Tunisia's Carthage Film Festival takes cinema behind bars

A collaboration between the festival and the World Organisation Against Torture opens inroads to improve prison conditions

The Carthage Film Festival rolled out its red carpet for a special screening on Sunday, but the guests of honour weren't actors, influencers or dignitaries – they were a group incarcerated men and women in the Oudhna prison in Ben Arous, just south of Tunis.

The inmates had been invited to participate in the 7th Cinema in Prison programme as part of the festival, which brings art films and documentaries to those behind bars in co-operation with the Justice Ministry and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT).

In a large gymnasium, about 200 prisoners sat in rows asCaptains of Za'atari, a documentary by Egyptian filmmaker Ali El Arabi, played on a cinema-sized screen. The film follows two young Syrian men in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan over the course of eight years as they pursue their dream of becoming professional footballers, while getting to grips with the harsh reality of their circumstances.

The young protagonists face seemingly insurmountable barriers on their way to success – where they were born, their lack of education, their poverty – challenges of circumstance El Arabi said he felt reflected in the lives of his audience that day. Captains of Za'atari was the only Arab film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and won Best Arab Documentary at El Gouna Film Festival last month.

"Today I can’t focus as a director," El Arabi said. "I feel I’m here as a human. It was a chance to show my brothers and sisters here that they can start again. I told them: 'One day you’ll be outside, and you have to be ready for your opportunities when they come.'"

The audience, which received the movie with boisterous applause, shared his sentiments.

One inmate, 38, said: "Just like the characters of the movie were able to reach their dream even though their country is at war, the same dream could also exist for us, and we could do the same when we get out."

This year's prison programming, with screenings in six facilities around the country, will have an exciting new element, Gabriele Reiter, the director of OMCT's Tunis office, said.

"This year we aren't going into juvenile detention centres, but rather the minors will be joining us at the Cite de la Culture, the festival's main venue, and they will have the opportunity to participate where the limelight is."

But the impact of the initiative is felt long after the credits roll. Reiter said the trust built between her organisation, the film festival, and the prison administration over the past seven years has helped to facilitate the expansion of literacy programmes and mental health care, and opened the door to conversations about ill treatment in prison.

"I think prison administration would be the first to say that current conditions for detention are not up to standard," Reiter said after the event.

OMCT often represents those who fall victim to ill treatment while incarcerated. "There is this relationship of trust where we can actually see where some difficult situations or problematic issues would lay with individual cases and try to find solutions together."

Updated: November 4th 2021, 11:22 AM