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Tunisian producer plans film about Mohammed Bouazizi

The Tunisian filmmaker Tarak ben Ammar explains why his projected movie about the Jasmine Revolution was inspired by the act of despair that triggered a wave of revolt.

Ben Ammar Tunisian Film Director
Ben Ammar Tunisian Film Director

When a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor set himself alight in protest against unemployment and mistreatment by the authorities, it's unlikely he had even the slightest notion of the wider consequences that would stem from his action. Mohammed Bouazizi's act in the poverty-mired Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid last December was ultimately the catalyst for a sudden upsurge in civil unrest that would hasten the end of Zine el-Abidine ben Ali's 23-year rule.

While the aftermath of Bouazizi's self-immolation still violently rumbles on, one of Tunisia's biggest names in the film industry is now in the planning stages of dramatising his life for the cinema screen and hopes the story will be competing for honours under the foreign language section at next year's Academy Awards.

"I want to take the story of an individual and show how that can trigger the history of a nation or an entire region," says Tarak ben Ammar, the Tunisian-born producer and movie mogul with a growing empire of TV networks and film production and distribution companies across north Africa, Europe and the US.

"Here's a young man who doesn't hurt anybody. He's trying to make a living, but the authorities are totally blind and deaf to his needs. On top of that, they abuse him," he says.

In the altercation that led to his very public suicide, Bouazizi's produce was confiscated by the authorities. According to some accounts, a bribe that he couldn't pay was also demanded, his cart was knocked about, and he was slapped and spat upon.

"For me the symbol of this young man is fundamental," says Ben Ammar. "I want to know more about this boy who triggered such change in the Arab world. I said to myself, I'm a Tunisian producer and this is a Tunisian story. And that story is a symbol of youth. Bouazizi could have been the Chinese guy in Tiananmen Square or Jan Palach in Czechoslovakia."

Ben Ammar says he is now talking to Bouazizi's family and friends, and that they are fully behind the project. "Without that I wouldn't do this film," he says, adding that any profits from the film will go to the family and to a foundation in Bouazizi's name to help young people in Sidi Bouzid find work.

The producer also has a Tunisian director in Mohamed Zran: "The sensitivity of this director is perfect. It was he and I who together came up with the possibility that we wanted to make a movie about the symbol of Bouazizi." Zran's 1996 film Essaïda, named after an impoverished neighbourhood of Tunis, dealt with the issue of Tunisian youngsters from the lower echelons of society driven to despair.

When the film was first announced in January, reports suggested it was going to be a political thriller, in a mould similar to Costa-Gavras's Z, which dramatised the politics of Greece in the 1960s, and Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, which narrated the Algerian struggle for independence in the 1950s.

"We're going to take the story of an individual in an environment that's economically and politically in evolution, someone who, while his life might be simple and basic, turns out to be the trigger for a political revolution," says Ben Ammar. "So it's very easy for us, because we will reproduce the reality of what happened; we don't really have to reinvent anything."

Although the ending is already known, how the rest of the film plays out is still undecided. "Will it start with the revolution and play in flashbacks? I don't know."

What is certain is that the film will be shot entirely in Tunisian Arabic and will feature Tunisian actors. "I think stars would distract," admits Ben Ammar, who estimates he has helped shoot about 65 films in Tunisia, among them Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars with George Lucas, and Monty Python's Life of Brian.

He may be based in Paris now, but when the Jasmine Revolution erupted Ben Ammar was back in his homeland shooting Black Gold, Jean-Jacques Annaud's large-scale adaptation of the Hans Reusch novel South of the Heart, set at the start of the Gulf's oil boom in the 1930s.

Described by Ben Ammar as "Lawrence of Arabia 60 years later", Black Gold boasts a cast that includes Antonio Banderas and Freida Pinto. They were all in the country when the protests broke out.

"The Tunisian crew and I were very moved by the solidarity of the director, of Antonio Banderas, of these foreigners who stayed there, were not afraid and didn't run home. It was really wonderful," says Ben Ammar.

Despite the upheavals, filming on Black Gold was put back by only two days, the crew having to keep to the 5pm curfew imposed by the government. While this was going on, Ben Ammar was able to take advantage of Nessma TV, in which he is a shareholder (along with Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister), to help break the local media's silence on the growing situation. "I sent my crew to Bouazizi's village. We interviewed his family and the youths in the street and aired a show on December 30 which provoked violent insult from the government and the president himself." (The network has been accused in the past of supporting the regime.)

If the content of Nessma's reports following Bouazizi's death helped to spread news of the situation across the country, stirring up further unrest and condemnation of the government, they also gave Ben Ammar himself an insight into what was going on.

"For me, Bouazizi was really the catalyst," he says. "He opened my eyes. Even though I was there shooting, I didn't realise what was going on. But I spoke to these people and I felt an uneasiness."

Filming on the Bouazizi biopic should begin in May, with an eye on a release next year. "I'm hoping to present it at the Oscars under the Tunisian flag in 2012," says Ben Ammar, who co-produced Rachid Bouchareb's Outside the Law, which is up for Best Foreign Language Film this year for Algeria.

Ben Ammar concludes by reflecting: "Bouazizi sacrificed himself for Tunisian society to open up its eyes and care for the ones that have less. And it provoked a revolution. Unbelievable."