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Powerful women rule in Carthage

This year, the highlights of Africa’s longest-running film festival were the strong female leads

Fleur Macdonald | December 2nd 2015

I arrived in Tunisia for the Carthage Film Festival last Thursday, two days after 12 members of the Presidential Guard had been killed in a suicide attack in central Tunis. Despite curfews and beefed-up security, the festival, which ran until Saturday, was in full swing and the mood was defiant. Founded in 1966, this is the longest-running film festival in Africa. It is a companion to the Fespaco festival in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and the official competition is only open to Arab and African film-makers. 

It was also the week of the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (as I was told – just like that – by the man sent to fetch me at the airport). It seemed propitious: in many ways women were at the heart of the festival. “The History of Arab Feminism”, a documentary by Feriel Ben Mahmoud, was a crowd-pleaser. It shows the great strides made by feminist movements during the waves of independence in the 1950s. While Nasser didn’t dare go as far in Egypt, Habib Bourguiba, the first president of Tunisia, personally removed veils from women’s heads in the streets. In 1973, abortion was legalised. Female emancipation was a great symbol of modernity. But the documentary argues that progress now needs to be kick-started again. A clip of a less-than-charming imam sharing pearls of wisdom on a Middle Eastern TV channel provoked uproarious laughter from the Tunisian spectators. “Allah honoured wives by instating the punishment of beatings. The Prophet Muhammad said, ‘Don’t beat her in the face, and do not make her ugly’… See how she is honoured.” The women in the audience were laughing hardest.

Sareh Bayat, the star of Ida Panahandeh’s drama “Nahid”

Strong performances by lead actresses were plentiful. “Nahid”, an Iranian film directed by Ida Panahandeh, which won in the Certain Regard category at Cannes this year, stars the magnificent Sareh Bayat. The story of a woman who wants to remarry but faces the prospect of abandoning her son to her drug-addicted ex-husband if she does, it is a gripping study not only of the practical difficulties of being a woman in Iran but also of the ways ordinary people try to circumvent the system. Bayat plays Nahid as petulant, brave, funny and irrational, and as far from any stereotype as possible.

The power of the South African film “The Endless River”, selected for the Golden Lion at Cannes and the winner of the Silver Tanit prize in Carthage, lies in the quiet performance of Crystal-Donna Roberts in her first main role (pictured, top).  She plays Tina, who also finds herself at the whim of two men. After four years in prison, her husband comes home. But as he falls back into old habits – gangs, drugs – Tina becomes closer to a French man who eats at the petrol-station diner where she is a waitress. He has recently lost his young family in a violent break-in and it seems he won’t have to look far for the culprit. Roberts plays her role with such tenacious dignity – almost at odds with her fragile frame – that both men, despite their more dramatic stories, play supporting roles.

One film stood out for its ethnographic take on modern Africa. It doesn’t deal with extreme poverty, but extreme wealth. It doesn’t take place in a slum, but in the gilded suburbs of Johannesburg. It may look at young Africans, but it tackles a global phenomenon. And it’s not adapted from a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel.

“Necktie Youth” is a nihilistic, stylish, black-and-white take on the privileged and cosseted youth of the affluent area of Sandton, by the 23-year-old debut writer and director Sibs Shongwe-La Mer. After a young woman commits suicide, and live-streams it on the internet, a group of her friends tries to get over it. Cue a drug-fuelled, sex-filled day. Best friends Jabs (Bonko Cosmo Khoza) and September (played by Shongwe-Le Mer himself) blithely embark on a spiral of self-destruction. It’s Larry Clark and Bret Easton Ellis for a new generation of disaffected youth brought up on prescription drugs, Miley Cyrus and Instagram. The dialogue is loose and real and inane. In one scene, a group of black and white South Africans are smoking dope in the park, just talking: “The whole world is going to be on the internet.” “Who’s going to manage that shit?” “There are ten niggas who run that shit.” “Like the Rockafellas and the Illuminati.” It’s a sharp dissection of race, modern culture and inequality which, while never in your face, leaves a lingering taste of something unpalatable but vital.

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