'Challat of Tunis': Cannes Review

Slasher movie with a difference.

This playful blend of real and fake documentary uses a bizarre true story of unsolved knife attacks against women to examine gender politics in newly democratic Tunisia.

CANNES – Offering a wry feminist critique of macho chauvinism in Arab culture, Tunisian writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania's second feature is an intriguing addition to the boom in low-budget filmmaking inspired by the recent wave of Middle East revolutions. Screening in the ultra-indie ACID sidebar in Cannes, this Tunisian/Canadian/UAE co-production is founded on a strong central idea, but lacks the satirical bite and sharp production values to give it universal resonance. Specialist regional and festival screenings seem likely to provide its main public exposure.

Challat of Tunis takes a real event as its starting point. In 2003, a mysterious knife attacker rode through the Tunisian capital on a motor scooter, slashing the buttocks of women on the sidewalk. Nicknamed the "Challat," the assailant was never caught, but he achieved a kind of folk-hero notoriety, particularly among religious and social conservatives who believed women in jeans or short skirts were being rightfully punished for not dressing "respectfully."

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Ben Hania has examined the gap between European and Arab cultural values before, in her well-reviewed 2010 documentary Imams Go To School. Indeed, she initially planned to make a straight non-fiction film about the Challat, but soon came up against the bureaucratic brick walls of the old regime under former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Following the Tunisian Revolution of 2011, however, she reworked the project into a playful docu-drama hybrid that uses the Challat story to interrogate the sexual politics of her newly democratic homeland.

Shooting in hand-held mock-doc style, Ben Hania straddles the line between director and actor. She interviews slasher victims, prison guards, detectives, lawyers and ordinary citizens -- some clearly fictionalized, others apparently real. She finally meets a young man who claims to be the Challat, Jallel Dridi, a hotheaded mummy's boy who models himself on Al Pacino in Scarface.

The film's most powerful sections are the vox pops with real Tunisians. One man suggests the knife attacks were "a sign of virility" and "part of our Arab culture." A religious cleric even claims women with "beautiful hair" are sent by the Devil to tempt and corrupt helpless males. The Challat's female victims, meanwhile, share grim memories of shame, suicide and sexual molestation by the police. "I felt as if I had been attacked by the whole society," one recalls. Predictable enough, but still sickening.

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The weakest elements here are the comic interludes, such as when Dridi buys a preposterous fake gadget that promises to help him detect an authentic virgin bride, or plays a computer game depicting the Challat's slashing exploits as a Grand Theft Auto-style thrill ride. Ben Hania's satirical aims are noble enough, but often broad and clumsy.

Tunisia has long prided itself on having greater gender equality than other Arab nations, but how much of this self-serving propaganda image was ever really true? And how much have underlying attitudes changed since the revolution? Depressingly little, according to this flawed but admirably ambitious experiment in social-protest cinema.

Production companies: Cinetelefilms, Sister Productions
Cast : Jallel Dridi, Moufida Dridi, Mohamed Slim Bouchiha, Narimène Saidane, Kaouther Ben Hania
Director: Kaouther Ben Hania
Screenwriter: Kaouther Ben Hania
Producers: Habib Attia, Julia Paratian
Cinematographer: Sofian El Fani
Editor: Nadia Ben Rachid
Music: Benjamin Violet, Si Lemhaf
Sales company: Jour2fete, Paris
No rating, 90 minutes