Interview with Selma Baccar
Farida Ayari, Férid Boughedir and Guy Hennebelle: Selma Baccar, how did you get into the cinema?
Selma Baccar: Through the Tunisian Federation of Amateur Filmmakers. I was part of the Hammam-Lif club, where I was able to direct the short film The Awakening that won an award at the Kelibia festival in 1968: it was already a film about women’s liberation. Then, I followed courses at the Institut de formation cinématographique in Paris. When I went to Tunisia, I became a television assistant for five years.
Is Fatma 75 your first feature-length film?
The International Women’s Year provided me with the opportunity to make it. I figured that, for the first Tunisian film entirely devoted to this subject, I must not resort to fiction but make an analytical work. I did historical research, in particular on the participation of women in the struggle for independence, and then on the resulting achievements for women. Then, I measured the gap that existed between the Code of Personal Status and the way the code is practiced. Through this film, I set about demystifying what is called “the miracle of Tunisian women’s emancipation”. I showed that this situation, which was indeed better in certain respects, was not the result of a “miracle” but of a logical outcome. Of the work of one writer in particular, Tahar Haddad, who worked as a sociologist on the social and family structures of Tunisia in the 1930s and denounced the unfair fate of women. He showed that, although women often played an important role in their families, they had little opportunity to express themselves, to go out and practice what they were nevertheless entitled to according to the law. Tahar Haddad wrote many articles and one book, Our Women in the Shari’a and in Society, which caused a general uproar at the time (at the instigation of religious men who represented the privileged class of society). In an attempt to discredit him, they formed a cabal against him, calling him irreligious, a classic technique. Tahar Haddad died, more or less banished, in 1935. Not until after the independence did they begin to recognize his role in the liberation of Tunisian women.
Yet the Koran recognizes him...
It is said that Islam has offered women a lot of freedom, yet it does not consider women equal to men. A woman is someone to protect, to care for, etc. Not an equal, not someone who is able to think for herself and solve her own problems.
What is the structure of your film?
It consists of a pre-opening titles part in five sketches and is then subdivided into two main parts. These five sketches feature five famous female characters from Tunisian history: 1) Sophonisba, the Punic princess who organized the resistance against the Roman invasion, 2) Hasdrubal’s wife (another princess, but history hasn’t remembered the names!) who preferred to kill herself and her two children rather than surrender to the Roman invaders, 3) Kahina, a Berber princess who resisted the Arab invaders, 4) the wife of an Aghlabid prince, who created the first girls’ school in Kairouan in the 9th century, 5) the humanist Aziza. The transition to the film itself occurs through the shot of a student preparing a presentation on the different stages of the liberation of Tunisian women.
Then the first part begins, which in turn is divided into three sections: a) the Tahar Haddad period (1930-35), b) the establishment of the Union of Muslim Women of Tunisia in 1938, c) the demonstration against colonialism of the women of Beja in 1952. The first of its kind, this movement, whose leaders had been imprisoned, caused a mobilization of solidarity in Philippeville and Bizerte, also among men, merchants, etc.
The second part describes the current situation, focusing, as I said, on the gap between the Code of Personal Status and its application.
What about the form of the film? The didactic playlets...
It’s through these fictional tableaux that I analyze the situation. I told myself that making a one-hour documentary film on such a subject would be rather boring and offputting: hence my choice of fictional tableaux, acted scenes that summarize the facts of the problem, but evoked through a small story.
What kind of audience did you have in mind? Television?
Not exactly. I knew that this film would not be a commercial production intended for the big theatres but that it could introduce discussions. I had a budget of 160,000 French francs at my disposal, and in addition I received services from SATPEC (the state company) equivalent to 40,000 francs. I was financed by the Tunisian Ministry of Information, Family Planning and the Agency for Cultural and Technical Co-operation.
Which women’s issues are discussed?
There are three types. First, education: statistics show that, in rural areas, schools receive many more boys than girls. The further you go, the fewer girls there are. When there is a choice to be made, the boy’s studies are given priority: the girl will marry and her husband will provide for her. Second, the issue of sex: in Arab civilization, perhaps more than elsewhere, adolescent girls live their sexual issues in complete solitude. “These things” are never openly discussed. It is typical that, during the round table discussion among high school students on this subject, they only speak French because they are afraid of pronouncing the same words in Arabic, a language in which taboos are stronger. Third, work: between two people of equal competence, men are generally chosen over women in an administration. Generally speaking, women often play a secondary role, just as their salary is usually lower than that of men.
Did you intend Fatma 75 for women, in order to raise awareness, or for men, in order to provoke them by showing them the injustices they inflict on women?
I intend it for both. I think men are as much victims as women in this society. In my film, there is no simplistic and reductive division of executioner-men and martyr-women.
In what ways are men victims?
Because they are isolated. It must be sad to live the life of a man, without a partner with whom to share a certain point of view! I think that, if I were a man, I would be unhappy not to be able to speak with a woman.
Fatma 75 could be considered as a historical report, from the point of view of both men and women.
Absolutely. The period of Tahar Haddad is crucial in the evolution of Tunisian women, and yet he was a man! I think there is no sexism in my film. It responds to this thirst for memory and collective history that is felt everywhere and by everyone.
Do you intend to continue making films about women?
You have to start by expressing yourself on the subjects that affect you and that you know best. There are lots of other subjects that interest me, but at the moment I give priority to women’s issues because I live them every day. As a woman filmmaker, I feel I have a mission that I cannot escape. In a few years, when I will have made four or five films about women, I will have exhausted this need. But I think that I am, above all, making film accounts about my society, including all its contradictions between men and women, law and practice... I do not isolate women’s issues from those of society as a whole.
What kind of trouble have you got into?
The banning of the film in Tunisia, even before it was seen by the board of censors. So far, only a few people have been able to see it during a screening at the Carthage Film Festival in 1978, and from time to time, at the discretion of the producer-distributor, which is SATPEC... The film that was commissioned in a particular form by the Ministry of Information and Cultural Affairs has not been accepted in this version. The National Union of Tunisian Women also rejected it, arguing that the film was subjective, distorted history and was too pessimistic about the current situation of women. Too pessimistic? A year ago, a new law banned women from travelling abroad alone, while more and more “Muslim sisters” have taken on the veil, no longer speak to men, no longer touch them and no longer want to be touched... They don’t even shake the hands of relatives!
Don’t you think this fundamentalism is part of the quest for identity?
No, it’s not! In my opinion, specificity and authenticity are something else entirely. Plus, these women are deforming Islam. This phenomenon reveals a certain malaise. These women don’t recognize themselves in our bastard society full of contradictions...
You were also criticized for a sequence on sex education...
That’s one of the contradictions! Sex education is an official program of the national education system. But the authorities don’t want us to talk about it in a film, because it could shock those who are not aware of it, especially parents! By including this sequence, I wanted to denounce this kind of taboo. Why not inform parents that their children are following sex education classes? In high school, the teenagers adopt a certain language, a certain spirit, they allow themselves to ask any question. Within the family circle, they are confronted with linguistic taboos: you must not say this, you must not ask questions about that, etc. It is worse for the new generation than it was for us – we did not have any sex education at all – because they are confronted with two different ways of thinking. With this sequence, I wanted to explain that, before educating children, we had to inform the parents, so that the kids are not disturbed by the differences between school and home.
A woman should not, in principle, talk about sex?
To my knowledge, few men want to talk about it. Because men live their sexuality more simply. Whereas women need to talk about it. When a woman undergoes her “conjugal duty”, it’s simply because she doesn’t know her body.
What are your future projects?
I have two. The first will be inspired by the daily reality of a village in northern Tunisia. It will be the starting point of a fiction film which will have a woman as its central character: the “Aïcha al-Kadira” of the village, both midwife, matchmaker, beautician... All the other women will gravitate around her. This woman will be, in a way, the core of female life in the village. By participating in the destiny of all the women, she will be involved in all sorts of adventures: those of a mother, and of a young girl that flees to the city, gets herself pregnant and returns to the village to have an abortion carried out by Aïcha, and ends up in prostitution of course. Or of a little schoolgirl who steals her mother’s eggs and goes to sell them on the road so as to buy herself some notebooks. One day, she disappears...
For what kind of audience is this film intended?
I would like it to be accessible to any woman. The structure will be very simple. The fictional element will make it easy to receive at different levels. Intellectuals will receive it on more complex levels. The romantic side could make women in very modest situations think. I am aware that this is not the case with Fatma 75. In retrospect, that’s my main self-criticism. By its very structure, with the passage from fiction to documentary, Fatma 75 is far from accessible to everybody.
The abortion scene will certainly shock...
Maybe, but it’s really important because it denounces another contradiction. Officially, abortion is free, but only for married women. When it concerns a young girl, it’s still taboo.
What film language are you going to use for this next film?
It won’t be classic or linear. The events and the characters will be intertwined. I think I’ll adopt the same approach as Ahmed El Maanouni did for Oh the Days! (1978). The everyday will prevail over the dramatic element.
Yet, these films are much less popular with the public...
Yes, but maybe it’s a next step towards a situation of pure fiction.
How will you write the script?
I would like to go and live in this village for a while and then write it with two or three other people. I was very interested in the experience of the members of the Nouveau Théâtre who collectively wrote La noce. I would like to do the same thing.
What about your second project?
That would be an adaptation of Aïcha Lemsine’s La Chrysalide, if the author agrees. I really like the first part of the novel, but I find the second part a bit dangerous, because it lapses into self-contemplation.
Originally published as “J’ai fait Fatma 75 parce que, malgré tout, la femme n’est pas encore l’égale de l’homme” in CinémAction, 14 (Spring 1981).