Written by Kaouther Ben Hania, and co-directed by Ben Hania and Khaled Barsaoui, Beauty and the Dogs (2017) tells the story of a young Tunisian woman who is raped and harassed by members of the post-revolutionary Tunisian police. (FEA 5/5).
Review by FF2 Media Intern Farah A. Elattar
“Mariam” (Mariam Al Ferjani) is a college student of humble beginnings, who came to Tunis in search of better educational opportunities. The modernity of city living forces her to leave behind her traditional values and dress codes and adapt to the dynamic nightlife of the capital. At a party, she meets “Youssef” (Ghanem Zrelli), a handsome man slightly older than her to whom she is instantly attracted. In search of privacy, the then-strangers leave the party to take a walk on the beach. What follows is a horrifying depiction of a daily reality faced by many women in the Middle East: First Mariam is raped by members of the Tunisian police, and then she struggles to find justice because it is the system itself that has failed and assaulted her.
Through Mariam’s interactions with authority figures, Ben Hania explicitly deals with the gender inequalities and victim-blaming behaviors that are very much present and institutionalized in the Middle East. Her rape is blamed on her wearing a party dress, on her putting herself in a tempting situation, and on her being a “slut” who was out alone at night with a man. Even the women in positions of authority blame her rape on the arguments above – showing the extent to which they also cling to the patriarchal system (in fear of losing their positions and/or of putting themselves in danger).
Ben Hania builds a character who believes in the importance of justice and truth and continues to search for legal remedies for the crime committed against her, despite the fact that the police force itself is the criminal. From a private clinic refusing to take her in to perform a rape kit, to the precinct officers locking her in and attempting to coerce her to falsify her testimony, Mariam is faced with one challenge after the other – challenges that would break even the strongest among us. Her physical weakness in comparison to that of the policemen is repeatedly exploited and used against her, as she is beaten and locked up in order to prolong the case and break her will to seek justice.
Such tactics of intimidation and torture are typical of police officers in Middle Eastern countries, who often abuse their powers and violate their citizens instead of protecting them. In Mariam’s case, they abuse her status as a resident student in Tunis because her distance from her parents makes her “easy prey.” Her only support comes from Youssef, who has no connections or influence on the authorities, and is even arrested (due to his own status as an ex-revolutionary) to get him out of the way.
Youssef’s character is a symptom of the failed Arab Spring. An ex-revolutionary who now lives close to poverty, he convinces Mariam to seek justice and make sure her perpetrators are jailed. He is the personification of a whole class of Middle Eastern youth who believed in the potential of the Arab Spring, but were let down by the country’s inability to move towards a real democracy and a restorative justice system. His idealism helps Mariam when she is repeatedly tempted to abandon her case. Thus, the film takes on a very current political stance, and aims to falsify the Western claim that Tunisia is the “success story” of the Arab Spring. According to Ben Hania, the institutional rape and assault of pre-revolutionary Tunisia is still very much still alive, with democracy being little more than a façade to hide a much darker truth.
On top of her excellent character-building, Ben Hania also manipulates the film’s structure in order to build maximum tension into her story. She chooses to portray Mariam’s dilemma in a powerful ten-chapter format in which each chapter offers a change in location, as well as a further complication in Mariam’s search for justice. The camera poignantly follows Mariam as she endures one outrage after the other, so that the viewer slowly understands the failure of the system to recognize rape as a crime to blame on the perpetrator, and not on the victim. Mariam is either patronized, discredited, yelled at, or even beaten whenever she chooses to tell her story.
Ben Hania could not have chosen a better actress to play the role of Mariam. Mariam Al Ferjani’s stylistic choices capture the viewer from the very beginning and encourage them to sympathize with and feel with her character – a kind, ambitious woman with humble beginnings, who is put through events that seem almost impossible to live through. Nevertheless, she persists.
In sum, Beauty and the Dogs is in itself a symptom of an unstable, patriarchal, undemocratic Middle East. Its aim is to discredit the West’s repeated, unfounded claims surrounding the success of the Arab Spring. But the ending also offers a glimmer of hope because it is based on an actual incident. So now we (the members of the audience) know that filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania heard the story of this courageous woman (the real “Mariam”) and found the strength to tell it to us.
© Farah A. Elattar (4/05/2018) FF2 Media
Featured Image: "Mariam" (Mariam Al Ferjani) with “Youssef” (Ghanem Zrelli),.
Top Photo: Mariam crying in the street, after her assault.
Middle Photo: An ominous moment at the party.These scenes show Mariam Al Ferjani’s amazing acting. She is in almost every scene in the film!
Bottom Photo: Mariam and Youssef at the precinct, where everyone, including the female officers, harasses her and tries to force her to falsify her testimony.
Q: Does pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Yes! Mariam has many interactions with women that do not revolve around male love interests. She interacts with friends and rivals at the party about her achievements. She also tells her story to a pregnant police officer at the precinct.