VHS Kahloucha – Nejib Belkadhi (Doc Tunisia 2007)
Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 7th May 2009. Ticket price £4.00
Making voodoo movies…
VHS Kahloucha (VHSK) opens with shots of the filming of an action sequence of some kind of pursuit. The action has energy but’s clumsy. As I watched the chase through, with its staged leaps collisions and fights I wondered what this documentary was about? As the film progressed all was revealed. This is a film about a guy, Moncef Kahloucha who makes films in a working class district called Kazmet in Sousse, Tunisia. That is to say Nejib Belkhadi (NB) has made a film about a world within a world. A world of film improbably grafted onto the world of the third world slum that both nurtured it and locates it so that the experiences of the slum, prison poverty rackets and crime, feed back into film as a circuit of amplification.
VHSK immediately reminded me of Jean Rouche’s film Les Maitre Foux shot in Ghana in 1954. In Les Maitre Foux (LMF) the response of the Ghanaians to the experience of colonialism is to take possession of the nomenclature of the British Colonial hierarchy who rule over them by using their names for the characters in their voodoo ceremonies. LMF witnesses a strange contortion of the psychic properties of colonialism. In one sense the voodoo practitioners evidence a deeper internalised layer of British hierarchic structures that rule their country: at the same time they take possession of the names of the officials on their own terms. This appropriation, filmed by Rouche as the initiates, named for the Lord High Commissioner and Lord and Lady Smythe, sacrifice a dog and drink its blood, gives them a certain original psychic power in relation to their masters.
Whereas LMF had a colonial context, VHSK has a neo-colonial setting. Sousse caters for mass Western tourism, mainly but not exclusively working class package holidays. It is a situation in which the inhabitants of Sousse are reduced to the status of servers of the tourist regime. In return for their acceptance of the servile role there is some possibility of work and of money trickle-down from the tourist economy. The compact between the tourist regime and the natives is clear. Except in the context of work the tourist areas are no go zones. This includes the golf course, the best beeches and the hotels. The tourists are not to be robbed and the Tunisians must not supply them with drugs or sex. The inhabitants of Sousse are marginalised in their own towns by the tourist regime. In this context in the district of Kazmet, Moncef Kahloucha makes his films, his ‘voodoo’ films. Making his films he appropriates the model of filmmaking most developed in America and familiar to everyone as this form has conquered the world: The Hollywood all action movie.
As VHFK makes very clear, the inhabitants of Kazmet do not accept their status as second class citizens in their own city. They are unbowed, their heads held high. They have evidently created in the form of rackets and black markets their own accommodation with the tourist world; but although this accommodation is a source of collective self esteem the reality is that their situation is structured so that the men spend much of their lives in and out of prison as the price of ‘accommodation’. Prison holds no shame; here it is simply a fact of life.
So enter Moncef and his extraordinary films. Throughout the film with his gestures, his voice and in his manner he resembles some kind of voodoo high priest presiding over rituals of empowerment through the medium of re-enacting the forms of Hollywood action movie. Like a mage Moncef brings these forms to life in Kazmet. And although Moncef’s intention is to make his own films, he has to take possession of the Western movie form to realise this, and in so doing his psychic actions result in the production of an opposing force to the tourist industry that both contains and controls the town. A psychic counterweight to the golf courses, the 5 star hotels and the money market of the visitors. And VHSK evidences this, because whatever the technical limitations of the films, however much they are laughed at when screened in the cafes of Kazmet, they are acknowledged as important. As an important ritual. Like the voodoo ceremony filmed by Rouche, the ordinary people want to be in the movie, empowered by participation; just like voodoo. And there is huge support for the considerable output of effort and input of resources needed to realise Kahloucha’s films, support most strongly evidenced by Moncef’s mother who allows her house to be set on fire to allow the climax of the Tarzan of the Arabs. It is this last film who’s making is shown in WHSK, and the very title draws attention to the need for the community of Kazmet to make claim on a Western conceit (Tarzan) for itself.
NB’s film works because of its setting of Moncef’s movie making, within the context not just of community of Kazmet, but within the Arab/Islamic culture of Tunisia and within his own family. Moncef is not reduced to film maker. Moncef the film maker lies alongside the Moncef the son, Moncef the father, Moncef the inhabitant of Sousse and Moncef the Moslem. In this respect the interviews with his mother are extraordinary. These interviews in themselves draw attention to another dimension in the complexity of the relationship of Tunisians to the Western world. Tunisia not just a developing country that is a destination of mass tourism for the West; for many, the young men and women the West is also an object of desire of escape, of hoped immigration and Tunisia as a kind of prison to those who want to escape. The contextual layering of meaning deepens at the cultural level as NB’s film of the world within the world exaines the separation of the sexes into their respective private and public spheres. Whereas in the MK’s films the male and female can participate as equals in performance of their respective roles within the film, the sexes do not have equal access to viewing his films. The men may watch the film collectively when it is screened in the cafes, but the women can only view the film at home as there are particular restrictions even in the relatively relaxed Islamic atmosphere of Tunisia, on co-mingling. The contextual rules in the matter of performing and screening complete the picture of the film as occupying a complex position in the various opposing and unifying forces operating on the culture.
Lastly NB’s film is never condescending but always respectful to MK’s filmmaking which is a serious enterprise carried through despite resource limitations. Moncef is a film maker and in pursuit of his goals yields nothing to Herzog, Peckinpah et al in his obsessive dictatorial drive to get what he wants. In another incarnation he is crazy unpleasant and demanding enough to have been a top Hollywood director. One of the things that VHSK shows is the banality of the action movie. MK’s failure to always achieve authenticity of the type he desires is as more a matter of degree than anything else. With shrewd editing he almost achieves ‘the look’; and in his direction he certainly understands the principles of action movie. But in coming so close to replicating films that tower over his efforts only in terms of resources, he unwittingly lays bare the banality and poverty of the Hollywood action movie.
adrin neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org