Sunday, March 15, 2015

SR ’15: The Challat of Tunis

There is plenty of mock in Kaouther Ben Hania’s hybrid-doc, but the attitudes it depicts are embarrassingly real. In 2003, an unknown assailant drove through the streets of Tunis, slashing the buttocks of women who were not sufficiently “modest” in their dress. One Arab Spring revolution later, the so-called Challat is still regarded as a cult hero by a significant number of Tunisians—all male and Muslim, of course. Ben Hania set out to find the slasher in a traditional documentary, but official road blocks forced her instead to make a true-in-spirit examination of the Tunisian national character in The Challat of Tunis (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Socially Relevant Film Festival.

At least eleven women were attacked by the Challat. The “at least” caveat is important, because the Tunis police do not exactly encourage reports of sexual violence. If you suspect they might blame the victim, you don’t know the half of it, but Ben Hania saves their real life testimony for the final act. Most of the narrative is devoted to her semi-fictional pseudo-Michael Moore style search for the unpunished perpetrator. Circumstantial evidence points to an unemployed misogynist named Jalel Dridi, who adamantly takes credit for the slashings. Initially, he is quite convincing, but Ben Halia eventually starts to doubt some of the details of his story.

Let’s not sugarcoat it. There is something deeply pathological about a society in which people want to be known as violent criminals who prey on women. Dridi may might a fraud or an actor in a put-up job, but there are plenty of men-in-the-street responses to him that speak volumes about Arab Muslim attitudes towards women. For instance, one imam endorses his Challat video game, because it grants points for slashing disrespectfully dressed women, while deducting from players’ scores if the assault women in suitably oppressive garb.

Some of the comic bits are better developed than others, but they all reflect highly problematic social iniquities and double standards. Ben Halia even shows an aptitude for broad Apatow style comedy when Dridi buys a “Virgin-o-meter” to test his unlikely new girlfriend. However, the film really knocks the wind out of the audience when Ben Halia dispenses with her hype-real narrative to interview two of the Challat’s extraordinarily brave victims on camera. Their stories of lingering physical and emotional pain, as well as the humiliation they experienced at the hands of the police, make the blood run cold.

There are a wealth of telling moments to be found in Ben Halia’s street interviews, such the unusually candid coffee house patron who initially argues Muslim prejudices for the attacks, but walks it back as an “Arab” thing when his cronies object. Clearly, nobody (no man) in Tunisia wants to forthrightly deal with Challat attacks and the lasting cultural effects, which is why Ben Halia’s film is such a bold poke in the eye. It has some odd moments, but there is always method to her madness. Strongly recommended, The Challat of Tunis is by far the feature highlight of this year’s SRFF when it screens this Thursday (3/19) at the Tribeca Cinemas.