Nouri Bouzid, Bezness (1992).
What happens when a poor Arab country with a high birth rate, an enormous youth population and endemic unemployment bases a significant part of its development strategy on attracting European tourism? In Nouri Bouzid’s film, Bezness, the Tunisian coastal town of Sousse is the site for just such an experiment, with disastrous consequences for the local population.
Modern hotel complexes and private beaches where Europeans can sunbathe nude are not enough to attract wealthy tourists. The townspeople of Sousse must appeal to prurient European interest in the supposed eroticism and sensuality of the Arabs. The suq and traditional handicrafts cannot compete for the francs and deutschmarks being spent for young bodies. For the unemployed male youth of the town, the most profitable jobs are those as hustlers, pimps and prostitutes. Traditional gender roles and notions of public versus private space are thrown into disarray.
This is not the first time that Bouzid has brought such provocative themes to the Arab screen. His first feature, Man of Ashes, tells the story of three young men who had been sexually molested when they were child apprentices to a carpenter in a provincial Tunisian town. One of the boys, a Jew, has since emigrated to France. Another is driven from his family’s home when graffiti appears on neighborhood walls implying that he is the recipient of anal intercourse. The main protagonist, still plagued by the childhood molestation, refuses to participate in a marriage arranged by his family in order to “cure” him of the strangeness, alluded to but never verbalized, which has affected him since his childhood — namely, his lack of sexual attraction to women. He is gay. The film leaves unresolved how traditional society will adapt itself to one of its own who cannot fit within prescribed models of behavior.
Bouzid’s second feature, The Golden Horseshoes, banned by the Tunisian government when it first appeared in 1989, concerns the prison release of a leftist intellectual, the victim of years of torture. He returns to a world he cannot recognize — one torn between rising Islamism and the mindless aping of the West among youth. He has lost his ability to love and to understand himself. A stranger even to his own children, he commits suicide.
In November 1989, the Tunisian Ministry of Culture demanded that the scenes of torture and a love scene judged too explicit be cut from the film. A second commission from the Ministry of the Interior cut no less than 18 scenes, leaving the film mutilated. On the subject of torture, Bouzid knows whereof he speaks. A former member of the opposition group Perspectives under the Bourguiba regime, Bouzid was himself imprisoned and tortured.
Human rights, political dissidence and frank discussions of sexuality and gender oppression are hard themes for Arab censors to swallow. Even in what would seem to be sympathetic forums, Bouzid has had to face the charge by conservative Arab critics of making films for Westerners. His films, as well as those of all Tunisian directors, were barred at the last minute from the 1991 Damascus International Film Festival. (Bezness was shown at the 1993 Festival.) His films, though often banned in the Arab world, are available in the underground video market. None have been shown commercially in the US, although most have appeared over the years at the annual Washington DC Film Fest, and Man of Ashes was shown to a standing-room-only crowd at the New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in 1986.
In many ways, Bezness is the most provocative of all Bouzid’s films. It is the first Arab film to deal with explicitly gay themes, and to situate male prostitution within the context of forced female seclusion and gender segregation.
Roufa (Abdel Kechiche), a male prostitute past his prime, works the hotel bars, beaches and tour buses. In his younger days, Roufa specialized in hustling gay European men and became so successful that he serves as a role model for pre-teen boys who work for small change as messengers and guides, including his own younger brother. Now that Roufa is less attractive to his clientele, he tries to make a transition to a gigolo.
The plot is complicated by the fact that Roufa’s fiancee, Khomsa, is expected to remain secluded and virginal while Roufa plies his trade. The contradiction becomes unbearable when Roufa brings an older European woman to Khomsa’s house in the old quarter of the city for sex and payment. The traditional wall which shelters the family from public profanity is shattered. Khomsa then pursues a French photographer, Fred, who throughout the film is shown attempting to photograph Arab men and women in sexually compromising situations, and tries to photograph the inside of a women’s bath. When Khomsa enters his apartment she finds his walls plastered not only with her images, taken unbeknownst to her, but also with images of Roufa bare-chested with jeans half unzipped, ready to be sold to European pornographers. Bouzid means to emphasize the hypocrisy of traditional culture that regards seeing as a greater crime than doing, but, at the same time, to show the distortion of Western Orientalist perspective.
Bezness, too, leaves the central conflict unresolved. Roufa finally discovers the disappeared Khomsa in the meeting room for a women’s zar cult. He violates the traditional space reserved only for women to command her obedience. The last refuge for tradition and gender segregation has been violated. Roufa also hunts down Fred on his new motorcycle, a gift from a gay German patron. Motor revving, Roufa circles Fred with his ubiquitous camera, but is unable or unwilling to take revenge. Here the film ends.
Ironically or not, the only person with whom Roufa feels he can find solace is the elderly gay German expatriate who had been his most loyal patron. But it is too late. When Roufa abruptly turned from hustling men to hustling women, he handed over his German client to one of his younger acquaintances. The German is the only character who realizes the extent of Roufa’s alienation, since he himself has opted out of his own culture and cannot be accepted in Arab culture as anything more than an easy hit for deutschmarks. He takes up his role philosophically, knowing its pitfalls.
Besides bringing the issues of homosexuality, gender oppression and the exploitative underside of the tourism industry to the Arab screen, Bouzid also includes in Bezness a daring bit of agitprop for AIDS education. At one point, Roufa is hauled into the local police station. The police chief has been observing Roufa’s hustling operation for years. He declares that Roufa is in danger of contracting AIDS. At first, Roufa protests that he is only sleeping with women, but then pulls out a condom which then fills the screen in a close-up to show that he only has safe sex. On the Arab screen this is incendiary in the context of repressive regimes which deny the existence of homosexuality in their societies, let alone the existence of AIDS.
With over 80 percent of the Arab film market dominated by grade-B American shoot-’em-ups, there is not much room for a genuine Arab cinema with the revolutionary sensitivity of directors like Nouri Bouzid. Most socially conscious North African films are banned in other Arab countries, or lack adequate distribution networks outside of film festivals. Of the Arab films that do get screened in the Arab world, the market is dominated by cheap Egyptian mass productions. After working for 15 years as an assistant director, Bouzid could only make his first feature film in 1985 with French co-financing. The irony of the accusation that Bouzid makes films for the West is that his films are not commercially distributed here, either. But his vision should be seen everywhere.