“Ghodwa” or the Bitter Taste of the Unfinished Tunisian Revolution

21 March, 2022
Ahmed (Ahmed Berhouma) and his father Habib (Dhafer L’Abidine) in the Tunisian fea­ture Ghod­wa.

 

Sarah Ben Hamadi

 

Ghod­wa (Tomor­row in Eng­lish and French ver­sions), by Tunisian actor-direc­tor Dhafer L’Abidine, is a social dra­ma that plunges us into the dai­ly life of a human rights lawyer who, ten years after the Tunisian rev­o­lu­tion, is still in search of social jus­tice. Last win­ter, the film won the Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Crit­ics’ Award (Fipresci) at the 43rd annu­al Cairo Inter­na­tion­al Film Festival.

L’Abidine not only stars and directs, but he is the film’s co-writer and co-pro­duc­er, play­ing mul­ti­ple roles in his first fea­ture film behind the cam­era. “It is the real­iza­tion of a dream,” he con­fid­ed to the media.

We find our­selves in 2021. Habib, the main char­ac­ter, is a 40-year-old lawyer, trau­ma­tized by the abus­es com­mit­ted by the for­mer regime under which he him­self suf­fered. He clam­ors for “Truth, jus­tice and then rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.” This trip­tych haunts him, as he strug­gles, ten years after Tunisians rose up against the author­i­tar­i­an regime of Ben Ali (1987–2011), to demand free­dom and dignity.

 

 

Obsessed by this quest, frus­trat­ed by a sys­tem that has not changed despite the pop­u­lar upris­ing, Habib, who still suf­fers psy­cho­log­i­cal scars result­ing from tor­ture under the old regime, keeps repeat­ing in his moments of delir­i­um that “the rev­o­lu­tion is com­ing,” as if he refus­es to admit that it has already passed and that it has betrayed his hopes.

Dis­il­lu­sioned, wan­der­ing the streets of a dis­en­chant­ed Tunis, where pover­ty per­sists, where police abus­es con­tin­ue, and where hope for a bet­ter life seems to have van­ished, he refus­es to accept that this real­i­ty is the out­come of a rev­o­lu­tion that has nour­ished so many aspi­ra­tions, and dashed so many dreams.

Habib’s rela­tion­ship with his son Ahmed, cen­tral to the film, is endear­ing. Ahmed (played by Ahmed Berhouma), is very attached to his father, even as his health is dete­ri­o­rat­ing. As the film pro­gress­es, the roles are reversed and the son takes charge of his father. Ahmed does not under­stand his father’s attach­ment to this cause that reminds him of his demons, but he nev­er judges him. He loves him as he is, and he is about to take up the torch and walk on the thread of hope. 

“It’s a sto­ry that comes from the heart, it’s a Tunisian sto­ry, and it’s a sto­ry that I think is very impor­tant in rela­tion to the Tunisians,” L’Abidine said in an inter­view with RTCI on the eve of the release of his film in the­aters in Tunisia. And indeed, it is dif­fi­cult to be insen­si­tive Habib’s trau­ma, when we lived through the Tunisian rev­o­lu­tion in 2011 and we had so much hope for a bet­ter tomorrow.

The lan­guor of the shots may some­times seem heavy, but it is a choice defend­ed by the direc­tor. “This slow­ness is a mark­er of the stag­ing, inso­far as it is to make the view­er live the dai­ly life of the main char­ac­ter with its share of trau­ma,” L’Abidine explained to the Anadolu news agency. This neo-real­ist direct­ing tech­nique has earned the film some crit­i­cism, although it has been well received in Tunisia, par­tic­u­lar­ly for the mes­sage it car­ries, a “hard duty of future gen­er­a­tions” accord­ing to the news­pa­per La Presse de Tunisie, which also notes “a very suc­cess­ful lead role, writ­ten by the actor for the actor.”

Dhafer L’Abidine has appeared in Chil­dren of Men, Sex and the City 2, Cen­tu­ri­on and oth­er fea­ture films, and took part in the Amer­i­can TV series The Loom­ing Tow­er, which received four Emmy nom­i­na­tions. More recent­ly, L’Abidine was seen in Netflix’s French-speak­ing series The Eddy. In the Arab world, L’Abidine has appeared in the hit series Aroos Beirut and the series Eugénie Nights, which takes place in Cairo and Port Said in 1946. In 2017, he starred in two suc­cess­ful TV series, Caramel and Halawat Al Dou­nia, for which he won a Best Arab Actor award in a TV series . L’Abidine starred in sev­er­al Tunisian films, includ­ing Dowa­ha (Buried Secrets), Fin Décem­bre, and Fausse Note. Out­side Tunisia, he starred in the Egypt­ian action-com­e­dy film Esmat Abu Shanab, the Lebanese film Hab­bet Caramel, and El Ank­about. Dhafer is a UN Women’s cham­pi­on and he works close­ly with the Unit­ed Nation on the issues of gen­der equal­i­ty and vio­lence against women (pho­to cour­tesy Esquire Mid­dle East).

“Truth, jus­tice and then rec­on­cil­i­a­tion” Habib repeats through­out the film, a phrase that is rem­i­nis­cent of the “Menich Msamah” (“I will not for­give”) cam­paign launched by a col­lec­tive of young peo­ple, oppos­ing the so-called “eco­nom­ic rec­on­cil­i­a­tion” law in 2015, for whom “there is no rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with­out justice.”

The film thus points to the inabil­i­ty of the coun­try’s new lead­ers to imple­ment a jus­tice process. How­ev­er, Tunisia has ini­ti­at­ed a process of tran­si­tion­al jus­tice through the cre­ation of the “Truth and Dig­ni­ty Com­mis­sion” in Decem­ber 2013, but it must be not­ed that the record of this body has been strong­ly dis­put­ed and con­test­ed, and that Tunisians retain a bit­ter taste, and con­tin­ue to car­ry in them the feel­ing that the sys­tem has remained the same and that the expect­ed jus­tice has nev­er been achieved.

One pos­i­tive out­come of the Jas­mine Rev­o­lu­tion is that there is no cen­sor­ship in Tunisian cin­e­ma today, and with this free­dom of cre­ation there has been an explo­sion of films and plays over the last decade. The main prob­lem is find­ing film financing.

Still, at the end of the day, Habib’s con­di­tion reflects that of Tunisian soci­ety, frus­trat­ed to see that men have changed but that the sys­tem has remained, like the pub­lic pros­e­cu­tor who no longer wants to hear about the old cas­es. But also like Tunisian soci­ety, Habib finds refuge with his neigh­bors, who sup­port and com­fort him, as is often the case in work­ing-class neigh­bor­hoods in Tunisia.

With his first fea­ture film as a direc­tor under his belt, the emblem­at­ic Tunisian actor signs a bit­ter dec­la­ra­tion of love to his coun­try, depict­ing an alle­go­ry of this Tunisian soci­ety that is dis­rupt­ed, and some­times derailed, but still has hope for a bet­ter tomor­row — Ghod­wa.

 

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