Saturday, March 19, 2022

The Films of Férid Boughedir

1. Death Disturbs / La mort trouble (1970, co-directed with Claude d’Anna)
2. Caméra d’Afrique (1983)
3. Caméra Arabe (1987)
4. Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces (1990)
5. A Summer in La Goulette (1996)
6. Villa Jasmin (2008)
7. Zizou and the Arab Spring / Sweet Smell of Spring (2016)

It was a pleasant surprise to recently come across Férid Boughedir’s 2016 film Zizou and the Arab Spring because almost two decades had passed since I last saw a film by him, A Summer in La Goulette. The release of Zizou means Férid Boughedir has now directed 6 features in his career, 7 when including 1970’s La mort trouble which he co-directed Claude d’Anna. The quality of Boughedir’s films more than makes up for the lack of quantity as each film is a delightful treasure.

Boughedir started his career as a film critic covering African cinema at the onset of the Carthage and Ouagadougou Film festivals in the late 1960s. In last year’s discussion with the African Film Festival (NY), Boughedir described how he was fortunate to witness the emergence of African cinema due to these film festivals and how that changed his conception of what African cinema was and could be.

Boughedir was inspired by the pioneers of African cinema and that led to him directing the vital documentary Caméra d’Afrique (1983) which looks at 20 years of African cinema. He followed that up with Caméra Arabe (1987), an insightful documentary that looks at the development of Arab cinema and its rise against a background of turbulent political pressures. Three years later, he made his fictional feature film debut with Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces (1990), the award-winning film that thrust Boughedir into the global film festival limelight. After another 3 year gap, the lovely A Summer in La Goulette arrived but it would be more than a decade until his next film, Villa Jasmin (2008). Zizou followed 8 years later.

This long passage of time in between his movies also changed the medium of how I viewed his films. I saw Caméra arabe and Halfaouine on VHS tapes which I rented from a video store. Next, I saw A Summer in La Goulette on cable TV via Showcase channel’s weekly foreign film series (note: it was also on Showcase that I used to watch Cameron Bailey introduce cutting edge foreign/indie films on a weekly basis). And now, I have seen Zizou and the Arab Spring via streaming (Kanopy). This progression of watching films via different mediums feels appropriate when discussing Boughedir as he has been there to document the rise of African films from the initial days of 35mm film to digital streaming.

Coming of Age

Férid Boughedir’s critical coverage of African and Arab cinema in print and via film are essential for providing a gateway to understanding how cinema came of age in these two cinematic regions. In the above African film festival interview, Boughedir mentioned that he felt he had to document African cinema and their initial masters/pioneers first before he could even consider making his own first film even though the script for Halfaouine was already written before he directed Caméra d’Afrique. The wait proved worthy because Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces (1990) proved to be a watershed moment for his career and by extension Tunisian cinema itself. Based on some elements of Boughedir’s life, Halfaouine is a beautiful coming-of-age story that respectfully depicts the arise of sexuality, curiosity in a young boy.

Halfaouine is shown from the perspective of the young boy and as a result, political or sexual topics are rendered with a child like innocence. In the film, young Noura (Selim Boughedir, the director’s son) has been going with his mother to the local Hamam since he was a little boy but the mother has not realized Noura is growing up fast and developing an interest in girls and women. Noura’s eyes are wide open because he is staring at the naked girls and women around him and new feelings arise in him. Of course, he doesn’t understand these feelings nor does he fully grasp the world around him. In his case, ignorance is indeed bliss. Noura doesn’t understand anything about the dictatorship, or why people are getting arrested, why some are disappearing, or the writing of harmless slogans on the wall could get someone arrested. Noura’s goal in life is to understand the female species and to that end, he accomplishes his goal. 

After depicting the sexual awakening of a young boy, it appears natural that Boughedir’s next feature A Summer in La Goulette tackles the coming of age of teenage girls, aching to fall in love or having their first kiss and more. A Summer in La Goulette is bold, witty and funny. Again, Boughedir keeps political commentary on the fringes (the charged atmosphere leading to the 1967 war) while focusing on the quest of three teenage girls. The girls and their families all live in close quarters to each other and are mutual friends despite belonging to different religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism). The film smartly shows that no matter what religion the girls follow, their fathers are equally stressed and worried about their daughters; the fathers want to protect their daughters from the eyes of the local boys at all costs but they don’t realize that it is their daughters who are the ones eyeing boys with equal passion and lust in the first place.
Boughedir’s smart satirical style and coming-of-age elements that worked beautifully in Halfaouine and A Summer in La Goulette shine through in Zizou and the Arab Spring. Even though the main character Zizou (Zied Ayadi) is an adult, he has this child like innocence about him. This is because Zizou is from the village so he lacks any knowledge about the corrupt, crime laden city life and is oblivious that he is being lied to, or he is going to get robbed and as a result, he doesn’t even know which political side he finds himself on. At different points in the film, Zizou helps the president’s henchmen or the revolutionaries wanting to take the government down. He easily trusts people even though there are glaring warning signs. Through a series of events, Zizou finds himself working repairing satellite dishes. This allows him to be present on the roofs of people’s houses. As a result, one of the character addresses him as the king  of the terraces, which is a tribute to Halfaouine. In fact, one can easily believe that the Noura from Halfaouine would exactly be like Zizou. Another nod towards Boughedir’s film comes when characters are seen discussing a plan to visit La Goulette.

The political commentary that was on the fringes of Halfaouine and A Summer in La Goulette certain takes center stage in Zizou. In those earlier films, the political revolution and six-day war references are heard on the radio or via dialogues but in Zizou, the main character accidentally becomes the poster boy for the Tunisian revolution and in turn for the Arab Spring. There is plenty of charm and romance in the film and the comedic style is clearly a Boughedir signature. The satire and comedy is Zizou is not like the deadpan style of Aki Kaurismäki or Jim Jarmusch because in the film, the joke is only on Zizou. The other characters are clearly duping him and the audience is also in the know. It is a film that deserves a happy ending and thankfully Boughedir doesn’t disappoint.

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