Beauty and the Dogs: A tale of violation and justice in Tunisia

Adham Youssef from Cannes, Monday 29 May 2017

Director Kaouther Ben Hania talks to Ahram Online about her film portraying the real-life story of a woman raped by police, highlighting the casual brutality of state institutions

Beauty and the Dogs
(Photo: still from Beauty and the Dogs)

Kaouther Ben Hania’s second feature film Aala Kaf Ifrit (Beauty and the Dogs) was well received by critics and viewers at the Cannnes Film Festival, winning a standing ovation and positive reviews.

The film is based on the true story of a young woman raped by police officers in Tunisia after leaving a college party. In the film, the victim is called Mariam, a part played by Maria Al-Ferjani, while her male friend Youssef is played by Ghanem Zrelli.

After the attack, Mariam and Youssef spend the night roaming around Tunisia’s state institutions in search of justice.

“My concern was just to provide a narrative of what happened that night. In reality, the story continues to courts and trial sessions,” Ben Hania told Ahram Online.

“I cared about what we might call the ‘second rape’, which was conducted by the state institutions during her confrontation with the police station and hospitals.”

The film is divided into nine chapters, each consisting of a single scene shot in a single take. The technique gives the film a touch of realism, providing the characters with room not only to improvise but to develop either their agony or their awareness.

For example, Mariam is in shock due to the rape, but she doesn't react explosively to events during the first scene. Ben Hania gives Mariam room to first stutter, to think of going home, to doubt herself, to panic, and to finally reach a peak of consciousness and confront the perpetrators.

“The film is based on true events, but the narrative is constructed in a free way, and the adaption was not word for word. I made some changes to the characteristics of the main characters and added my own reading and sense of the story,” said the director.

“Our idea was that a scene that isn't shown can still be understood by the viewers. For example, the scene of the rape; it is not seen but can be imagined."

Beauty and the Dogs
(Photo: still from Beauty and the Dogs)

Ben Hania’s thesis or vision for the film is simple, and can easily be understood from the title. There is a beauty and there are the dogs. There is Mariam, the rape victim, and there are the police, the perpetrators.

With this in mind, the body langauage of actors playing police officers and their movement give us the feeling of how a pack of dogs, with their lawless attitude, would react if challenged.

The body-language of the actors is carefully conveyed through the camera-work of Johan Holmquist, showing the officers chasing and intimidating Mariam, in a very haunting image.

Ben Hania also gives her villains a chance to react to the accusation, starting with denial, an attempt to cover up, more denial, harassment, and looking for scapegoats.

At first the police officers are in denial, asking Mariam to go home as the police station is "closed".

Actor Mohamed Akkari plays a muscular, tattooed policemen in black t-shirt and moustache. The character is evil in every possible way, with Akkari's performance lending the character a cartoonish quality, a dark performance that fits well with the bizarre and horrendous situation.

He represents a security apparatus that is lacking in compassion and careless in the face of human suffering, even to the point of sadistically taunting the helpless victim.

“We spent a lot of time on the process of casting. And I was lucky to have worked with actors and actresses who had a background in theatre, which made the longer shots easier,” said Ben Hania.

Chedly Arfaoui puts in a distinguished performance as a well-built policeman who, in a patriarchal speech, tells Mariam to drop the charges. He argues that the accused officers have been arrested and will be interrogated by a police discipline committee.

Arfaoui’s monologue lasts more than seven minutes, with Mariam given the choice of either dropping the charges or signing a statement to the effect that she and Youssef had been practicing adultery.

Beauty and the Dogs
(Photo: still from Beauty and the Dogs)

The quality of the film can be seen in the amount of thought given to the issues surrounding the events. For instance, the question of blaming the rape victim comes up, accusing her of being provocative or wearing a revealing dress or walking on the beach with a man late at night.

The first scene of the film introduces Mariam: a college student in a disco bathroom, nervously changing into her party clothes, a revealing evening dress that shows her attractive, curvy body. We also learn that she comes from a conservative family with a strict father.

When she is being interviewed by the police, she is initially afraid to mention her father’s name. However, later on, she says she doesn't mind being "scandalised" – as the officer puts it – on the internet if this will help in the search for justice.

“The police are not conservative; they don't mind her short dress or her being with a male friend. But they are using conservative rhetoric to pressure her, because they know that she is from the countryside,” Ben Hania explains.

However, not all the police officers are viewed as dogs. Some are quite different from the villains, while a policewoman in the same station wants to help Miriam but is herself afraid and helpless.

One of the best parts of the film shows the policewoman pretending to be on the phone, standing with her back to Mariam, who the male officers are trying to bully. The policewoman wants to help, but her face shows the fear that prevents her from intervening.

The scene is reminiscent of a scene from Steve McQueen’s masterpiece Hunger, although with a completely different context and storyline, being set during the conflict between the Irish Republic Army and the British authorities in 1981.

The scene shows a British riot-policeman breaking down in the middle of a raid on Irish political prisoners, displaying the fragility of human emotions among those police officers performing tough duties.

Ben Hania says that her film is politically oriented.

As the two main characters roam around police stations, attempting to file a complaint, Youssef meets and fights an officer who arrested him in 2011 during a political protest in the Qasba area of Tunis.

Beauty and the Dogs
(Photo: still from Beauty and the Dogs)

The film here turns political. The officer abuses Youssef for daring to file a complaint against the police, the enmity heightened by the fact that he is a former adversary. The mention of the 2011 revolution is brief but powerful.

Ben Hania makes the link between political dissent and the night of the rape, hinting that the police have become a key political institution and the iron hand of the regime, rather than a governmental body staffed by public servants.

In one of her low moments, Mariam says, “May God punish them.” However, Youssef scolds her, asserting that the revolution happened so that justice would be possible.

“The definition of justice in our societies is complicated. Do we accept living in oppression, hoping that justice will be achieved in the afterlife, in which case, this life has no place of judicial institutions?” said the director.

“The revolution happened to demand justice and dignity. State institutions should ensure justice in life – before the after-life."

One important question posed by the film is who is responsible for ensuring that law-enforcement bodies obey the law.

Arab states depend on police apparatuses to maintain their political power, and so it is often difficult for individual police officers who break the law to be brought to justice. And this often only occurs after the case has become public, causing uproar in the press and social-media.

Ben Hania hopes that the film will contribute to the debate over the possibility of creating a “popular police” force or “people’s police” in Tunisia. The debate has been ongoing since the revolution, with some seeking a law-enforcement body that is free of political influence and not involved in supporting the agendas of those in power.

“This comes up even in torture stories or Amnesty International reports about violations in police stations. There should be some dialogue about how to train members of the former security apparatus to be adapted to a new system,” Ben Hania says.

The film is partially sponsored by the Tunisian Ministry of Culture, a step Ben Hania describes as a turning point, something almost impossible seven or eight years ago.

She doesn’t know whether she will be accused of "distorting the image of Tunisia" – an accusation often directed at filmmakers who tackle sensitive topics.

“I don’t work for the Ministry of Tourism. I have a powerful story to tell," she says. "It is better to show films and images in which we confront the unfortunate reality.”

She adds that the story is not just relevant to Tunisia, but reflects cases in different countries, such as India, Egypt, Sweden and France.

Beauty and the Dogs
(Photo: still from Beauty and the Dogs)

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