Hamid Benamra

Last year ended with the election of a new Tunisian president and the end of the first round of the Tunisian Arab Spring. Yet, prior to the revolutions in Sidi Buzaid and other cities, there was a covert revolution whose leaders didn't know Facebook or YouTube. Also, they had no posters of their faces on the walls.

It was a peaceful revolution whose founders established a movement called "Perspectives" that aimed to reform and oppose the policies of Burqiba then.

With this political environment in the early 1960s, the film The Black Memoir by Hisham Bin Ammar reveals its bleak content with sincerity and descent cinematic style for prisoners who were concealed for years behind the prison walls in the early 1970s.

Al Hashmi Troudi: We revolted because we appreciate life.. executioners are not related to humans (Al Jazeera)

The first take depicts shackles that were chosen for the film poster then we are walked into a lift where the widow of Ahmed Othman gets off.

At that time, the count down for the widow, Simone Lalosh, and her husband's three friends begin. It is a countdown towards the insanity, as described by Fathe Belhaj Yahya, who relates his relationship with the executioner in detail, explaining his unique torture techniques and sadism.

The film is like a torture museum where portraits are framed with the pains of characters. The director inquires through them about humanity, love, and fear.

Yet, Fathe's account is not about asking or fear; rather, he walks us through the hell of the prison imitating the tone and voice of the executioner. By then, the love letters in prison turned to be venting moments for viewers, giving the film a profound and emotional dimension.

Shyly, Simone reads out a few lines from her lover's letter and become open with us. So, we appreciate this love and become in the same boat. Is documentary film in these conditions a type of lamentation or a key to the confinement of torture in police states?

The director presents old postcards of streets in the Tunisian capital that were free of tourist crowds and the new urban congestions. The take then ends with a view of the Ministry of Interior with its barbwires.

"Burqiba defeated France and you want to defeat him", Al-Hashmi Troudi sarcastically addressing his torturer. However, when he paid condolences to his companion Ahmed Bin Othman, his voice went slightly coarse and his body shivered when he said, "It is not the right time to elaborate, but the outcome didn't match the sacrifices". Another bystander - Eziddin Hazqi - accused Burqiba of setting them up, "It was enough then for Bouqiba to say in public that there is a group sabotaging the country. It was an indirect order to the security forces to take the measures of arrest and imprisonment against citizens."

The film explains and elaborates on the subject. The pain and agony on the faces of the protagonists would have gone unnoticed without the camera highlight of Hisham Bin Ammar. The fast takes of bodies being laid across a dim light purports the length of time, and the impatience caused by the slow motion of time.

It prolongs memory, hours and minutes are being separated and the scenes of torture are spread throughout the film. By then, we realize the length of imprisonment, the distance between people and their bodies, the absence from the streets of childhood, and the distance people have from their torturers.

Ezuldeen Hazqi used to listen to Um Kalthoum via the radio of the prison guard (Al Jazeera)
Having cinema in the confinement of history and taking us to the threshold of pain and suppression poses the following question: "How does the director recall certain events from the tortured person's mind that reminds him with interrogating the executioner?

Does the similarity between the conditions of shooting and the days of prison makes the prison experience worse? Or is shooting a psychological treatment through which the speaker gets rid of the past?

The typewriter sound resonates in the darkness of prison, and the letters come to a standstill with the displaced piano notes in prison. The director highlights those parts of the bleak dream to create an access for us to the prison of hearts: The hearts of Simone, Fathe, and Ahmed Ezuldeen.
The prison guard will never be a father, brother, husband, or son. Even if he tries to play any of these roles, it would be only to trick the mentality of the prisoner in order to humiliate him/her and smash the inner resistance.

The attempt to suppress freedom and liberals is the self- assassination of the executioner. That is, the methodological torture is a daily terrorism that torturers can't escape, because they are fearful of not being able to break their prisoners. On the other hand, the one being tortured can get away with torture by being vigilant of treason. Revolution doesn't always mean carrying a weapon, but it also means patience and resisting pain.

The last resort against suppression is always this body. Torture is not a trade despite its daily hand-based routine; it also can't be an innate human trait.

Therefore, how an average human being turns into a torturer and gets paid for this job? The Black Memoir is not just recording memories that the prison guard wanted to erase, but it is an attempt to remind people of the ugliness of suppression.

The prison guard doesn't suffice with breaking the mind of reformers, but he smashes even the decoration of his notorious serial acts so the upcoming generations are with no memory to elegize their heroes.

The will is stronger than flogging. Um Kulthoum is stronger than silence when her voice echoes from the radio of the prison guard that makes its way to the ears of Ezzuldeen. The melodies came intermittently and according to the wind direction. When there was no covert musical show for Ezzuldeen, he turned to a daydream that formed a daily cinematic experience for him.

Fiction is stronger than the whip, and cinema is stronger than suppression. Prisoners were together in an over-inhabited prison cell, sharing the same opinion, love and fraternity, and even the same cigarette and the presents brought by visitors.

The Black Memoir poster for Hisham Bin Ammar (Al Jazeera)

 "We revolted because we appreciate life. Revolutionists are doers rather than receivers of the action, because executioners are not related to humans," Al Hashmi Troudi said. By the same token, Hisham Bin Ammar revolted in 2014 because he loved cinema, and because cinematographers shoot rather than being shot and executioners will never like this film. So, was Hisham aware when he was 9 years old in 1976 that Arabs were defeated, and the Tunisian citizen was trembling and counting the diameter of his prison cell?

The Black Memoir is a documentary film where object is absolute, and the takes were sequenced in an easy but challenging style. The director deliberately separated protagonists from light projected on a black drape to constantly remind viewers that prisoners see nothing. The prisoner's existence is subject to the love words smuggled through secret mail. His strength lies in the synonyms of dear liberty that is constantly sought after.

Hisham Bin Ammar affirms on the need to open a discussion between all the constituents of the Tunisian society, because cinema addresses the heart regardless to the language. He, on the other hand, feels the guilt of a citizen who was able to denounce and change injustice even verbally.

The film was a brave attempt to supplement struggle that he couldn't do in the past. Hence, Hisham allows viewers to adopt this overt stance in a country that is fearful of its past. He considers torture a subject that collective memory was fortified against.

The long takes within The Black Memoir are similar to the size of the facial pain on the faces of speakers, the size of their accounts, and the size of the taboo. These long takes increase a silent pain that extends even beyond the film. 

Source : Aljazeera