Tunisian struggle with new freedom hits silver screen

Abu Dhabi — Although Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled nearly two years ago, Tunisia's fight for freedom has only just begun, acclaimed Tunisian filmmaker Nouri Bouzid says in his latest film.

In "Hidden Beauties", Bouzid uses the Islamic veil to symbolise the struggle facing Tunisians now negotiating issues of religion, freedom and identity in the vacuum left in the aftermath of an uprising that ousted Ben Ali after 23 years running a model police state.

Bouzid's central characters are two young women, Aisha, who is veiled but struggling with her need for freedom and her desire for a young man, and her free-spirited friend Zainab, who is fighting a family that wants her to wear a veil and get married.

The film, part family drama, part love story, depicts the deep personal conflicts the revolution has brought to individuals, who, in the new-found freedom that they craved, are having to face up to the contradictions that were weighing on society and on them.

"You need something concrete in cinema, and the hijab is a good incarnation of this precarious freedom and the struggle for it," Bouzid told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Bouzid, who previously spent time in prison for his political views, studied film in Brussels. His first feature, "Man of Ashes" in 1986 won the Un Certain Regard critics prize at the Cannes Film Festival. His other titles include "Bezness" (1992), "Clay Dolls" (2002) and "Making Of" (2006).

The role of Islam in government and society has emerged as the most divisive issue in Tunisia in the wake of Ben Ali's departure, which sparked revolts that brought changes of government in Libya, Egypt and Yemen.

The Islamist-led government that won elections in October is treading a fine line between conservatives who see the revolution as a chance to express a religious identity suppressed by Ben Ali and secularists who want to broaden freedom of expression.

"The real revolution is happening now, the real battles are now because there are precise issues at stake, like the constitution," Bouzid said.

Many Tunisians fear that the North African country, long considered one of the most secular in the Arab region, may succumb to Islamist pressure to ban films, plays or musical performances, and to censor exhibitions.

Religious hardliners have fanned those fears in recent months by successfully stopping performances on the grounds they violate Islamic principles.

Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party leading the government, has promised to support culture in Tunisia and not to impose the veil on women or ban alcohol.

But secular critics say it is turning a blind eye to the increasing pressures on Tunisians to conform to religious ways. Ennahda has also come under fire from puritanical Salafis who say it fails to defend Islamic values.

Secularist Bouzid said Ennahda had failed to keep any promises given ahead of the elections and that the Islamists were merely hungry for power.

"What has Ennahda delivered? Nothing at all, really nothing... Fundamentalism is the undertaking of a dictatorial rule that is becoming clearer every day. I don't believe they are motivated by their faith, no, it's just love of power," he said, adding Islam could not provide political solutions.

"I am totally against exploiting religion in politics. Using Islam is heading straight into a brick wall. It touches what is holy for people, and when it fails then their religion has failed," he said.

But Ennahda's rise and perceived failures were an opportunity for Tunisia, and had brought to a head a decisive issue for the future of the country: the equality of women.

"There is a new category of man that has developed in Tunisia, which believes that the freedom of women is a necessity for their own freedom, that without the freedom of women, they themselves cannot be free. This is new," he said.

The film ends on a melancholy note, with the girls singing a song that was sung by a blind street accordionist, played by the director himself, a plea for freedom, peace and happiness.

"I don't want to die before the misery in the boys' eyes disappears," the accordionist sings?