Tunis, November 2019. On the eve of the presidential election, the customers at Saïda’s hair salon are in the throes of debate. Which candidate to go for? Who will win votes? Everyone has their own opinion. Speak up, or you won’t be heard over the hum of hairdryers, the hiss of shower heads.
The older women have fought for years to defend their rights, at a time when the country was under the control of dictator Ben Ali. They fear having their freedoms stripped back, whilst younger clients, voting for the first time, are won over by the conservative Islamists.
The salon shifts between debate, tension, solidarity, and vocal vibrancy. It mirrors a country in democratic metamorphosis after 23 years of autocratic regime.
Directed by Sarra El Abed
Production: Isabelle Grignon-Francke (Club Vidéo)
Photography: Catherine Lefebvre
Sound: Camille Demers-Lambert
Editing: Jordan Choinière
Music: lyaa Ghafouri
Sound Mix: Hans Laitres
Foley: Louis Duranleau
Colour Grading: Steven Mercier
Sarra El Abed Director
“This hair salon has been part of my life since I was tiny. I’ve spent many afternoons here, so it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to capture it on film.”
- Please introduce yourself, Sarra.
I am a Tunisian filmmaker, and I’ve been living in Montreal since the age of 9. I studied filmmaking at the University of Quebec in Montreal, and I take my main inspiration from family, the Tunisian sky, and colours.
- Without wanting to give anything away, at the end of the film, there’s a fun moment that reveals to the viewer your personal connection to the salon.
When I was little, I spent my summers in Tunis, and that really sparked my love of film. I was fascinated by the female members of my family, their strength, their feminism, their magnetism. I had always wanted to pay lasting homage to them. This hair salon has been part of my life since I was tiny. I’ve spent many afternoons here, so it seems like the most natural thing in the world to capture it on film.
After the Revolution, my attention turned to the political situation in Tunisia. Well before the Arab Spring uprising, I was quick to notice the important place of women in society. This sharpened my determination to spotlight the vital contribution of Tunisian women to the social and political evolution of their country. As a safe meeting space for debate with other women, the hair salon turned out to be the perfect place to put a finger on the political pulse of female realities.
“The filming was really up close and personal; our crew became part of the furniture!”
- The Shampoo Summit, a film produced by Iris Zaki in a hair salon in Haïfa, is available to view on 99. The Cameroonian filmmaker Rosine Mbakam has also filmed inside a salon in Brussels for her documentary Chez Jolie Coiffure. In what ways do salons serve as a telling source of inspiration, in your opinion?
I’ve always found salons to be unique places. This salon in Tunis is a crossroads where women from all social backgrounds come together. It’s so much more than a place to get your hair styled.
Some customers are there even though they have no appointment, or even the vaguest intention of getting their hair done. It’s a complex-free space for women, where they can openly debate. A place where some are celebrating marriage, where others are grieving. The friendships of most women we came across do not extend beyond the salon, but they gather there and take time for themselves.
- The camera is always on the move, tracking the customers’ comings and goings. Shots are close up and use mirrors. Tell us about your approach to guiding the rhythm and style of this shoot.
My aim was to minimise the presence of the film crew to give the viewer a feeling of total immersion. Given the restricted space, the stationary, wide-angle shots that I’d originally planned were not possible. The camera naturally intertwined with the women, creating standpoints that resemble real life. My fascination for mirrors and frames within frames found real ground in this environment, sometimes becoming the only way to capture certain images.
The film shoot was really up close and personal; our crew became part of the furniture! We shared the women’s every-day experiences, grabbing coffee together, forging friendships. It was essential to maintain a professional front, but it really didn’t feel like work. The atmosphere was filled with breezy light-heartedness and a sense of togetherness.
- We see a very young voter at the salon who supports Ennahda. She is shouted down by her elders, who call her regressive, and speak harshly. But we are more accustomed to the opposite: a progressive youth facing off conservative adults. How do you explain this?
After the revolution, a significant conservative shift was felt among a proportion of Tunisian youth. Even though the revolution itself was a bid for freedom, equality and social justice, it seems that some young Tunisians found refuge in conservative politics. Conservatives appeared better organised and more robust in their response to economic disadvantage, political uncertainty and social instability.
- What’s in the pipeline?
I’m going back to fiction! I’ve finished writing my first feature-length film called Adieu Minette, which flits between Tunis and Montreal. Right now, I’ve my nose buried in financial paperwork.
I’ve also begun writing a second feature film called Gens qui rient, gens qui pleurent, which takes place in Tunisia. These last two years have been full of research and writing, and now I’m itching to get behind the camera.
- A word about 99 and the fact that your film is now available in several languages thanks to subtitling?
It warms my heart! It’s crazy to see that this film, produced in 2019, still attracts viewers. It has also garnered new meaning, especially given the current situation in Tunisia.
Tunisia is a small country, with quite an unusual history. So, if my short documentary allows new viewers to take an interest in my little corner of the world, it gives me great pleasure.