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The distressing story of women who have followed their menfolk to war and ended up as the sexual pawns of ISIS and Al-Qaeda has been told mainly by journalists and barely broached on film. Now Nouri Bouzid, the Tunisian pathfinder whose 1986 film Man of Ashes broke the taboo around homosexuality, boldly affronts the trauma of two young women who have escaped from their captors only to find themselves unable to return to a hostile, leering society.
Gripping if sometimes confusing, The Scarecrows (Les Epouvantails) is set in Tunis in 2013. Despite some political references that will fly over the audience’s head (such as the Troika that ruled the country after the 2011 elections), it is a powerful piece of up-close filmmaking that women, in particular, will respond to. Though it is primarily aimed at local audiences, like all the director’s work, it is an eye-opening drama that should find wider appreciation after its bow in Venice’s Sconfini sidebar.
Employing an almost all-female cast, Bouzid, who also wrote the screenplay, shows women not just as victims but as lawyers, doctors and caring mothers caught in a tangle of reasons and feelings, laws and injustices. To begin with, the main character Zina (Nour Hajri) is no stereotyped angel but an attractive girl who demands her share of freedom and free choice, and against whom viewers have to measure their own sexual prejudices.
The first shot of a metal prison door slamming shut behind a terrified, dirty, disheveled woman sets the visceral tone of what is to follow. Many brief, dark shots are flashbacks to the horrors of captivity in Syria, where Zina and Djo (Joumene Limam) were chained to a wall and repeatedly gang-raped. But this first glimpse of prison is ambiguous — it could well be in Tunisia. Soon the two women are released into the custody of Nadia, an activist lawyer (Afef Ben Mahmoud), and a doctor played by the iconic Fatma Ben Saidane. They compassionately try to calm the hysterical girls down. For all her terror, Zina seems less traumatized than Djo, who helped her escape from Syria and cross into Lebanon. Djo, a writer, has retreated into an anguished silence while she obsessively fills a notebook called Is Rape Halal?
“Religion is frightening,” says one character bluntly in reference to the “sexual jihad” that so many women experienced, leaving them hysterical and suicidal. In addition, Zina’s two-month-old baby was snatched away from her and there is little chance she will ever see him again.
The barely functioning Djo, who is pregnant, is given hospitality by Zina’s mother. This slightly balmy, gray-haired woman fashions small dolls called scarecrows for tourists to buy, and perhaps recognizes her younger self in her daughter’s impulsive flights of fancy and pride in her body. Her husband is not so forgiving. As soon as she steps in the house, he beats her for the shame she has brought onto him, and she bolts.
The fearless Nadia has been appointed her lawyer and the girl apparently needs one, because she risks being sent to an Islamist camp if the judge finds her a willing conscript to terrorism. But she stubbornly refuses to file a complaint about being abducted by her treacherous boyfriend, who sold her to a battalion commander once they reached Syria. Meanwhile, she is physically and verbally attacked by her male neighbors as a slut who went off on some kind of sexual vacation, and by the local Islamic extremists who warn her not to testify against the Brotherhood.
The truth is that Zina left on the terrorist adventure with her boyfriend, whom she passionately loved, of her free will. It was only later that the nightmare started. Even without Zina’s cooperation, Nadia doggedly tracks her abductor down. The scene of their encounter on the streets of Tunis is full of tension and threats, but the women don’t back down from shaming him in front of his hood.
Throughout the film, the psychological crisscrossing is dense and sometimes hard to follow. Nadia harbors her own doubts about Zina’s loyalties. The only person who really understands the girl is Driss (Mehdi Hajri), a young gay man who has been barred from his studies for his sexual orientation and whom Nadia is defending in court. As a friend, Driss offers Zina shelter in his apartment with no strings attached, but their platonic understanding doesn’t solve the problems of Djo or Zina’s backward father, and the film ends on an uneasy note.
The cinematography by Hatem Nechi stays so close to the characters’ faces it virtually forces the viewer into their skin, which is not always a comfortable place to be. Riadh Fehri’s musical choices, many reflecting traditional themes, are carefully dosed.
Production companies: Mesanges Films, Lycia Productions, Samsa Film
Cast: Nour Hajri, Afef Ben Mahmoud, Joumene Limam, Mehdi Hajri, Sondos Belhassen, Fatma Ben Saidane, Noomen Hamda
Director-screenwriter: Nouri Bouzid
Producers: Afef Ben Mahmoud, Khalil Benkirane, Jani Thiltges
Director of photography: Hatem Nechi
Costume designer: Nabila Cherif
Editors: Ghalya Lacroix, Seifedine Ben Salem, Hafedh Laridhi
Music: Riadh Fehri
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Sconfini)
World sales: MPM Film
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