If the law is retrograde, it is a duty to transgress and move the red lines
On December 17, 2010, twenty-six-year-old fruit and vegetable vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, from the rural town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia , was allegedly insulted and slapped by the police because he refused to hand over his cart to the authorities. Humiliated, Mohammed marched to the front of a government building and set himself ablaze.
A peaceful protest led by Bouaziz’s mother few hours later, would birth a wave of angry protests across the country, culminating in the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ending his 23-year long rule.
Like many young Tunisians gagged by Ben Ali’s decades long repressive regime, Filmmaker Selim Gribaa set out to reclaim his voice after the revolution – and he did so gloriously in his first short film, The Purple House (2014).
This post-revolution film is set during the revolution of 2011 and follows the life of a middle-aged, unemployed man, Hassan. A typified disenchanted Tunisian under Ben Ali’s rule, Hassan visits Si Ammor, a local politician of the ruling party, to ask for a job. Si Ammor promises he will have a job for Hassan in about a month, on the condition that Hassan paints his house purple, because it is the favourite colour of the president. Hassan sells his wife’s jewellery to buy paint and works diligently to adorn the house in purple. But before a month is due, Ben Ali is ousted by the revolution.
What follows is a troubled man’s light-heartedness and occasional heartbreaking quest to regain his dignity; and a community’s hopeful embrace of a new Tunisia.
“The Purple House” won the Audience Award at Green Caravan Film Festival in London in 2015; The Baobab Award for Best Short Film in the same year and a special mention at the 15th Festival Lumières d’Afrique 2015 in France.
I spoke to Selim about the Revolution, his film, a rebirthed Tunisia and the Ben Ali’s favourite colour.
Reggie Kyere (RK): “The Purple House” is set in the days during and after the Tunisian Revolution. Did you join in the protests?
Selim Gribaa (SG): Yes, indeed. I was in the streets of Tunis during the events of the revolution to demand the departure of Ben Ali
RK: In the midst of all that chaos, what really struck you about the revolution?
SG: The revolution made me realize that the disgust I felt was shared by the majority of young people. And it ended up exploding in the mouth of power.
RK: Ben Ali’s government was notorious for its hardline stance against any form of expression. Can you describe how it was like being a filmmaker under his regime?
SG: Filming during Ben Ali’s rule was not easy. There were many subjects that could not be addressed. So we had to talk about it sometimes at the second or third level. The subjects who sinned were simply censored. Power only gave means to filmmakers to say everything was beautiful.
RK: This “Purple House” was made post-revolution, comparing with your previous works, would you say you were braver in your narrative because you weren’t afraid of offending anyone in authority?
SG: Clearly yes. Today we are free to say what we want and we are not going to deprive ourselves of it. But beyond courage, cinema requires an environment of freedom. There must be no limits to creation. Otherwise we find ourselves making the cinema that we can to the detriment of the cinema we want.
RK: Towards the end of the film the whole neigbourhood reconciled. In solidarity to Hassan, they paint their house purple and Hassan gets a job in the bakery. Was the film set up purposely to send a political message of reconciliation and unity?
RK: There is this message of reconciliation. But above all, I wanted to say that the neighborhood was more intelligent than the politicians. They understood that the purple was only a color and that they were free to do what they wanted. The colour purple came to mean the jewelry of Hasan’s wife. It is to support him that’s why they painted their houses purple. So Hasan wouldn’t have to erase the paint of his house.
RK: Is that what has happened in Tunisia; people putting aside their differences to unite behind a new leadership?
SG: Not really. The film is a sort of tale that ends well. But what has happened in reality is that the politicians have done everything to divide people -between those who are Islamists and those who are laic; those who are progressive and those who are traditionalists. There has been a lot of violence that has led to political killings by jihadist terrorists. Fortunately now it has calmed down a lot.
RK: Moving forward, what role do you think films are going to play in the reshaping of a new Tunisia?
SG: Films and culture in general have a very important role to play especially by the culture that young people will move away from obscurantism and violence. It is through culture that the exchange of ideas and the understanding of differences between people occur. Culture gives access to the complexity of the world and makes it more comprehensible.
RK: Regarding obscurantism, there have been concerns about the rise of Salafists in Tunisia after the revolution. Several months after the revolution in 2011, Islamists attached TV channel Nessma for showing Persepolis, a film about the Islamic Revolution of Iran. Weeks before that, a theatre was attacked for screening a film about Tunisia and religion. The film Director, Nadia El Fani, was allegedly sent death threats. Fortunately, Jihad Salafists movement such as Ansar al-Sharia were banned in 2013. As a filmmaker, do you think even after the revolution there is still a big red line that artists cannot cross in Tunisia?
SG: Tunisian society is a society where there are still many taboos. Artsists have a great role to play in confronting these taboos. Before the revolution, there was arbitrary censorship because it was not necessary to talk about politics. But politics is in every subject so censorship was omnipresent. After the revolution, the wind of freedom blew. Censorship no longer exists. There is the law and what it allows. For me, you can talk about everything in respect of the law. And if the law is retrograde, it is a duty to transgress and to move these red lines.
RK: Purple was for decades synonymous with the former ruling party and President. What were people’s perception of the colour before the revolution and how do they view it now? Are there still purple shops in Tunisia?
SG: Purple was the colour of submission. If someone wanted certain privileges-from the ruling party- he painted his house purple or wore purple clothes. The first years after the revolution, the purple disappeared from the country. It looked like it never existed. People were afraid that they would be confused with Ben Ali’s collaborators. But lately people are starting to use the purple and dressing sometimes with a shirt or a purple jacket. In fact it is a beautiful color and it is normal to use it now.
RK: Are you working on any new projects?
SG: I am writing my first feature.
Interview conducted by Robet Kyere, a film enthusiast. He is thr PR Officer for African Film Society. Find him on Twitter @memaamebaneme.