Back in the 1970s and 80s, Tunisian movie theaters were packed with cinéphiles and weekends were reserved, in an almost ritualistic manner, for outings at the cinema.
Although the history of cinema in Tunisia dates back to 1897 – when film pioneer Albert Samama organized screenings of the Lumière brothers pictures in a small shop in Tunis – movie theaters have met with hard economic times in recent years, and many have closed as a result.
Yet the Cinema Club of Tunis has helped fill the void left by closing theaters with its screenings of critically acclaimed movies followed by debates. Recent screenings have included works by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and Egyptian director Youssef Chahine.
The Cinema Club of Tunis dates back to the early years of independence; it emerged from the Tunisian Federation of Film Clubs founded in 1954 by Tahar Chriaa. It was conceived of as a reaction to the artistic void caused by French colonization.
The club “was conceived of as a way to promote cinematographic culture as well as tools of criticism and to establish an active public,” explained Fatma Bchini, president of the club. “There are around 35 cinema clubs in Tunisia today.”
According to Bchini, cinema clubs not only promote cinema, but also serve as a meeting place for adults, children, and people from different backgrounds.
Khawla Ayari, a member of the Cinema Club of Tunis, explained, “perhaps the most noble role of the cinema club lies in how cinema and debates following the screenings help the audience to open up to the rest of the world, understand other cultures, and adapt to the diversity and complexity of the human spirit.”
Over the years, the Cinema Club of Tunis has managed to build a base of film enthusiasts. Held in the cultural center of Ibn Khaldoun, the club welcomes each Saturday hundreds of cinéphiles, who share a passion for cinema and belief in freedom of expression.
“The role of the federation under which the cinema club functions is to promote cinema and offer an alternative, especially now that cinema theaters are decreasing,” Bchini said. “Our aim is to establish cinema clubs in places where there are no movie theaters. If now in Tunis we still have some cinema theaters, there are regions where their only cinema theater was closed.”
‘’Unlike other cultural institutions, cinema clubs exist in all regions of Tunisia, not just in the capital,” Ayari commented. “This shows to what degree this institution is anchored in the local cultural scene.”
She added that until 2011, “when people gained a margin of freedom, it was a total desert. Today, we experience the consequences of policies devised since the eighties to break cinema in Tunisia. The proof is the closing of movie theaters or, what is worse, is to use the few still open to show movies of bad and ridiculous quality.”
Meanwhile, films produced in Tunisia are often only screened in the capital and gain more recognition in foreign festivals than among Tunisian audiences, Ayari said.
“This is where cinema clubs intervene as a fresh breeze for the ailing Tunisian audience as well as for Tunisian artists,” she added.
The Cinema Club of Tunis will hold its thirteenth annual “Cinema of Peace” film festival March 13 to 17, focusing on the theme “cinema, vehicle of memory.”