The absence of a memorial policy for animated films, in Tunisia and throughout Africa and the Middle East, is mainly explained by a lack of awareness of this art not only among the large audience but also among the insiders. Tunisian animation remains neglected as much beyond its borders as within them. Since production is limited to short formats, animation suffers from the same screening problems as non-animated Tunisian short films. The latter have almost entirely disappeared from the screens. They are projected only at the Carthage Film Festival or in some “art house” cinemas. Furthermore, as everywhere else in the world, also in Tunisia, animation continues to be subject to many more prejudices compared to “the other” cinema within the Art and the University worlds.
Considered as entertainment exclusively intended for children, Tunisian animated cinema has been long neglected by critics and researchers. Specialized works dealing with this form of cinema are almost non-existent. We can only find some rare and brief texts referring to a distinct film or auteur, within larger studies of Tunisian cinema.
When I started a research survey on Tunisian animation history in 2003, I found only a few names of filmmakers: the ones cited by Giannalberto Bendazzi (1991) or Victor Bachy (1978). The only visual reference I had, a commercial spot dated from the beginning of audiovisual advertising in the national television from the late 1980s, corresponded to memories of childhood. Thus, the only existing sources for reconstituting the history of animation remained the authors themselves and their artworks.
However, in 2003, the pioneers, the living memory of this art, were growing old. The copies of the artworks produced between the 1960s and the mid-1990s exist only on film medium. Most of the production is preserved in the Ministry of Culture’s Archives. The condition of the films’ conservation is very critical, as I have been able to notice during my visit in 2004. Genres and sizes are mixed and stored in a humid cellar. Indeed, the organization of the cinematographic sector in Tunisia, as it was the case of most post-independent countries from the Global South, is under the tutelage of public institutions. The total cinematic production was supported and financed by the SATPEC between 1960 and 1992, the date of liquidation of this public production company.
Yet, the animated films from the amateur period of the pioneers or those funded by foreign institutions are absent from the Ministry’s archives. I found some of them in the author’s private collections. Some movies “theoretically” existed in cinephile association’s archives but were hidden among several kilometers of film. Others were irreversibly lost. It is the case of Habib Masrouki’s film, Notre monde, an amateur stop motion animation released in 1967, or of the short animations self-produced by Nacer Khemir in Paris during the early 1970s.
Since the 2000s, thanks to the technological boom and the expansion of the Internet, many young people have come to animation from Art Schools. Until the mid-2000s, there was no special training program dedicated exclusively to animation in art schools. With the turning point of January 2011, animation has become a powerful tool for openly expressing protest and political stance.
Both during the Tunisian uprising that took place between December 2010 and January 2011 and after that sensitive time, many web animations that were produced under anonymity, were diffused through network media. Thus, like all social media contents, it kept the attention and the interest of the “audiences” for a succinct period of time before slipping away. Even a work that at that time was popular as the web series Captain Khobza, which dealt with the campaign of the first democratic elections in post-independent, is now falling into oblivion.
The propulsion of Arabic spring’s animation, at the forefront of the stage, has arisen local interest in each country of this cultural area. This has occurred mainly because the animation from the region has begun to be noticed in international film festivals but mostly since it has become an object of research and academic studies marking out and documenting an uncharted area. Also, we have observed the creation of local festivals dedicated exclusively to animation and initial attempts to digitalize the film materials archives of early cinema by the Tunisian film Library (recently created), the Tunisian federation of amateur filmmakers or a private initiative of some festival directors.
Unexpectedly, digital animation, which has diverted official and classic distribution channels and put the art of animation back on the stage, is the one that is most likely to disappear from the memory of this cultural heritage. Due to the fact that there are no serious musings or an awareness of the importance of archiving the animated films, despite their being part of our national heritage exactly like monuments or archeological sites, web animations will remain buried in the web maze. Similarly, the film medium will slip away, making impossible the writing of its history. Furthermore, since from its inception the Tunisian animation has been a cinema of resistance and even political and social dissent, these films could prove useful also for different fields of studies as they allow understanding the major changes occurred in this cultural area. It is therefore vital to start seriously preserving and correctly archiving them.
Bachy, Victor (1978). Le cinéma de Tunisie, Tunis: STD.
Bendazzi, Giannalberto (1991). Cartoons. Le cinema d’animation, 18892-1992, Paris : Editions Liana Levi.
Maya Ben Ayed is an associate researcher affiliated with the Department of History of the Institute for Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim Worlds (Aix-En-Provence). Her research focuses on animation and politics in the Arab world. She has published articles about Tunisian animation and participated in Stefanie Van De Peer’s edited collection Animation in the Middle East: Practice and Aesthetics from Baghdad to Casablanca (IB Tauris, 2017). In 2018 she co-edited (with Chaaban Essayed) “The Representation of the Dictator in Art and Literature in the Arab world,” the 8th issue of the online journal Science and Video. Her book on Tunisian animation, Le cinéma d’animation en Tunisie: Un cinéma de la marge en contexte autoritaire (1965-1995) (L’Harmattan, 2019), has just been published.