Culture

Rape and revolution in Tunis

BEIRUT: “All you need for a movie,” Jean-Luc Godard is said to have said, “is a girl and a gun.”

The remark alludes to the narrative simplicity of film, and its audience, while suggesting something about the role women have often played in cinema narratives.

Cultural critics have long taken issue with cinema’s depictions of women. Among the tropes that have come under particular scrutiny is the rape narrative.

The most egregious rape fantasies – employing sexual assault as a strain of eroticism – may now be more common in online porn than cinema but sexual violence against women is still assigned specific narrative functions.

While other villains may be imbued with enough humanity for anti-hero status, rapists tend to be irredeemably diabolical.

As such, the rape act can transform complex characters into one-dimensional victims – forced to struggle (usually melodramatically) to retain or renegotiate intimate relationships with the men in their lives. If the rape is dramatized, the effect is reinforced in the audience.

In contemporary commercial cinema, rape is a useful catalyst for revenge tales.

Usually the retribution is male but sometimes violent humiliation can drive a female victim to righteous (not infrequently bloody) vengeance – witness Coralie Fargeat’s 2017 Tarantino homage “Revenge.”

The rape story dramatized in Kaouther Ben Hania’s “Beauty and the Dogs” is a startling departure from commercial norms. It is all the more disquieting for its basis in fact and in history – the early days of Tunis’ 2011 revolution.

Divided into nine narrative shards, “Beauty” tells the story of Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani), a young woman from a conservative rural family who’s attending university in Tunis.

As the film opens, Mariam’s locked herself in the toilet. She’s got a conspicuous tear in her outfit and is waiting for a pal to bring her something else to wear to an off-campus fundraising event she and her classmates have organized at a hotel nightclub.

Her friend pulls out a little party dress – much skimpier than what she’d been wearing – but her pals reassure her that she looks great so, surrounded by friends, she shrugs off her reservations.

Returning to the party, Mariam sips water and notices she’s caught the eye of a young fellow named Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli). They fall into easy conversation and the first narrative shard ends with Mariam and Youssef strolling away from the camera and thumping music.

The story’s second fragment opens upon a tearful Mariam running through the night toward the camera, followed by Youssef. Cars pass and she cringes with fear.

It emerges that while Mariam and Youssef were exchanging chaste kisses outside the nightclub, three plainclothes policemen stopped them for questioning.

Accusing them of “adultery,” the cops demanded a bribe in return for not filing charges. While one accompanied Youssef to a cashpoint get money, the other two raped Mariam in the back of their unmarked car.

Youssef escorts Mariam to see a doctor – first to a nearly deserted private clinic, then to the outpatients ward of a public hospital that’s crowded with people being ignored by doctors and nurses.

Shaken and uncomfortably exposed, she repeats her story until she’s taken to a forensic doctor, who must confirm her rape before charges can be laid. He can’t examine her, he informs her, until she lodges a complaint with the police.

As Mariam and Youssef arrive for their first nocturnal visit to a police station, the irony is as palpable as the hostility that greets them.

Virtually the only appealing character in this story, aside from Mariam herself, is Youssef, a penniless militant in the revolution that overthrew the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. When she’s incapable of doing much more than weep, he insists that she take her rights in both hands and punish the men who humiliated her.

His support is somewhat undermined by his own grudge against the police – driven by their having detained and beaten him and his friends in defense of the old regime.

Because the cops have a file on Youssef, Mariam undergoes the final act of her nightmare alone.

Now in limited release at Metropolis cinema, “Beauty and the Dogs” is Ben Hania’s fourth feature. Though each of her films is distinct in tone, all reflect a passion for making cinema from compelling nonfiction stories.

Her 2010 debut, the documentary “Les imams vont a l’ecole,” follows a group of North African imams who must study French secularism (at Paris’ Catholic University) before assuming their posts at mosques around France. “Le challat de Tunis,” her sophomore feature, is a mockumentary fiction about a real figure, a working-class guy fond of cruising Tunis streets on a scooter, slashing the buttocks of female pedestrians with a straight razor.

“Beauty” is based upon an incident not unlike Mariam’s – a story a young woman published in book form. In interviews published since her film’s 2017 premiere (in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard selection) Ben Hania has said that she took many liberties with this story, wanting to underline the systemic obstacles confronting Tunis’ female rape victims.

Hers is an intelligent and unsettling film whose language is quite unlike that of those indie filmmakers who value lush photography, languorous storytelling and allusive character development. Ben Hania and DP Johan Holmquist have invested heavily in long shots in claustrophobic interiors that draw on the cast’s tension, exhaustion and irritation.

Significant too is what’s not shown. By averting the lens from the rape itself, Ben Hania strips away audience members’ temptation to dismiss Mariam’s attackers as isolated criminals. The crime committed upon her protagonist is systemic, reverberating through the ensuing hourslong trauma of asking nurses, doctors and cops (men and women) to help her file a complaint, and the obstacles they throw back at her.

The most conspicuous feature of Ben Hania’s film is how she depicts the creatures populating Mariam’s nightmare. The indifference, cruelty and complicity, the abuse and deceit of the authority figures Mariam encounters would be worthy of Kafka, were they not so familiar.

An impatient viewer might decry the want of nuance in these minor characters, dismissing them as cliches and caricatures in a hyperbolic melodrama. These figures may not be nuanced but, in their jealous and single-minded selfishness, they ring with authenticity.

Buoying the story are the performances of the principal cast – Ferjani and Zrelli – which are too controlled to resemble melodrama. Particularly convincing is Ferjani’s Mariam, who stumbles into her long night of hostility sobbing and emerges from it with her own voice.

That voice sounds utterly real.

“Beauty and the Dogs” is screening exclusively at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 29, 2018, on page 16.

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