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Tunisian film industry longs for revival after Arab Spring slump

From The English Patient to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the list of foreign films shot in Tunisia reads like a short guide to 20th century cinema history – until the Arab Spring.
Visitors look at the set decor of the troglodyte Mos Esley Cantina made famous in the movie "Star Wars" where the strange underground dwellings and lunar landscape of the Matmata troglodyte community were used to portray an exotic planet world. Mike Nelson / EPA
Visitors look at the set decor of the troglodyte Mos Esley Cantina made famous in the movie "Star Wars" where the strange underground dwellings and lunar landscape of the Matmata troglodyte community were used to portray an exotic planet world. Mike Nelson / EPA

TUNIS // The sandy south Tunisian province whose stark landscape provided a backdrop for several Star Wars movies would embrace any returning Jedi knight.

“I was working non-stop, it was great,” said Tayeb Jallouli of his experience as a senior set technician on episodes of the franchise filmed in the region of Tataouine. “The situation is tough now and I’ve had to take jobs as a home decorator to feed my family.”

From The English Patient to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the list of foreign films shot in Tunisia reads like a short guide to 20th century cinema history. That was until Tunisia’s rebellion ignited the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, bringing political instability and Al Qaeda-linked violence that cut overseas productions to about five a year from about 40. The slump is mirrored by other indicators of outside interest – tourism and foreign direct investment.

“The sense of Islamists hijacking the revolution creates a feeling of danger in Tunisia,” said Stefanie Van de Peer, a researcher at the University of St. Andrew’s and author of “Art and Trauma in Africa” in an interview. “It’s scary for many people and it’s damaging.”

Following the assassinations of two secular opposition leaders this year, attacks blamed on religious hardliners, mass protests toppled Tunisia’s government and paralysed its successor.

The country’s also been hit by spillover from its neighbours, with mountain-based Algerian-linked Islamist militants fighting Tunisian troops. In Libya, described as a “key source of instability in North Africa” by the US this month, the central government is too weak to block arms merchants shipping weapons out of the country.

Movie makers may have been deterred from returning to Tataouine by the location – it’s the only Tunisian region to border both Algeria and Libya.

“The south was experiencing an economic boom,” said Ridha Turki, president of the National Chamber for Tunisian Film Producers. “Now, it’s a zone of parallel trade and transit for weapons and terrorism.”

And while the loss of film, television and documentary earnings is only about 60 million dinars (Dh132.2 million), according to Mr Turki, the drop in tourism and foreign direct investment are larger and both are still below levels reached before the Arab Spring. Tourism is still about 7 per cent lower than before the uprising.

“Disorder is an ogre that is scaring away foreign producers and investors,” said Mr Turki, an idea backed by Faisal Rokh, a Ministry of Culture spokesman, who says, “We’ve lost the confidence of foreign producers.”

The cumulative effect of all this has been profound for Tataouine, which lent its name to Tatooine, the home planet of Jedi knight Luke Skywalker. As movie work and tourism dried up in the region, unemployment soared to an estimated 52 per cent, about three times the national average.

Star Wars Episode VII is being shot at Pinewood studios in London early next year for a 2015 release. A London-based spokeswoman for Walt Disney Co., which owns the film rights, said it was too early to say if any location shoots will take place in Tunisia. Mr Rokh said he hasn’t received any requests for location permits.

The first foreign movies shot in Tunisia were made in the early 1900s, when it was a French protectorate, with productions such as Princesse Tam Tam starring Josephine Baker as a local girl introduced to Parisian high society, according to Florence Martin, a film studies professor at Goucher College in the US.

“Tunisia really took off as a location in the 1970s,” she said in an interview. “It was incredibly cheap and you had incredible scenery.”

As well as the desert and underground Berber dwellings seen in Star Wars, spots favoured by foreign producers include the seaside resort of Sousse and the fortifications of Monastir, where parts of Monty Python’s Life of Brian were filmed.

The opposition accuses the moderate Islamist-led government of failing to curb extremists, a charge it denies. While violence is far below the levels in Libya or Egypt, there has been enough to disrupt the transition to democracy in a country that began the Arab Spring with better infrastructure and a better-educated population than its neighbours.

Instability isn’t the only cause of stalled location shoots. Incentives like tax breaks were beginning to lure foreign producers to other countries even before 2011, according to Ms Van de Peer.

“The golden age of films shot in Tunisia was the 1980s and 1990s, and now Morocco is big,” she said. “There’s a lack of money and a lack of foreign money.” Mr Turki says the movie industry is battling to survive.

Mr Jallouli, the technician, recalls how the residents of Tataouine and Tozeur rejoiced when film crews arrived. Tourism, trade, and artisans all prospered in the those days.

He’s hopeful security will return soon, and with it Star Wars, because that “would bring a sparkle back to Tunisia.”

* Bloomberg

Updated: November 28, 2013 04:00 AM

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