Cursed Be the Phosphate (Yel'an bu al-Phosphate): Abu Dhabi Review
An obscure labor-dispute is identified as a trigger for national and international upheavals in Sami Tlili's documentary, a prize-winner at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
Memorable titles so often accompany the most forgettable films, but absorbing Tunisian reportage Cursed Be the Phosphate (Yel'an bu al-Phosphate) thankfully proves an exception to the rule. Named the festival's Best Arab Documentary when world-premiering at Abu Dhabi, this accessibly serious-minded debut from director Sami Tlili identifies a relatively obscure labor dispute as a key precursor of Tunisia's epoch-shaping January 2011 revolution.
We're currently experiencing a deluge of documentaries about the ensuing Arab Spring, as the region-wide upheavals were soon dubbed, but Tlili's Tunisia/Lebanon/Qatar/UAE co-production stands out from the pack both in terms of unusual subject-matter and skilful assembly. A must for liberal-leaning festivals worldwide, especially those with human-rights emphases, this unambiguously partisan paean to the spirit of the downtrodden will also be a popular choice for TV channels seeking high-quality non-fiction fare.
Tlili's approach differs radically from how the 'Mining Basin Affair' of 2008 was reported by the government-controlled state media, and indeed is itself an indirect product of long-time ruler President Ben Ali's ouster. Rather than ill-disciplined "riots", the disturbances in the Gafsa area, dominated by industries extracting the phosphate ore upon which a quarter of the Tunisian economy depends, were on this evidence a "social movement" undertaken by a severely fed-up populace. The root cause was the employment policy of the biggest mining company which effectively excluded the vast majority of the locals; the latter's attempts to effect change being met with brutal suppression by government forces.
Participants speak of being "terrorized" by the police, the ensuing bloodshed claiming the lives of young men now regarded as "martyrs" by their family and community around the town of Redeyef. Tlili's access to the bereaved provides his film with its most poignant sequences, amid a litany of discontents and complaints which the events of 2011 don't seem to have yet addressed: "to this day we have nothing. No-one cares about us." Archival footage and contemporary interviews combine to provide a vivid impression of the area and its people, Tlili's sympathetic approach resulting in a film which makes its points with unfussy, persuasive eloquence.
Background music is thankfully absent, Tlili deploying elegiacally wailing laments interspersed with extracts from his own poetry inspired by the Redeyef uprising. "We started a revolution without really being aware of it," a survivor notes, and Cursed Be the Phosphate, its title taken from one of Tlili's own compositions, brings to life a historical footnote to events whose reverberations continue to rumble through the regional and global political landscape.
Venue: Abu Dhabi Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Nomadis Images
Director / Screenwriter: Sami Tlili
Producer: Dora Bouchoucha, Habib Attia
Directors of photography: Hazem Berrabah, Hatem Nechi
Editor: Anis Hammami
Sales agent: Cinetele Films, L'Ariana, Tunisia
No MPAA rating, 84 minutes.