La Belle et La Meute

Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution of 2011 promised sweeping reform for the North African country. That notion was quickly put to the test by the explosive case of police rape victim Meriem Ben Mohamed.

Written by: Motez Bishara

In 2012, Ben Mohamed (a pseudonym) was separated from her fiancé in a Tunis suburb and raped by two policemen. In a bold move, the 27-year-old took the policemen to court – an option that may not have been available just a year earlier.

As part of the case, which led to 15-year prison sentences for the offenders, Ben Mohammed battled her own charge of “indecency.”

Recently, her harrowing story was brought to light at the Cannes Film Festival by fellow Tunisian female Kaouther Ben Hania, whose feature film Beauty and the Dogs debuted in the “Un Certain Regard” category. The thirty-nine-year-old who splits her time between Tunisia and Paris was the only Arab director – male or female – in the Cannes official selection this year.

The director’s background in documentaries is apparent: Though the film avoids depictions of rape, it cuts to the bone with drawn out scenes of frustration in hospitals and police stations that leave viewers squirming.

“What is interesting with real time in cinema is that you are in the moment,” Ben Hania says. “So you are with the character, and you have this circle of events, and repetition with this nurse or this administrator. I wanted to be with her in her shock.”

Although Beauty and the Dogs is based on the book, Coupable d’avoir été violée, (Guilty of Having Been Raped) penned by the victim, the film does take some liberties to make the story more accessible to a global audience – a fact that did not please Ben Mohamed. (Ben Hania deliberately did not meet her subject until she was done writing.)

“I was following everything about this story and was really fascinated by her courage and determination,” Ben Hania says, depicting her film as “a free adaptation of the event.”So far, Ben Mohamed, who co-authored the book with friend journalist Ava Djamshidi, has not seen Beauty and the Dogs, but is expected to attend its showcase in Tunisia this year. “I told her, ‘This movie is not exactly your story,’” the director says. “‘You can see it as the story of my main character who has almost the same experiences as you. No film or representation can be equal to what you experienced.’”

Meanwhile, fellow Tunisians heaped praise on the director after the film’s debut in Cannes – save for one flaw in their eyes: the film makes no mention of the heavy sentence levied on the police officers. Ben Hania says she avoided specifics of this case intentionally: “despite the Tunisian context, I wanted this story to be universal, because I read about the same (kind of) story in Sweden, in France, in India, and in many countries.”

Nevertheless, Ben Hania is a champion of women’s rights in her country, which she says is at the forefront of the Arab world, yet still “a huge work in progress.”

Tunisia has longstanding laws allowing abortion for unmarried women, for instance, and bans polygamy as well as the traditional, verbal form of divorce in Islam. “We have a lot of very big emancipative laws, but under the dictatorship (of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled during the uprising of 2011), it was used as propaganda to give it legitimacy.”

“What is good is there is freedom of speech,” she adds. “So if you have injustice you can speak. You can fight for your rights.”

Indeed, the most fascinating aspect of the film is that it is set in what Ben Hania refers to as a “transitional democratic stage” in Tunisia, where raising a lawsuit against the police was suddenly possible. “We see the policemen fear her in a way,” says Ben Hania, “because (Tunisia) was under a dictatorship, they would find the solution quickly. But the police know that they need her to sign papers, for example, or to follow certain laws – because things are changing.”

Beauty and the Dogs premieres in France October 18, and has been sold for distribution throughout the Middle East, along with China, the US and even Colombia.