Scarce at home, the movies of Tunisia's female filmmakers draw world acclaim

While the government funds domestic moviemaking, the productions it pays for are rarely seen in Tunisian cinemas.

Their films are rarely show in Tunisia's 17 movie theaters. They are hard to find even in cinemas or video stores throughout the Arab world. But the productions of a group of pioneering female moviemakers have drawn international acclaim to film in Tunisia, where most are oblivious to their home-grown version of Hollywood.

The movies of Dora Bouchoucha, Kalthoum Bornaz, and Moufida Tlatli are more likely to be seen in European art houses or American film festivals than anywhere in this country. Old Egyptian comedies and action flicks draw crowds to the box office.

These films push the cultural envelope and challenge the political system, but do so in ways that evade the political censors. After all, Ms. Bouchoucha, Ms. Bornaz, and Ms. Tlatli receive most of their funding from the government.

It's the irony of Tunisia filmmaking: the government pays for the movies, but doesn't want them seen here.

"These women are extremely political in their agendas," says Robert Lang, a professor of cinema at the University of Hartford, who is writing a book on Tunisian cinema.

The movies "are set in the medina [old city] a lot and the filmmakers set them there because it sells well in Paris or the West.... [Also] If you can set your movie in the past, you can be relatively safe from the censor and the present government," says Mr. Lang. "Tunisian cinema is unique in the Arab world because its unafraid to put sexuality at the front of the narratives."

The 1996 "Silences of the Palace" put director Tlatli, now one of Tunisia's most famous, on the map and earned accolades at the Cannes Film Festival. "Red Satin," produced by Bouchoucha, hit theaters worldwide in 2002, including in the US. "Bedwin Hacker," by Nadia el Fani in 2003, about a computer-hacking Tunisian woman, earned her international critical acclaim.

Bornaz's current production, "The Other Half of the Sky," is a comment on what she says is the last remaining legal difference between men and women in Tunisia – inheritance laws. According to the Koran and Tunisian law, a daughter is entitled to half the amount of inheritance as her brothers.

After gaining their international reputation commenting on women's issues, now many of Tunisia's female directors have grown tired of focusing only on women in their films. They want to be known as great filmmakers, not just great female filmmakers.

"I'm not a feminist! Write it," Bornaz orders. "I hate it. That was the question from the festival, they said, 'You are a woman, why don't you make a film about woman's issues?' "

A French film festival had invited her to submit a film but when her documentary about a historic movie theater being closed down in Tunis arrived, they rescinded the invitation.

Bornaz says, not gender, but a lack of funding and access to equipment are her immediate challenges. Final editing for her current film has been delayed as she waits for money to arrive from the government.

"It's very rare for them to cut a film, because [there is] self-censorship," says Bornaz. "You have the problem of censorship in our minds and outside our minds but we have all the other problems [like funding.]"

A new generation of young filmmakers are now joining the ranks of cinematic trailblazers like Tlatli, Bornaz, and Bouchoucha, even though interest in films domestically appears to have dwindled.

A decade ago, says Bouchoucha, there were 100 movie houses. Worried about a downturn in Arab cinema, she began an elite screenwriters' program for Middle Eastern and African writers to build a regional talent pool.

"These last few years, I haven't seen a lot of outstanding Arab films. The Arab world is not the trend," she says. Bouchoucha noted that films from Asia or Iran are more popular with audiences, particularly in the West, where she says a negative image of the Arab world dampens interest in promoting Arab films.

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