Venice Sala: The Scarecrows Review
An Arabic-language Tunisian/Moroccan/Luxembourgish coproduction, The Scarecrows [Les épouvantails] is the eighth dramatic feature from Tunisian director Nouri Bouzid. None of his previous films have been commercially distributed in the UK, but on this showing that may be more due to the low profile for non-anglophone African cinema than on his works’ quality. The Scarecrows deals with a subject that’s very timely in more than one country: those people, women especially, who leave to fight abroad for jihadi organisations, and what societies can do when they return.
Zina (Joumene Lamam) and Djo (Nour Hajri) had been enticed to leave Tunisia for Syria but, there, found the reality very different. They were held captive and repeatedly raped, discarded when their husbands had no further use for them. On return to Tunisia, they are imprisoned. Zina is pregnant, and the child is taken away from her. The two young women are represented by humanitarian doctor Dorra (Fatma Ben Saidane) and an activist lawyer Nadia (Afef Ben Mahmoud) and her assistant Driss (Mehdi Hajri). Meanwhile, Zina and Djo are taken in by Zina’s mother, despite the objections of her father. Such is the hatred towards the two young women that even those willing to help them face abuse. Local men assume that Zina is simply amoral and a 'slut'.
Zina and Djo’s ordeal in Syria isn’t explicitly shown, being conveyed by a series of brief jagged flashbacks which hint at more than we see onscreen. The widescreen camerawork, often handheld, keeps characters in uncomfortable close proximity. But it’s clear that the young women's experiences have left deep and lasting scars, particularly to Djo who retreats into a near-catatonic state, writing about what she has gone through in a book she calls Halal Rape. In a film which is all about its female characters, the males are largely incidental. The exception is Driss, who is gay and had been barred from his studies due to his sexuality. (Bouzid’s debut feature, 1986’s Man of Ashes, broke the local taboo on depiction of homosexuality.) Maybe a platonic friendship, with no sexual intention, can break through to Zina when others can’t.
Some of the film is a little confusing on first viewing, and no doubt there are references which will pass over non-local heads. (The Troika referred to in the film is the three-party coalition which has governed in Tunisia since the 2011 Revolution.) But the force of the film is undeniable, and it’s clear the issues it deals with have no easy solutions, and the faultlines in society it depicts remain in place at the end.