I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever seen a film from Tunisia, but Beauty and the Dogs, the latest from up-and-coming director Kaouther Ben Hania (Le challat de tunis) is a work that made me wildly uncomfortable and angry—both by design—and quite eager to see more.
The movie opens at a party, where one of the organizers, Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani) has torn her dress and is putting on a new one in the bathroom with her friends. The new dress is a bit more revealing than she’s comfortable with (she spends the entire film tugging at it, trying to cover herself up), but she attracts the attention of a handsome young man (Ghanem Zrelli), and the two go for a walk on the nearby beach.
The film is divided into nine chapters, with each one getting progressively more emotional and chaotic as the film moves forward. The timeline jumps ahead a few minutes, and now Mariam is walking back from the beach, shaken, her mouth bleeding, and clearly in shock. The young man is running behind her, trying to console her and find out what happened to her. It turns out the two were approached by three men claiming to be police. The young man was taken to an ATM to get money by one of the police, while the other two raped Mariam in their car.
The rest of the film—told almost in real time (each chapter is a single take)—is about Mariam seeking medical attention and some type of justice for this crime in a place where women who dress the way she is often do not get.
The investigating police do everything in their power to dissuade Mariam from filing formal charges, calling her everything from a liar to a whore, and threatening to tell her conservative father that she was walking alone on a beach and kissing a man she didn’t know. The leering police berate her in an attempt to make her feel cheap and powerless, but she refuses to surrender her rights or dignity. Director Den Hania delivers a scathing critique of a society that has only recently learned to accept certain freedoms and liberal attitudes, but not everyone is on board, including pretty much every police officer in this movie. Mariam’s struggle is difficult to watch at times, and Western audiences may even feel like the behaviors on screen are downright prehistoric.
As her determination continues, the police take more extreme measures, even taking her to the very precinct where the attackers work, sending her into a panic. Even the lone female officer there seems reluctant to help her through her Kafkaesque nightmare of an evening.
The personal becomes political, and the thought processes and actions of a once-in-charge patriarchy rear their ugly heads. Beauty and the Dogs is rough around the edges as a film, but it’s all too easy to believe that this is based on true events. There’s an immediacy that’s impossible to ignore; Al Ferjani’s take on Mariam is as a raw, powerful survivor in a community that wants to judge and dismiss her. I actually can’t think of a better movie to play in this country right now.
The film opens Friday for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.