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The power of movies is not in what is said, but what is unsaid, observed documentary maker Elyes Baccar in a discussion during the Human Screen Festival which took place last week in Tunis. September 6-10, this international human rights film festival dedicated its fourth edition to themes relating to women’s rights and art as resistance to the traumas of war and terrorism.

After a hiatus in 2015, the Human Screen Festival returned this year with a selection of recent films that played from the north towards the south of Tunisia: Bizerte, Tunis, Sousse, Gafsa, and Djerba. Twenty-five films from fourteen countries (Afghanistan, Egypt, France, Iran, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Lebanon, Libya, New Zealand, Norway, Senegal, Tunisia, and the United States) were in the running for three awards which were announced at the festival’s closing event on Saturday. A jury including American professor Robert J. Landy, filmmaker Ghassen Amami, Human Rights Watch director for Tunis Amna Guellali, and filmmaker Moncef Dhouib selected Pietra Brettkelly’s “A Flickering Truth” for best feature-length film, while a second committee–actress Bouraouia Marzouk, Lebanese documentary filmmaker Zeina Daccache, child psychiatrist and former ATFD president Ahlem Belhadj, and filmmaker Fares Naanaa–named “Pousses de printemps” by Intissar Belaid for best short-length film and “The Trials of Spring” by Gini Reticker for best film on the topic of women’s rights.

Homage to Kalthoum Bornaz and Adnen Meddeb

On Tuesday evening, a moment of silence for filmmaker Kalthoum Bornaz and activist-filmmaker Adnen Meddeb marked the opening of the festival at Le Rio theater in Tunis. Festival director Kamel Ben Ouanes addressed a theater packed full of cinephiles, filmmakers, intellectuals, and journalists before Baccar took the stage to introduce his film “Lost in Tunisia.” Inviting the audience on a geographical and metaphorical journey, the film spans a number of social and political events and realities since 2011, with a special focus on women in Tunisia. A semi-ironic statement scribbled onto paper towards the beginning of the movie conveys the impossible complexity of the theme: “It is absurd to make a movie about women.”

Daily discussions at Le Mondial café-theater downtown Tunis invited the public to dialogue with filmmakers.  On Wednesday morning, a dozen artists and journalists sat with Elyes Baccar to discuss “the Tunisian woman,” addressing topics of constitutional rights versus social realities, the dynamics and complementarity of men and women in relationships, family, and society. The second half of the session was dedicated to a series of shorts, “Libya in Motion,” three portraits of ordinary citizens whose creative endeavors are expressions of resistance: a graffiti artist, an elderly woman who sews flags and gives them away, a Museum curator who built a secret room to preserve beloved artifacts and symbols of Libyan heritage.

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Subsequent debate sessions centered around the themes of “Art, trauma, therapy” through the work of Zeina Daccache (“Scheherazade’s Diary” and “12 Angry Lebanese”), as well as “Views on the Arab woman in the era of Arab revolution” through the documentaries of American filmmaker Gini Reticker (“Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” “The Betrayal”).

An unconventional audience

Organized by the non-profit cultural organization ACTIF (Association culturelle tunisienne pour l’insertion et la formation), the festival’s most remarkable aspect is its manifestation before a more unconventional audience: prison inmates. Beginning in 2013, Elyes Baccar and director Achraf Laamar teamed up to organize film projections and debates in prisons throughout the country as a way to create a bridge between two worlds—that of the penitentiary system and that of culture.

After three days of projections at the Messadine prison in Sousse, Laamar arrived in Tunis full of anecdotes. Although he has visited at least seventeen different prisons through ACTIF’s Joussour project, he decided to bring this year’s Human Screen Festival to Messadine where 150 prisoners are women. Each morning from Wednesday through Friday, some 25 female inmates attended a screening of as many of the festival’s films as could be seen in the time allotted, before a break for lunch and afternoon activities—a film discussion followed by a photography workshop.

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Photo courtesy of Achraf Laamar

The experience is clearly personal, and Laamar recounts even the little things—how some of the women have never manipulated a camera, how one woman with whom he had shared a cigarette asked if she could use the lighter herself, it had been a year since she had felt the satisfying click of lighting her own cigarette, how some of the inmates laugh at the movies because it makes them forget where they are, or cry because it makes them remember. “I can’t teach them the ABCs of cinema,” Laamar explains, “the important thing is that they learn there is a message behind the images … that the next time they see a photograph or a movie, they will look at it differently understand that there is a lot of work that goes into creating it … that they learn how to think differently about what they see.”