November 16–23, 1995

movies

Halfouine: Child of the Terraces

Halfouine is both a coming-of-age film and a subtle portrait of modern Tunisia.

Written and directed by Ferid Boughedir
An International Film Circuit Release

The story of Halfouine: Child of the Terraces is, on the surface, a relatively simple one: young boy comes of age in conservative society, moving fromthe innocence of youth into the sensuality of adulthood. But Ferid Boughedir’s first feature film (he is also a widely respected African film scholar) is actually quite complex, juxtaposing a sexual awakening story with a portrait of Tunisia as a deeply conflicted society. Sultry and gorgeous to look at, it’s also a very subtle film about the fissures not always visible in Islamic society.

Halfouine is seen almost entirely though the eyes of Noura, a 13-year-old Tunisian boy, and Boughedir stays remarkably faithful to the perspective of a male just about to go rocketing into adolescence. Just about all we see somehow concerns either sex or social relations. Noura’s at the awkward age where his mother and her friends still want to take him into the women’s section of the bathhouse, but he’s beginning to become aroused by the wet, scantily clad women that surround him. The bathhouse sequences are extremely sensual, but they’re shot in a way that conveys the embarrassment the kid feels at his arousal. And the atmosphere’s so dense with naked bodies that it can be hard to make sense of it all, also a feeling that might not be unlikely for a boy of 13.

The time we spend outside of the bathhouse is mostly with the kid’s family (he hangs around mostly with his mother and her friends — more on that in a minute) and the two older kids he’s trying to impress. He also has a job sweeping up at a barber shop, and likes to hang around the local village eccentric. All of this socializing is evoked in a leisurely, though never inefficient, style (there’s something important going on in almost every scene), and its net effect is to give a solidly realized portrait of this small Tunisian village. The scenes inside the barber shop let us see not only old men chewing the fat but also political unrest; the scenes with the women spending time together let us see not only housework and cooking but also the way in which they resist the traditions of Tunisian patriarchy.

Resistance to patriarchy informs much of the film. One particularly important sequence has Noura sitting with his father, who lectures him on the attributes of a true man. One of these, of course, is that men don’t hang around with women, something Noura does that particularly irritates the old codger. The push and pull that this kid experiences is not so much a matter of tradition vs. modernity, or even youth vs. maturity; it’s primarily a contest between masculinity and femininity. As a youngster Noura is clearly feminized: His features are vaguely feminine, he is conscribed to marginal jobs (sweeping up after the barber, for instance) and he’s locked out of political struggle and domestic control. He seems to get along best with women, who want him to remain a part of their community.

His eventual push toward manhood is a push not toward maturity but masculinity. Because he wants to become more involved with what’s going on around him, Noura starts hanging around more with the boys and finally becomes sexually predatory, emphasized in the final scenes by his curiosity about female genitalia, a curiosity that is severely punished.

There’s a tragic undercurrent to his progress into manhood. He’s surrounded by the detritus of male-dominated culture: The women he loves are unhappy and oppressed, and the police drag off the villagers we come to know in their occasional sweeps. Halfaouine shows us that becoming a man in modern Tunisia means becoming part of something that many of these characters have mounted powerful resistance against — the men by hiding out from the police, the women by simply bathing together.