Buried Secrets

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Buried Secrets, screened in the narrative competition at the MEIFF in Abu Dhabi last October, is Tunisian cinema at its finest, a dark fairy tale that tells the story of oppression, tyranny and rebellion.

Aicha, excellently played by rising Hafsia Herzi, who won the French César’s Most Promising Young Actress Award for The Secret of the Grain and her much older sister Radia, brought to life by a stunning Sondos Belhassen, co-exist under the reign of their mother, the brilliant Wassila Dari. Aicha, a teen who is discovering her femininity, has never been schooled nor underwent any form of socialization other than the satisfaction of her basic needs like food and shelter. Her controlled visits to the outside are enough to trigger curiosity but the ruling hand of the mother is stronger. Due to her lack of social behavior and skill Aicha seems a little mentally challenged although physically healthy. Radia, however, had her share with the outside in the past and seems more acceptant to their retreat that seems to hide some very dark and painful secrets.

Their obscure existence is shaken when a young modern couple visits the estate for a romantic weekend getaway. Salma, sincerely played by Rim El Benna, is a modern young woman who is on a weekend trip with her boyfriend. Two worlds collide. Aicha’s curiosity is challenged by high heels, house music and red lip stick, so she leaves her world and visits the other only to frantically return to an angry matriarch. In panic that their existence might be revealed they hold Salma captive until they figure out a plan. Aicha is fascinated by Salma looking pretty and all made up representing both femininity and the outside world that she has never experienced in her oppressed existence. Now the all so different women are stuck and discover each other and the story slowly unfolds to a very violent climax of rebellion and mutiny. Salma stands for the outside world, the modern woman that unintentionally confronts the three women with the real world that they have been shutting out for so long, the collision of that causes a great emotional stir in all parties involved”, Rim El Benna explains, “they are victims of society and their lack of education and isolation caused their obsessive and extreme behavior. Salma’s captivation created a weird relationship between the women as she gave some autonomy to Radia by sending her to a friend to get money for her embroidery and tried to reveal to them what they are missing. Radia liked and hated Salma’s presence while Aicha wanted to be Salma and all she stands for. The key message is that tyranny and injustice leads to violence.” Rim El Benna, a literature graduate from Tunis and London, has starred in many foreign and Tunisian productions, after being a model for almost a decade.

Raja Amari visualized what oppression and abuse can lead to and how violent the human being’s urge for dignity and freedom can be. “This is a film about societies in general and not about the Tunisian woman per se. The Tunisian woman is equal to men and not a victim. Here I am addressing different issues that could happen in any society regardless of degree of conservatism, such as incest, child abuse and violence”, Amari explains. “It shows that oppression in general leads to outbreak which is often extreme in emotion. Aicha means “living” and she does not live she just exists and Radia means “accepting” which is no coincidence”, she adds.

Raja Amari is celebrated as one of the sincere and sensitive film makers of her generation. She studied French literature in her native Tunis and then Paris, and began directing short films in 1995. Her short films include Le bouquet (The bouquet, 1995), Avril (April, 1997), and Un soir de juillet (One evening in July, 2000). Her award-winning, full-length film Satin rouge (Red satin; 2002) is about the transformative powers of self-expression, which a middle-aged Tunisian widow, the seamstress Lilia, discovers through belly dancing. While it is common for Arab and Tunisian films to present women as being in conflict with society, Amari notes she was interested in how Lilia adapts to social hypocrisy, to the distance between individual desire and social mores, doing as she wishes while avoiding a frontal attack. Amari lists as her influences Pier Paolo Pasolini, François Truffaut and the new French cinema, as well as actresses from Egyptian musicals from the 1940s and 1950s, such as Samia Gamal, whose freedom and ability to shift between oriental and occidental styles reflect Amari’s own love of dance.

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