Professor (Al Oustadh): Doha Tribeca Film Festival Review

Sex, lies and government spies in 1970s Tunisia

Shot during the Arab Spring, writer-director Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud’s prize-winning period suspense drama examines the historical roots of Tunisia’s long slide into tyranny.

The personal becomes painfully political in this quietly engrossing retro-thriller, which dramatizes the struggle for social justice and human rights in late 1970s Tunisia. Scooping the best actor prize earlier this week in the Arab cinema strand of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, Professor forensically dissects the last few decades of Middle Eastern tyranny by unpicking one man’s tortuous moral complicity in it.

Written and directed by the Tunisia-born, Belgium-based veteran Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud, Professor has an old-school, literary, auteur feel. A classic festival film, in other words, with limited potential in foreign markets beyond the specialist art-house circuit. All the same, this Tunisia-France-Qatar co-production is a universal human story that trains a critical eye on recent history in a similar manner to Chile’s Pablo Larrain, the renowned Greek director Costa-Gavras, or even the brave social commentators in current Iranian cinema.

RELATED: Doha Tribeca Film Festival Dishes Out Arab Competition Prizes

Though not directly connected to the ongoing Arab Spring, which began with Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” in late 2010, the parallels in Professor will not be lost on locals and historians of the region. The period Ben Mahmoud recreates here coincided with recently deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s career-boosting appointment as General Director of National Security, a major stepping stone towards his 23-year authoritarian rule. Begun during the dying days of Ben Ali’s reign, the film was subject to official interference, and could only be completed after the ousted dictator fled to exile in Saudi Arabia last year.

Ahmed Hafiane plays Khalil Kalsaoui, a university law professor appointed by the government to head Tunisia’s League of Human Rights, a largely toothless talking shop whose chief purpose seems to be whitewashing state oppression and undermining the “red gangrene” of Communist opposition. An urbane and respectable family man in public, Kalsaoui is also having a perilous extra-marital affair with one of his radical young students. When she is arrested for politically sensitive activities, the professor agonizes over whether to risk his career and marriage defending her, a dilemma further complicated by sexual jealousy. In a chilling scene, a Ben Ali-style government stooge assures Kalsaoui “there are solutions available” to satisfy his appetites.

STORY: Escalating Tensions Across the Middle East Stir Emotions During Doha Tribeca Film Festival 

Ben Mahmoud shoots this thoughtful suspense drama in straight, sombre, traditional style. While the presentation feels a little flat and clunky in places, the strong performances and spiky ethical dilemmas do not. The stirring score, by Michel Portal, is a rich and lyrical mix of European and Arabic influences. Hafiane is especially impressive in his pleasingly layered, prize-winning portrait of a suave apologist for tyranny slowly facing up to his own guilt, hypocrisy and moral vacancy. Professor is an austere experience at times, but ultimately a rewarding one.

Venue: Doha Tribeca Film Festival screening, November 19

Production company: Familia Productions

Producer: Habib Bel Hadi

Cast: Ahmed Hafiane, Azeiz Ramzi, Sondos Belhassen, Mlika Lobna, Dziri Lotfi, Jamoussi Lassaad

Director: Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud

Writer: Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud

Editor: Dina Farouk

Music: Michel Portal

Cinematographer: Ali Ben Abdallah

Sales company: Familia Productions

Rating TBC, 92 minutes