Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces (1990), A Summer in La Goulette (1996), and Zizou and the Arab Spring (2016)
BLU-RAY STREET DATES: APRIL 16, 2019/KINO LORBER
With a natural finesse for depicting families, food, foibles, community and religion, Férid Boughedir may well be the Martin Scorsese of Tunisia. Factor in that Boughedir’s filmmaking career extends nearly as far back as Scorsese’s, lasting as many decades and counting, and the comparison becomes all the more apt. Substitute Scorsese’s trademark violence and attention-getting techniques with sharp humor and an equally sure-handedness in traditional cinematic storytelling, and the quality and nature of the work becomes apparent. As Scorsese taps so evocatively into customs, schisms, and broadly held local beliefs in his most well-known films, so too does Boughedir in all of his films.
His Tunisia is a crackling festoon of engaging humanity spread across tight-knit communities
Kino Lorber has recently made available on Blu-ray three of Boughedir’s best films, so that film buffs of the western world can partake in this small majority of his accomplished, highly agreeable body of work.
Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces
DIRECTED BY FÉRID BOUGHEDIR/1990/ARABIC
When does a boy become a man? If you happen to be able to pinpoint that, please let Noura know.
That’s not just the central question of filmmaker Férid Boughedir’s crackling 1990 coming of age portrait, Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces, it’s also the entirety of its tension. Existing in that horrific adolescent phase of lanky but twerpy tweendom, the sheer, painful awkwardness of Noura’s peachfuss purgatory is made all the more difficult by a local group of older, bigger, physically mature teenage boys, and their belittling ways. These three cigarette smoking hotshots are likely lifelong friends that Noura (courageously played by Selim Boughedir, the filmmaker’s son) has grown up admiring. Suddenly, by virtue of surpassing puberty and a few extra years, these dudes have seemingly unlocked the Secrets of The Universe. Namely, the opposite sex.
Meanwhile, Noura’s doting mother refuses to let him grow up, still talking him passed the deeply hesitant front desk worker of the women’s public steam-bath. “He’s too old!”, the old woman fires back, with zero uncertainty. Never mind that she’s right, parental discernment apparently wins out in Tunisia just as it does in the United States- no matter how shortsighted. The older boys, well aware of this humiliating and increasingly thrilling weekly ritual of Noura’s, assign him the task of seeing a woman completely naked (as opposed to the merely partially towel clad norm), and reporting back in full detail. Eager to gain the approval of these arrogant numbskulls, Noura proceeds to press his luck until disaster inevitably strikes.
This randy spirit of Bob Clark’s nostalgic libidinous Porky’s is poignantly undercut and emboldened by Boughedir’s vibrantly sunny world of Halfaouine. Per Western eyes, no detail is conceivably overlooked. His camera never remains passive, but always allowed to linger on the deliciously foreign details of the arid country’s meals (one can almost smell the sizzling lamb, peppers, onions, chickpeas and olive oil), clothing, and rituals. Like Scorsese’s hypocritical Catholic lawbreakers of Mean Streets, the Muslim social groups of Halfaouine reveal a tendency for openly lewd joking, crass retorts, barbed admonishments and greater sexual preoccupation. That Noura is kept lingering on his mother’s caterwauling knitting circle puts him on the outs with the local seasoned manly men. “Real men don’t hang around with the women!”, they admonish. Poor kid.
Halfaouine remains an open-ended treasure; Boughedir’s most popular success in the Western world. One can easily imagine it playing long, healthy runs in the Landmark Theater chain. Though Kino Lorber has released it on DVD many years ago (with the same cover image, to boot), this is a well-deserved Blu-ray debut, looking not a day older or less vibrant than it’s nearly thirty years of kicking around in third world film archives would lead one to expect. It’s a remarkable presentation, actually.
Of the three Blu-rays covered here, this one houses the most substantial bonus feature: an early short film by Férid Boughedir. The Picnic, from 1973, is a scrappy obscurity so rare that it’s commonly absent from supposedly comprehensive online filmographies, making it all the more desirable to cinephiles. Sweetening the deal considerably is that The Picnic is actually pretty good, displaying the dry wit and observational humanism of Halfaouine and the other two features. Lamentably, The Picnic is the only bonus feature, aside from a few trailers. Still though, no fan of spirited World Cinema ought to be without this movie- and this the way to own it.
A Summer in La Goulette
Un été à La Goulette
DIRECTED BY FÉRID BOUGHEDIR/1996/ARABIC
If Porky’s was merely evoked in spirit in Halfaouine, thenin A Summer in La Goulette, it’s whole hog. It’s 1967, and even in the picturesque and titular beachfront Tunisi town of La Goulette, change is in the air. Something of a sexual revolution is occurring, albeit completely quietly and entirely contained.
Three teenage girls, Gigi; Meriem, and Tina are close, lifelong friends. They were initially united via the longtime friendship of their burley fathers, Youssef, Jojo and Giuseppe, even though each family is a different nationality and religion (Meriem is Tunisian and Arab, Tina is French and Jewish, Gigi is sicilian and catholic). Together, they secretly commit to lose their virginities by August 15th. That’s right- as unconventional and unlikely as it may seem, Boughedir is making a horny teenage/shenanigans movie through the filter of the versatile Tunisian religious melting pot of the time. And while it’s a valid criticism that the teenage trio is too often reduced to a three-headed mcguffin, their mission is a device that works to the favor of the filmmaker’s intended exploration of human nature in the face of shifting cultural values and the still-important Old Ways.
When the alarming circled calendar date of August 15 is discovered by an adult and eventually deciphered, handles are flown off of all around. Blame, grudges, and the dreaded silent treatment fracture the father’s long social bond before they realize that they must get it together to become what might be referred to as “the Original Blockas”. (Not to be confused with 2018’s Blockers, or 1996’s Original Gangstas).
The Muslim family receives the majority of the film’s attention, as the teen daughter’s refusal to adopt the traditional women’s body covering is becoming an increasingly sore issue. In the meantime, her wealthy Arab uncle Hadj arrives for an extended visit, letting the family’s financial reliance upon him be known whenever possible. However, when he’s dumbstruck (seriously, equally “dumb” and “struck”) by Meriem’s beauty, his focus is hijacked. From that instance onward, he’s fixated on marrying her. “Eheeww, gross!”, she thinks. And we’re right there with her. In the end, her own solution is as clever as it is darkly comedic.
If it’s possible, A Summer in La Goulette is even more enjoyable and engaging than Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces. Being that the two films were made within the same decade (an achievement that can be considered prolific by Boughedir’s own filmography), it’s delightful to see many of the same supporting actors return in similar parts. Again, the storytelling crackled with color and consequences, even as it maintains its uniquely light Lubitsch-esque touch.
Of the three Kino Blu-rays being considered here, A Summer in La Goulette offers the least in the way of bonus features. While it would be quite interesting to learn about what was involved in recreating this particular 1967, and why exactly Boughedir opted to tell a period story in the first place, all is well as is.
Zizou and the Arab Spring
Sweet Smell of Spring aka Parfum de printemps
DIRECTED BY FÉRID BOUGHEDIR/2016/ARABIC
All is not well!
Fast-forward two decades; we find that though much has happened in Tunisia, not all has changed- particularly Boughedir’s ability to share and explore his culture via engrossingly entertaining storytelling.
A beautiful and mysterious Princess is being held captive by the oppressive Powers That Be in the dawn of a major strike by the rebellion. It’s up to a scrappy outsider to navigate the strange, imposing empirical compound to rescue her. Along the way, his infatuation with her glimpsed image might just evolve into real love… and he may just find himself instrumental in a much larger revolution.
No, it’s not Star Wars– though that film was famously filmed partially in Tunisia. It’s not even a fairy tale proper, which is the kind of thing that inspired George Lucas’s space fantasy epic. Or is it?
Like Luke Skywalker, we first meet our young protagonist, Aziz (people call him Zizou), in the Tunisian desert. Soon enough, he’s transported away to a great adventure. Except, rather than going to face his destiny far, far away, Zizou is brought deeper into the heart of troubled Tunisia.
Never mind the increasing dire political upheaval on the streets all around him, there’s a beautiful girl being held against her will! Zizou first lays eyes on Aïcha (Sarra Hannachi) when his job as a humble satellite dish installer grants him rare access inside the sprawling home of a nationally important family. In this version of recent history, it turns out that this very family- mafioso, it turns out- is a prime target for ousting in what would come to be known as 2011’s “Arab Spring”.
Zizou himself, as played by the wiry wonderfully emotive Zied Ayadi, is a sympathetic and compelling Everyman just looking to keep his own head above water. Like old Uncle Hadj in A Summer in La Goulette, Zizou is blindsided by the beauty of a particular female. Unlike Hadj, however, Zizou’s intentions, as obsessive as they are, are entirely pure. But is a happily ever after possible in the politically volatile Tunis? Leave it to Boughedir to pull off the tightrope walk between all-too-recent national tumult and escapist fairy tale storytelling. Neither aspect is sold short or undercut in this truly pleasing audience-pleaser from the land that lived through it all.
For their beautiful Blu-ray of Zizou, Kino Lorber has included a good fifteen or so minutes of bonus features. Though not long in the tooth by any means, these inclusions are just enough to let us in on such things as the making of the production (the crew was indeed numerous), its critical reception at the time, and perhaps most tellingly, Boughedir’s thought process and jovial demeanor. We are even given a chance to catch up with him as he is given a special award during a recent Cannes Film Festival.
All three of these films are particularly beautiful to look at and engage with on Blu-ray. Though there are moments of crudity and, in terms of occasional female nudity, something of a lighthearted male gaze (but a male gaze, nonetheless), these three films are otherwise completely accessible and, daringly universal while also brimming with local pride. It’s important to remember that while certain aspects of these films may not wash within contemporary Western society, they were quite likely considered very liberal- often in these same regards- their own time and place.
Boughedir is one who truly understands what Landmark Cinema (a stateside chain where these films would be most at home) and others dubbed “the universal language of film”. For him, this truth isn’t a chore but a pleasure; there’s a dignity of meaningfulness and honest hospitality brimming from all corners of this body of work. His Tunisia is a crackling festoon of engaging humanity spread across tight-knit communities, the denizens of a nation where certain liberal tolerances are conservative old hat, amid many in-ground conservative communal notions- some questioned, many not. In any case, why not give the director himself the final say, as stated during an interview on the Zizou disc:
“My dream is that, those who come to see my films feel welcomed at my table. They sit around the table with us, they eat and smell the scents. And suddenly they may feel from within the marvels of a culture that is not theirs and could then add to their knowledge another side of the human, of humanity. When I welcome spectators to my films, I can’t serve them whatever! I should serve them my best, the most appreciable thing I have by then at home. I always dreamed of making films that bring joy, emotion but also knowledge! If by seeing the film, they laugh they feel moved and even a bit culturally enriched.”
⁃ Férid Boughedir