Alia is the illegitimate daughter of Khedija, a servant in an old Ottoman royal palace, Tunis. Her presumed father is Prince Sidi Ali, one of the last beys (Turkish governors), now a puppet of French colonial rule during the mid-1950s, when the movement for independence is growing violent. Khedija is beautiful, she works in the kitchens and serves as waitress, but she is also a singer and dancer, entertaining the bey, his brother and their families. Sidi Ali’s wife, La J’neina, ‘was betrayed by her womb’ and they remain childless; the bey cannot openly acknowledge Alia as his daughter, though he deeply loves both her and her mother. The narrative unfolds in flashbacks from the day of Sidi Ali’s death. Alia is now a young woman, a ‘failed singer’ like her mother, living with Lotfi, a teacher and former political agitator. She is to endure yet another abortion the following day, and is profoundly unhappy. She returns to her father’s palace, where she relives her tormented adolescence.
Moufida Tlatli was born in 1947 near Tunis, one of a generation that produced several significant Tunisian directors, including Férid Boughedir and Nourid Bouzid. Tlatli’s fascination with cinema was encouraged by a French schoolteacher of philosophy who organised one of the many ciné clubs that thrived in the Francophone culture of Tunisia, and she absorbed the work of the European auteur directors. During the 1960s Tlatli studied editing at the Institute des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques in Paris, attended by many North African directors, and worked in French television. She returned to Tunisia in 1972, where she collaborated on some of the most significant films of the ‘Cinema Jedid’ (New Cinema) movement.
Silences of the Palace has been described as ‘the finest of all Maghreb fictional films by a woman director’ (Armes 2005: 73), winning several international festival awards, and even making a modest profit; distribution was however confined to Tunisia and Europe, probably because the content was deemed offensive. Silences of the Palace also demonstrates the paradoxes and contradictions that confronted post-colonial cinemas during the decades following independence. The credits sequence to the film acknowledges funding and support from the leading European cultural agencies and media channels, and its audience was restricted to arthouse and international festival circuits: how far might the content and preoccupations of the film be conditioned by the taste and priorities of this mainly European patronage? What kind of new cinema could win the attention of mass popular audiences beyond Europe?
The post-colonial cinema of Tunisia had focused from its beginning on the role and experience of women within the culture, giving rise to a characteristic cinéma du femme, according to Férid Boughedir (Shafik 2007: 148). This was due to the relatively liberal conditions established in the country – it is significant that the events of the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ were provoked by unrest that began in Tunisia. Silences of the Palace combined radically different kinds of cinematic conventions precisely in an attempt to reach beyond its immediate constituency among European and North African cinéastes, and to appeal to a broader audience. Crucial moments in plotting and narrative rely on the popular, non-naturalistic conventions of melodrama, a genre that has been defined in part by its appeal to female audiences. Among other devices, melodrama heightens narrative tension through the use of improbable coincidence: Alia is born within minutes of the birth of Sarra, the daughter of Si Bechir (Sidi Ali’s brother) and his wife. The girls grow up together within the confines of the palace, and become virtually inseparable; as children they are able to cross the boundary between kitchen servant quarters and ‘upstairs’ – a word which carries exactly the same connotations for the Tunisian royal palace as for Gosford Park or Downton Abbey.
Sidi Ali and his family appear to be thoroughly ‘Europeanised’, they wear Western clothing and drive around in noisy black cadillacs; Si Bechir reads French poetry aloud as he walks in the gardens, and each brother has taken only one wife. But older elements of Ottoman culture persist: Sidi Ali is particularly fond of Apple, a female ‘dwarf’ servant. The brothers’ father wears traditional high-status dress and reads the Koran; for Sarra’s engagement all the men adopt the fez and djellabah to play at cards, though the wives and daughters display modish evening gowns (not a single veil or burqa is worn throughout the film). Tradition inevitably bears down most heavily on the women and men working ‘below stairs’ in the premodern kitchens, and most damagingly of all on Khedija as Sidi Ali’s mistress. Their relationship appears to be genuinely loving and passionate, but it will destroy her. In one scene she is summoned to wash Sidi Ali’s feet in rose water, and as they begin to embrace, their hands clasp and re-clasp as each attempts to gain final control, hand over hand; the hand of the bey triumphs.
Khedija dances for one of the beys’ parties, performing the raqssharqi (‘belly dance’) backed by an eclectic ensemble of Arabic and Western instruments. The dance is simultaneously an erotic spectacle for the male and female audience and also a virtuoso performance of female autonomy and selfpossession, with nothing of the Western flagrancy of lap dancing. Yet the figure of the female singer and dancer is inevitably also a person vulnerable to exploitation. Although Khedija has forbidden Alia from attending the party, she and Sarra look on in fascination. Alia becomes possessed by the idea of her mother’s performance, and steals away to her father’s marital bedroom. She selects one of La J’neina’s gowns, experiments with her make-up, and begins tentatively to dance to an old record. Unable to mime her mother’s mature adult performance, she gives up, and whirls childishly about, falling on the bed in a self-induced swoon. La J’neina enters and in cold fury exclaims, ‘Like mother, like daughter! Born to sin. Get out!’
The paradoxical nature of woman’s dance within this culture intensifies when Alia notices her father, during daytime, entering the rooms she occupies with her mother, and locking the door. Alia by now knows very well that this is an assignation, and she runs distractedly through the grounds of the palace, pausing in front of a collection of caged birds. She runs on to open grass, where she races in a tight circle and faints. Si Bechir discovers her, begins to caress her, and then carries her, unconscious, back to her bed. Khedija enters, concerned, and finds Si Bechir gazing at the sleeping Alia. He violently assaults and rapes Khedija, overheard by Alia, now frozen in horror. The girl’s whirling dance is her desperate attempt to escape from the confines of the palace and the encroaching attentions of men, which may destroy her as surely as they will destroy her mother.
The most intense sequence drawing on melodramatic convention is the final, climactic event when Alia sings for the celebration of Sarra’s engagement, at her own father’s request. Simultaneously, Khedija is undergoing an abortion, the consequence of Si Bechir’s rape – or perhaps her assignations with Sidi Ali. The men are in a separate room, gambling and smoking, while the women are seated for Alia’s performance. She begins by flaunting the power of her singer’s art, ‘I’ll sing tunes to intoxicate my listeners. Song is the life of the soul. Song can mend the broken hearts that doctors cannot cure.’ Gradually she captures all attention: her father leaves the gaming table to hear her, Lotfi gazes from a doorway, La J’neina stares fixatedly. Then, in pure defiance, Alia without warning launches into the inflammatory anthem of the insurrection beyond the walls, which Si Bechir had attempted to ban from the palace: ‘Green Tunisia seems in a daze, its sorrow erupts in flashes that shake the sky and extinguish the stars.’ The orchestra falls silent behind her, and the audience begins to leave, mutely and without protest, the men return to their cards. At this precise moment the film cuts to Khedija in terrible induced labour pains, she screams and haemorrhages, from which she will die.
So many elements of this powerful sequence are non-naturalistic, and some may be even frankly symbolic: what will the Tunisian revolution bring to birth? Analogies of this kind also apply to Alia herself, as her painful development and disappointed early adulthood seem to parallel the larger, national experience beyond the gates of the palace: ‘The heroine of my story is a woman, the type that in our countries is sometimes said to be “colonised by the colonised”, a woman inferior by birth, a woman born to serve man’ (Murphy and Williams 2007: 170). This parallel between Alia’s development and the Tunisian independence movement is made explicit by Lotfi, a political agitator taking refuge within the palace. Alia is immediately attracted to the young man, who offers to teach her to write. He attempts to embrace her, and she shrinks away; he reproves her, saying ‘You are as indecisive as our country. One word thrills you, another word scares you. Things are going to change. A new future awaits us. You will be a great singer. Your voice will enchant everyone.’ Alia listens to and performs the songs of Umm Kulthum, the legendary Egyptian singer whose recitals were followed throughout the Arab world (Lohman 2010). But when Alia sings such well-loved classics as Abdal Wahab’s ‘Amalhayati’, ‘Hope of My Life’, in the opening sequence of the film, the lyrics only serve to drive home the degree of her vulnerability and hopelessness.
Sidi Ali in fact is sympathetic to the insurrection, and has covert meetings with some reformers. He asks Alia to tell the cooks to prepare fava bean stew, the food of the poor, and La J’neina is witheringly scornful: ‘You’re attached to them. You’ve sunk so low.’ When Alia conveys his wishes to the kitchen staff, they too are sceptical, and laugh: ‘We don’t envy their wealth, but they envy our poverty.’ The servants who work ‘below-stairs’ in the traditional kitchens of the palace are a compelling ensemble. Many of the film’s most eloquent images are of these kitchen women, with moving performances by Fatima Ben Saïdane as the vulnerable Mroubia and Najia Ouerghi as Khedija’s protector, Khalti Hadda.
Moufida Tlatli argues that Arabic and Islamic society is profoundly allusive, an intrinsically poetic culture that constructs meaning through metonymy and indirection. She also argues that the formal devices of cinema rely on exactly these strategies, which are fundamental to Samt el qusur (Gauch 2007: 19). Silence pervades the film, speech is subordinated to exchange of significant looks and meaningful gaze, but silence is also continually displaced by eloquent song and the sound of the oud, thanks to the voices of the kitchen women and Anouar Brahem’s beautiful music track. It is exactly this allusiveness of the silent image, compelling performance and the culture’s lyric genius that puts into question the legitimacy of presiding regimes, Ottoman and French colonial, and whatever may succeed. Samt el qusur is dedicated to the director’s mother.
With grateful thanks to Dr Walid Abdul-Hamid for material and advice.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Tunisia. Production Company: Canal Horizons, Cinétéléfilms, Mat Films. Director: Moufida Tlatli. Screenwriters: Nourid Bouzid and Moufida Tlatli. Cinematographer: Youssef Ben Youssef. Editors: Camille Cotte, Karim Hammouda and Mouifda Tlatli. Music: Anouar Brahem. Cast: Hend Sabri (Alia age 15), Ghalia Lacroix (Alia age 25), Amel Hedhili (Khedija), Kamel Fazaa (Sidi Ali), Sonia Meddeb (La J’neina).]
Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1992. Roy Armes, Postcolonial Images: Studies in North African Film, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 2005. Suzanne Gauch, ‘Silent Reflections’ in Liberating Shahrazad: Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Islam, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2007, pp. 13–34. Laura Lohman, Umm Kulthum: Artistic Agency and the Shaping of an Arab Legend, 1967–2007, Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 2010. David Murphy and Patrick Williams, Postcolonial Cinema: Ten Directors Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007. Viola Shafik, ‘Samt al-Qusur (Silences of the Palace), MoufidaTlatli, Tunisia/France, 1994’, in Gönül Dönmez-Colin (ed.), The Cinema of North Africa and The Middle East, London, Wallflower Press, 2007, pp. 145–56.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.