Photo: Nadia El Fani

“Freedom demands effort!”

Interview with Nadia El Fani

Nadia El Fani is film-maker living in France who was in exile from Tunisia for six years due to hostile reactions to her film Laïcité Inch’Allah, an account of Tunisian life immediately before and after the fall of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. Others films she has made include “Ouled Lenine” and “Our Breasts, Our Weapons!”.

sister-hood interviewed Nadia ahead of her participation as a speaker at this weekend’s  De Balie event Celebrating Dissent in Amsterdam.

Laïcité Inch’Allah covers events leading up to the Tunisian Revolution. What were your hopes at that point?
I set off to make this film four months before the start of the revolution…The Tunisian authorities were presenting themselves as secular, and as based on democracy. I wanted to make an overt challenge to the dictatorial regime on the basis of the lack of freedom, and also the utilisation of religion. Religious prohibitions were transmitted through their power. They did not allow the citizens freedom to make their choices whether or not to fast for Ramadan. While I was making the film, the revolution occurred, and one of the slogans appearing on social media and in the hashtags was ‘Liberté, Démocartie, Laïcité’, and then there were demonstrations and debates for laïcité. I filmed it all.

What risks did you take in making this film?
Under the dictatorship, I risked going to prison, and I was very conscious of it…After the revolution, I risked prison – as well as violence from Islamists who called for me to be assassinated.

Film trailer for Nadia El Fani’s Laïcité Inch’Allah

In 2011, Laïcite Inch’Allah came out at the same time Ennahada took power. It was criticised by Rached Ghannouchi and you were harassed; a cinema that showed your film was wrecked. How did that impact you?
It was very violent, but it’s not in my nature to fear adversity. I had support in Tunisia and in France. For me, the most important thing was to stand fast, and to show that opposition is possible…Freedom demands effort!

You directed It Doesn’t Even Hurt in 2012. It links your simultaneous battles with Islamist extremists after the release of Laïcite Inshallah and cancer. How hard was that to make? How was it received?
The film won prizes, but could not be distributed in Tunisia until I was able to return myself in 2017. It was hard for me to put my reserve aside. But in the end, I believe that it added to the authenticity of the film.

After the charges lodged against you were dropped in 2017, you were able to return to Tunisia for the first time in six years. How did that feel?
It’s hard to express how moving it was. A mix of happiness and sadness which couldn’t be concealed…It completely turned my life upside down.

You’ve also directed a documentary about FEMEN. What do you find interesting about this movement?
I totally support them, because I love their inventiveness in campaigning. There activism is sometimes a form of art… All forms of resistance to the patriarchy across the world interest me.

Why is secularism so important to you? Do you think it’s important for achieving rights for women?
Laïcité isn’t the same thing as the English word secularism. Laïcité is a principle enacted by law in France’s constitution. This principle recognises all religions, but imposes neutrality with respect to religion upon the state, and forbids any funding of religion. In this sense, for me, it’s the basis of democracy, because every citizen is equal under the law, and that’s the basis for equality between men and women: nobody can invoke religious principles in order to justify discriminatory practices, for example.  

What are the prospects for secularism (or laïcité) in the Middle East?
It’s very difficult because the term is itself associated with atheism, and that is the paramount offence in Islam…I believe i twill take more time, and for many people to take up the fight.

Do you have another project you’re working on currently?
I’m currently working on a fiction project, and I hope to start filming soon.

Celebrating Dissent, a festival on Freedom of Thought runs from August 30 until September 1 in Amsterdam. For more information click here.