'She Had a Dream': Director Raja Amari puts racism in Tunisia under the lens with new documentary

The film follows Ghofrane Binous, a budding black politician, as she runs for office

Ghofrane Binous is the subject of Tunisian director Raja Amari's new documentary, which tackles the subject of racism in Tunisia. Cineteve, Arte
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In She Had a Dream, which recently had its world premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, leading Tunisian director Raja Amari follows Ghofrane Binous, a 25-year-old black woman, as she runs for office during the 2019 legislative elections in Tunisia. By following Binous's journey, Amari highlights racism and misogyny in the North African country.

"My main concern was to look at and analyse the position of women in society since the Tunisian Revolution," says Amari, who lives in Paris. French production company Cineteve approached Amari to make a film about the political situation of women in Tunisia to mark the 10th anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution, which falls in January. "My original idea was to make a film about marriage, dreams and expectations in this context," she says.

Amari, 49, who sat on the short film documentary jury of the recent El Gouna Film Festival, started her career as a film critic but is better known for making dramas about the role of women in Tunisian society. She rose to international prominence as a director at the Berlin Film Festival in 2002, where she unveiled her critically acclaimed debut feature Red Satin, in which Palestinian actress Hiam Abbas plays Lilia, a mother who transforms from dreary housewife into a cabaret star.

Amari worked with Abbas again in 2016 on Foreign Body, an accomplished survival tale in which the celebrated Palestinian actress plays a widow living in France, who takes in an undocumented Tunisian refugee. In between these dramas, Amari made Tunisian Spring (2014), a film about musicians reacting to the turbulence of the Arab uprisings; the psychological thriller Buried Secrets (2009), which shows three women hiding from their neighbours; and Seekers of Oblivion (2004), a biographical documentary about Swiss explorer and author Isabelle Eberhardt.

For She Had a Dream, Amari met Binous through Saadia Mosbah, president of Mnemty, an organisation that campaigns for women's rights and against racism. Mnemty was instrumental in the campaign that led to the criminalisation of racism in Tunisia in 2018, and organising the Black Lives Matter protests in the country after the killing of George Floyd, which feature in the documentary.

"I'd already heard about Ghofrane because she had this incident in a plane when she was working as a flight attendant and a passenger aimed racist slurs in her direction," Amari says.

Binous was verbally attacked as she attempted to resolve a dispute between passengers over space for carry-on luggage in overhead compartments. The pilot kicked the passengers, who made the racist comments, off the plane in an incident that became a cause celebre across the country and led to the Tunisian parliament enacting the anti-racism law.

“I thought Binous is interesting because she’s an activist, she’s marrying a white Tunisian guy, and she was OK being filmed, and I wanted to essay all this with her,” Amari says. But it’s the nature of documentaries that real life can get in the way of the best-laid plans. “When I started filming she told me, ‘I’m not marrying any more, but I’m going into politics.’ I thought this is more interesting because I had wanted to talk about politics indirectly, but now it would be front and centre of my movie.”

She Had a Dream is a very personal movie about the budding politician. "I decided to tell the politics, history and process through her eyes, through her sensitivity and stick to it. I didn't want to make an informative film about the political process in Tunisia. I wanted the spectator to live with the protagonist and to go into these discussions intimately," Amari says.

It shows intimacy where the personal and political are combined. Amari films her subject visiting her parents in Gabes, where she grew up in the south of the country, recalling the racism that she faced during her childhood. On a lighter note, we see Ghofrane talking to her friends about relationships and lamenting missing a friend’s engagement party because she was on the campaign trail. It’s in the portrait of her daily life in the working-class neighbourhood of Essaida, where she is shown interacting with the local community that her charm and passion is most evident.

Director Raja Amari is known for making dramas about the roles of women in Tunisian society

“I filmed her like she was a protagonist in a fiction film,” says Amari. “There are a lot of close-ups and not many wide-frames. Also, I used her voice-over narration to deliver an intimate history. That’s why I started with her childhood, her traumas and her surroundings before dealing with politics. It’s to show the impact of politics on her. I found it important to give voice to a black woman, to incarnate the film with her and through her.”

As she campaigns for votes, it's through the conversations that Binous has with people on the street that a picture of the collective mindset within Tunisia emerges. Citizens grapple with poverty, with many disillusioned with the political leaders. That's a problem for Binous who is representing prime minister at the time Youssef Chahed's Tahya Tounes Party.

“I wanted the film to be with the people, to be with those small discussions and not be with the politicians. That’s why I decided not to interview politicians, just to follow Ghofrane, and see what’s happening around her,” Amari says.

The film shows how racism has been institutionalised, which the director says is rooted in Tunisia's history.

“When you are white, you are OK. When you go darker and darker, you face more rejection. I think there’s a lot of problems in North Africa and Tunisia with racism.”

What is unacceptable is that there is a part of the population that don't have the same rights, and they don't ask for those rights because they know they can't reach certain posts and positions

The director believes that the root of the problem is that “we have interiorised colonialism. They are better than us, and so the ideal is white, and we are struggling with this obstacle. There is a history of slavery in Tunisia; it was a route of slaves to Europe through the ports. So there is this feeling of superiority”.

Looking ahead, the director is hopeful about the future especially following the anti-racism law.

"I don't know if it's unique in the Arab world, but it [Tunisia] is one of the only countries in the region that has a law punishing racism. There is also the fact that Tunisia abolished slavery in 1846. So it's a country with a complicated relationship to racism."

However, the film is clear in its message that more change is needed. “What is unacceptable is that there is a part of the population that don’t have the same rights, and they don’t ask for those rights because they know they can’t reach certain posts and positions and this is not normal,” Amari says. “Ghofrane knows that through the process, what’s happening, now is the time to ask for those rights.”

She Had a Dream is available to watch until Sunday, December 6; www.idfa.nl