You've seen more films shot in Tunisia than you think you have. "Star Wars" is the best-know example, along with "Raiders of the Lost Ark," but Hollywood producers have returned to the North African country repeatedly: "The English Patient" is more recent instance. However, in most of these films, Tunisia is used as an exotic desert setting; it's hard to recall an instance when Hollywood deigned to show any evidence of actual city life in this largely Westernized republic.
Tunisian native Nouri Bouzid, not surprisingly, doesn't see his home country as an exotic backdrop for Hollywood spectacle, but as a thriving and diverse modern culture. Bahta (Lofti Abdelli) is an aimless twenty-something whose greatest passion is break dancing with his buddies, for which they are constantly hounded by the police. I know little to nothing about life in Tunisia, but one police official gives us a hint when he scolds a sullen citizen: "We give you a little democracy, and look what you do with it!" Bahta doesn't care; he's having fun and he's also in love. Handsome and carefree, he has an easy charm that snares the ladies, even his beloved mother who spoils him terribly.
As Bahta gets into deeper trouble with the law, however, his life takes a sudden turn. He falls in with a crowd of Islamic fundamentalists who see him as easy prey. His so-called mentor (Lotfi Dziri) gradually seduces the impressionable young man with tales of righteousness and a virgin-filled paradise that awaits true believers who answer their calling. And what is his calling? To blow himself up for Allah, of course. Strange how it's only the younger men (and women) who ever have to answer this calling.
To say that Bouzid is tackling a hot-button issue is a gross understatement. Most likely to placate both censors and audiences, the director introduces a reflexive element to the film when Bahta, or rather Lofti Abdelli, demands a stop to shooting because he is upset about the story. Is Bouzid criticizing Islam itself? No, the director assures him, only lunatics who commit violence in the name of Allah, though Bouzid makes his secular beliefs very clear during these scenes.
The staggering level of misogyny endemic to Islamic fundamentalism would be laughable if it wasn't so frightening. Bahta's mentor observes that the world is a terrible place: "Women are partly to blame; they are everywhere." Huh? What he really means is that there are evil women in Tunisia who dare to dress provocatively and even to show a will of their own, and the fact that this obviously turns him on means somebody else must be to blame. Bahta absorbs this hatred of women all too easily, and somewhat unconvincingly.
I cannot judge how appealing this philosophy might be to a young man with no direction in life and no feeling of investment in his community. It seems, however, that Bouzid takes a rather simplistic approach to the matter. Bahta's mentor spouts a few lines of verse or some cheap rhetoric about life and death, and innocent Bahta is very quickly converted. When told that "Islam is the most just form of law for humanity," Bahta acts as if he has been struck by a bolt from the blue: has he really never heard this argument before? It's only the fundamentalist prohibition against dancing and singing that keeps Bahta from buying completely into the program. He wants to be able to bust a move no matter what the Koran might say.
For Western audiences, the film provides a glimpse of Tunisian society that we rarely see. As depicted in the film, it is a society seething with powerful cross-currents and in the grip of an identity crisis. The younger generations have eagerly embraces Western fashion and culture and there is clearly "a little democracy," but religion obviously plays a major role in daily life. Jihadists are viewed as a disgrace to society and to Islam, but an extremely conservative element still rules the day.
The reflexive scenes in the film are difficult to figure out. Clearly, they are intended to assuage audiences, but Bouzid seems to be drawing a parallel between the relationship of mentor to "terrorist in training" and that of a controlling director to a reluctant and skeptical actor. I may be completely misinterpreting this aspect of the film, but if that's Bouzid's intention, it doesn't make much sense. Telling an actor to shut up and say his lines is just common sense, after all. Telling a young man to blow himself up for Allah, not so much.
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. The interlaced transfer is acceptable, but it has becomes increasingly frustrating to see so many studios not willing or able to produce progressive transfers. With high-def as a competitor, it's becoming more and more important. The transfer looks a little dark overall, but it's an acceptable effort.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Optional English subtitles support the Arabic audio.
The DVD has two extras. First, a brief introduction (2 min.) by Peter Scarlet, artistic director for the Tribeca Film Festival. Second, and much more interesting, an interview (14 min) with Bouzid and Abdelli, conducted by Peter Scarlet. The interview was conducted on June 22, 2007 at the Taormina Film Festival in Italy.
"Terrorists aren't born. They're made." That's the tag line for "Making of" (AKA "Making of, the last film"), and it neatly summarizes the narrative. It's quite chilling, even if not entirely convincing, to see the way Bahta's mentor pounces on the young man's weakness, and knows exactly what kind of rhetoric will appeal to his insecurities. It's clear that he's done this before… many times. And will continue to do so for quite some time.
The film was a hit at Tribeca in 2007, winning for Best Screenplay and Best Actor.