Cairo 2014 Review: THE CHALLAT OF TUNIS, Brilliant And Disturbing Satire
The words 'satire' and 'mockumentary', when referring to films, might automatically be thought to reference humour. But there is no humour, except very dark, in director Kaouther Ben Hania's brilliant The Challat of Tunis.
It is a searing portrait of a culture in which misogyny is so deeply entrenched that violence against women is seen as natural and right. But even beyond this, especially in light of recent events in the West, it displays an attitude towards women that can be seen in cultures and countries around the world.
Ben Hania takes on true events of ten years ago, and makes a indie-style mockumentary that, through this style, deliberately and openly challenges sexist attitudes in her native Tunisia. And sadly, her satirical take shows that these attitudes are not likely to change in the near future.
In 2003, several women were slashed from behind by a man (or possibly different men) who rode a motorbike through the streets of Tunis ('challat' means slasher). The film begins 10 years after these events; a film student (Ben Hania) believes the challat is being released from prison and wants to meet him.
She is approached by Jallel, who claims to be the slasher himself. The student then follows him as he moves back in with his mother, starts dating again, and explains why he committed his crime. This story is punctuated with interviews with men about their attitudes towards women, and later in the film, interviews with real victims of the slasher(s).
The opening sequence, a POV shot of the slasher approaching a woman, seems to set up the film as horror; and indeed it is, but not in the usual fantastic genre fashion. The next scenes show Ben Hania and her cameraman speaking to a victim (in this case, played by an actress) describing her slashing; another woman, that she actually slashed herself and blamed it on the challat, much to her shame.
This cuts to interviews with various men in cafes about the challat and his deeds; some men said as long as women dressed respectfully they would be fine; others that the women probably deserved it for being 'immoral'. All of these interviews, played out in handheld documentary style, place the horror of these attitudes on display. There is no direct attempt at judgement in their presentation per se, but Ben Hania is presenting them in full force, to show what women are up against on a daily basis.
Once the film moves to Jallel and his life, it gets even more difficult; if I read the credits correctly, Jallel is playing himself, a man who was arrested for the slashing crimes, but never convicted due to lack of evidence (suggesting that it was indeed several men), though he still claims he did at least a few of them.
His hatred of women (except his mother, who seems unfazed by his deeds) slowly but steadily is revealed. He meets up with a video game designer, who has made a game based on the challat. The player gets to be the slasher; any woman without a head covering is a target, and the less clothing she wears (which in this game is still a lot) the more points you get (women with veils, you get fewer points).
While I certainly don't agree that violent video games are bad in and of themselves, as one scene points out, to have a game such as this, relating directly to a real event and criminal, in which women are the only target, reflects on and arguably helps foster misogyny. It was especially interesting to watch this sequence with the recent Gamergate controversy in mind. Given how relevant and influential media such as games, film and television are, how can we expect attitudes to change if women are (almost) always portrayed as victims or sex objects?
Satire often uses irony to look at difficult situations, but there doesn't seem to be much irony in The Challat of Tunis; or if there is, it is the irony, given the mockumentary style, that it doesn't need to be a mockumentary at all. This is a brilliantly conceived and developed story, and Ben Hania crafts it perfectly to bring home the satirical message of reality within the satire. She ends the film with the interviews with real victims, both of whom explain that they were, indeed, dressed modestly when they were attacked. Ben Hania wants the last voices to be heard to be women's voices, perhaps too often ignored in her culture.