had long welcomed American visitors. Fares Bouhadiba, a Tunisian student living in Dubai wrote: “The incursion on the embassy grounds was seen as an attack against a guest in our own home and under our protection. There is no precedent in our history, and this outraged Tunisians. We simply do not attack guests in our country.”
La Goulette, 2012
Tunisia has been peaceful since September,
leading the US State Department to soften its travel warning. Tunisia’s government has recently increased the amount of grants made to its filmmakers for domestic projects, and has announced plans to build a film center that will promote Tunisia to foreign filmmakers and streamline the permitting process. The recent news of Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars
franchise is also encouraging. Surely, episodes VII, VIII, and IX will require at least one trip to Tatooine. All this gives Taieb Jallouli hope that his industry—and the economic and cultural promises it fosters— will experience a kind of renaissance. He’s got more than faith to go on. After all, the bottom line favors Tunisia. “We are still 40 percent cheaper than Morocco,” he reminds me.
In Tunis one night, I meet, by complete chance, the son of a man who claims to be George Lucas’s driver on the 1976 shoot. The next day, the father, sixty-three-year-old Fer-hani Ferjaoui, picks me up in his taxi and drives me to La Goulette, a popular beach suburb across the lake from downtown. We talk about what he calls La Guerre des Étoiles in an outdoor café while Tunisian teens splash and shout in the background. He’s never actually watched Star Wars, and tells me that, during the filming, the Tunisian crew thought the film was a horror movie. However, he also remembers one of the actors wore a suit “like Neil Armstrong, who went into space.”
George Lucas, he remembers, was a gentleman: polite and quietly funny, even as he seemed worried and preoccupied. “He was a serious man and hard worker who appreciated hard workers.”
I thank him for the stories. When I get up to leave, he says, “When you get back to the US, please say hello to George Lucas for me. Tell him we remember him in Tunisia.”
[Source: Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2013, Vol. 89 Issue 1, p14-27]