From the center of Gabes, a 365-degree view of the city offers a stunning panorama of the world’s only seaside oasis, an urban setting scattered with green-grey palm trees, a blue-grey sea, and, jutting up from the main port, the Tunisian Chemical Group’s sky-high factory topped by thick plumes of smoke. It is a grey December morning on the weekend of Gabes’ short-film festival, “Life is short.” Even in the midst of a three-day cultural event animated by film directors, artists, university students, and cinephiles, the unsettling omnipresence of the factory close by inspires the festival’s title with sharp irony.

University Center for cultural animation and sports, Gabes.

December 8-11, the Film Club Taieb Louhichi of Gabes and the Tunisian Federation of Film Clubs (FTCC) of Tunis held the festival’s fourth edition since 2011. Featuring movie projections and debates, musical performances, film critique and photography workshops, and an exhibition by photographer Hamideddine Bouali, the event targeted Gabes’ secondary school and university students. If logistically imperfect (a few technical kinks) and modestly attended (in this spite of tickets reserved by universities for students and local authorities invited), the film selection was a springboard for long and lively debates. The 21 film shorts, many of which were screened during this year’s amateur film festival in Kelibia, inspired critiques, questions and reflections by the handful of directors present, club members, and students. Wissem Tlili’s “In reverse” evoked comical stereotypes of “cinephiles” and movie-goers; Majdi Kaaniche described his documentary, “Auctioned Island,” as a manifestation of “amateur cinema against the propaganda of mainstream media”; Abdallah Yahya’s “Agora” prompted the question “what is the meaning of cinema?”

Photography workshop with Hamideddine Bouali.

A history of violence

It is difficult to find a moment with the film club’s president, Elhem Hamrouni, who is either buzzing from group to group of festival organizers, filmmakers and students, or engaged in one of the post-projection film debates. Hamrouni, fifty years old, has participated in Gabes’ film club since she was a teen. With little prompting, she delves into the history of the club, which was a founding member of the FTCC in the 1950s. In the decades following the country’s independence, it boasted some 1000 members including the region’s most reputable intellects, artists, academics, and union activists. Along with the FTCC, FTCA (Tunisian Federation of Amateur Filmmakers) and other cultural associations with a significant leftist bent, the club was a perceived threat to the ruling regime. Ben Ali pursued a particularly vigorous campaign against the club and its political affiliations and “anti-government” sentiments, and in 1992 succeeded in stifling its activities. The club remained dormant for years, until 2008 when it was revived and named in honor of Gabesian film director Taieb Louhichi. Since 2011, former members, their children, and high school students who founded the Mahmoud Darwiche Cultural Club have been working to recover some of cultural fervor and activism that were once distinguishing characteristics of the region.

Gabes’ environmental, health, and social deterioration over the past several decades has been no less violent. Without pause, Hamrouni evokes the degradation of the region’s singular geographic qualities as well as its population. “Fifty years from now, Gabes will be uninhabitable.” Her words recall the shadow which the Chemical Group casts over the city, where inhabitants suffer from sterility, respiratory illness, and the country’s highest cancer rates. Elhem remembers an entirely different scene from her youth: women walking home in the evenings from the fish factories, which employed hundreds of families. Before, the gulf of Gabes was a breeding ground where fisherman harvested blue tuna and royal shrimp, enough for export and local consumption on a daily basis. On land, farmers practiced leveled agriculture, growing crops in ordered layers: at the bottom, fruits and vegetables, then henna, topped by grapes, peaches, apricots and apples, next pomegranates, and above them all, dates. Now Gabes brings in these same products from other regions. She describes today’s bleak environmental and economic reality: greyed olive trees, yellowed date bunches, farmers who pay for their water by the hour, fishermen who return from sea with meager catches. College graduates face unemployment, every family is afflicted with illness.

Elhem Hamrouni, president of the Film Club Taieb Louhichi of Gabes.

In Gabes, we are not living. We are surviving,” Hamrouni sighs. “Culture is far from people’s minds.” An elementary school teacher for 32 years, she indicates that there is neither time nor infrastructure (for example, the city does not dispose of a single movie theater) for cultural activities. For her own students, she stirs up whatever resources she can to organize movie projections, environmental campaigns, dance sessions. But, she explains wide-eyed, children don’t know what cinema is, since all they watch at home is television. When she turns on music and begins to dance, children stare at her, paralyzed by timidity. Some parents are interested in such endeavors, but don’t have the time to devote to extracurricular activities, and teachers, with no incentive or support to deviate from an outdated curriculum, are often puzzled by Hamrouni’s projects. “It’s better than nothing,” she tells them.

University Center for cultural animation and sports, Gabes.

Hamrouni walks over to a group of high school students who are helping to run the festival. “We can continue, she says as we approach them. “But not like this.” This year, the FTCC was in charge of the greater part of event preparations. The challenge for next year, the students concur, is for Gabes’ film club members to take over the reins. No small task given that “everything is centralized in the capital”: connections to film directors, sponsors, journalists. Although the film club solicited support from Gabes’ governor and local officials, the request was met with relative disinterest, although members insist that it wouldn’t take much—enough to cover things like transport, lodging for filmmakers and journalists, posters and flyers. When employees go on strike, Hamrouni explains, officials measure the consequences in terms of billions of dinars lost per day. But when the club asks for a minimum of support to organize a festival, the response is rhetorical: “From where will we draw such funding?” Nonetheless, club members remain persistent: they refuse to seek funding from businessmen, and still hope to garner support from regional state representatives. They are convinced that the only way for the festival to succeed in the long term is with the buy-in of local authorities.