Last week, the Carthage Film Festival was thrown into turmoil when a suicide bomber killed 12 members of the Tunisian Presidential Guard. The bombing took place in the downtown district housing the cinemas where Africa's oldest film festival was taking place. The next day ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, as they had done in the past month when bombing a Russian passenger jet in Egypt, and attacks in Beirut and Paris.
The suicide bomber struck while I was on the flight to Tunis to attend the festival. "We have been attacked," were the first words I heard as I landed at the airport. The words were spoken in a grave voice by the communications director of the festival, who had come to meet me at the airport. Her second words were, "You're going to stay, right?" I nodded. Her phone was ringing off the hook with guests canceling visits, and others asking if they could leave Tunis. She said we had to take separate cars to the hotel.
The drive from the airport to the hotel was an eerie affair. Hardly anyone was out, and the only vehicles on the streets were parked police cars that acted as blockades stopping us from getting to the hotel. A curfew had been set for 9 PM, and we had already missed it. The driver snaked through the streets looking for a path to the hotel. Every couple of blocks, he would get out of the car to chat a few words in Arabic before returning to the car and driving on until he reached a barricade, where the police would let us past. At one barrier, there were no police, only another vehicle, and both drivers seemed to stare each other down until we moved on. A few minutes later, the driver's mother called, demanding he return home. It felt as though I was in some desolate town in a Western, not heading to Africa's oldest film festival.
Can a film festival take place at the time of curfew? Behind the scenes, the organizers had already made their decision. The show would go on.
At the hotel door, the fact that the security guard was the size of a Bond henchman, offered no comfort. Nor the three young men carrying guns, with "police" emblazoned across their jackets.
The tension evaporated when I saw the magnificent beard that drops like a bat from the chin of Tarzan Nasser, or it could've been his co-director, his identical twin brother Arab. He was sitting with the great Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, the star of their film Dégradé.
I couldn't help but chuckle over the fact that we were living out the plot of Dégradé, which tells the story of several women in a hair salon who are almost oblivious to the mini-war that is going on outside. In the hotel lobby, however, the director was just staring forward with an expression that seemed to say, "I can't get away from this shit."
The lobby bar was bustling because no one had anywhere else to go. The conversation between the badge-wearing collection of filmmakers, actors, producers, staff, and journalists was mostly about cinema, sprinkled with the odd comment about the bomb. We learned that a month-long state of emergency had been called by the government. No one in the lobby was certain if the festival would still carry on.
Can a film festival still happen when there's a curfew in place? Behind the scenes, the organizers had already made their decision. The show would go on. Sami Tlili, the artistic director in charge of selecting feature films, was busy rewriting the schedule for movies that he had been poring over for months.
"A lady said to me that any other film festival would have stopped," Tlili told me. "But we didn't want to be defeated by terror. We spent the whole night rewriting the schedule so that we could screen the films in the hours when there is no curfew, trying to make sure we showed every film that was in the selection at least once."
One of those films was Much Loved, a film about Moroccan sex workers that was banned in its homeland after its world premiere in Cannes. The lead actress Loubna Abidar was recently beaten up by extremists in Casablanca, then said she was ignored by the police when she went to report the crime. She claimed the police said that it was just desserts for her performance. Fearing for her safety, she moved to France.
Yet Tlili argued that the film wasn't programmed as a political statement, even if the choosing of the film had come to been seen as such. "The polemic that occurred around the film and in Cannes didn't come into our decision of playing the film. We chose it because of the cinematic merits. Of course we know other Arab countries refuse to show the film, but they have their own criteria and we respect their decision."
The desire not to be defeated was apparent when two days after the bomb, Much Loved played to a full house. The street was packed with attendees and fans, several straining to take photos to post on social media, celebrating free speech and open discussion. This was the event of the festival, the best rebuke to the terrorists, an appreciation of a film that shows sex workers operating in an Islamic country that doesn't try to hide their existence. It's hard to imagine that there has been a more meaningful and exhilarating screening of a film anywhere else this year. The crowd breathed pathos.
The decision to be the first country in the Arab world to play Much Loved is in keeping with Tunisia's position as arguably the most liberal Arab country today. After all, it was in Tunisia that the Arab Spring began in December 2010, after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi sparked a series of demonstration that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Inspired, Tunisia's neighbors followed suit, although many have since headed into the arms of warlords.
Despite—or perhaps because of—its position as the only Arab Spring country that has made the transition from dictatorship to constitutional democracy, Tunisia has already faced two major terrorist attacks this year. In March, three ISIS-affiliated gunmen shot visitors at the Bardo National Museum, killing 22. In June, a gunman killed 38 tourists on a beach in Sousse. Yet even here the Tunisian people showed their desire for democracy, when a dozen locals and workers at the hotel, formed a human barricade, challenging the gunman to shoot them first. The gunman turned away, saying, "I haven't come for you. Go away."
Parliamentary elections last year resulted in an Islamic country voluntarily relinquishing power to their secular opponents. The new constitution incorporates the Islamic heritage and secular liberal freedoms. Notably, the constitution even guarantees equal rights for women, a fact noted by Michael Moore in his new film Where to Invade Next, in which he contrasts Tunisia's progressive gender politics, especially its high number of female parliamentarians, with the paltry situation in the United States.
The decision to continue with the festival was a fitting way for the Carthage Film Festival to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The festival screened a broad spectrum of films from around the world, with a focus on Argentina and Italy this year, as well as showcasing the best in regional cinema.
On the night of the bombing Alayan was disappointed that the 9 PM screening of his film was cancelled. "Maybe it's because I live in occupied Palestine," he said. "I was even ready to go to my screening that night."
Yasmine Mustafa, the editor of The Council , a documentary about students running for elections at the UNRWA school in Jordan, was walking to her screening when the bomb hit. She had to be asked repeatedly to return to the hotel before she eventually decided to return. She called the cinematographer who was already at the cinema. "I was told that the screening carried on," she explained. "So I would like to have been there, but they cancelled all the Q&As that were to take place after the screenings."
It's fair to say that in the nights after the bomb, some cabin fever set in at the hotel. The same faces, the same dinner, no movies to invigorate us. Yet the conversation remained lighthearted. Keeping the tone joyful was Muayad Alayan, the Jerusalem-based director of Love Theft and Other Entanglements, about a petty Palestinian thief who steals a car with an Israeli soldier in the trunk.
On the night of the bombing, Alayan was disappointed that the 9 PM screening of his film was cancelled. "I didn't even think that it was in question whether the festival would carry on," he said. "Maybe it's because I live in occupied Palestine. I was even ready to go to my screening that night."
Also, with a smile constantly on her face and a glittering sweater, is Hind Shoufani, director of Trip Along Exodus, who made a film about Palestinian politics through the years, told through the eyes and writing of her father Dr. Elias Shoufani, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Because of the time constraints, the film festival cancelled post-screening Q&As, but like many at the festival, she held a Q&A in the cinema lobby instead.
"I'm here with a documentary film that shows the human spirit triumphing over adversity and that highlights the power of art and creativity to unite and heal," Paget said. "But this year the festival itself has been testament to that. It's been truly amazing to see the way that the organizers, film makers and audiences have made sure that it's been art, and not violence, that's triumphed in Tunis."
Follow Kaleem on Twitter.