Them Long Time Comin' Blues: Revolutions Hidden in Plain Sight

The art of the storyteller lies in one’s ability to successfully weave universally understood human qualities into culturally specific explanations of life. When utilized as a means of resistance in the face of oppressive authority, these twin characteristics of universal appeal and cultural specificity seem perfectly suited to the subtlety needed for rebellion. Like the old Blues and Spirituals of the United States' South which relied heavily on metaphor and unspoken cues[1] to transmit information about rebellion and unacknowledged histories in the face of extreme oppression[2], movies have now taken over as the new medium of widespread transmission for controversial ideas, histories, and foment. While admittedly filmmakers are subject to entirely different kinds of restrictions than Blues singers were, on occasion they still manage to create works that instill a similar impetus for dissent while operating within the strictures of heavy-handed censorship. One such controversial film that exemplifies this underhanded dealing with politics is the movie Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces  ( عصفور السطح ), directed by Fèrid Boughedir. Thread along the invisible backbone of the plot to Halfaouine's hypervisible coming-of-age storyline is a call to arms that works on unspoken cues and hinted connections to convey its message. As it was with Blues music, there remains in Halfaouine the barely discernible outline of subterfuge embedded within the film’s openness that evaded even Tunisian censors while it called out a message of revolt relevant to a wider Tunisian audience.
            Now, in order to understand the importance of the link between such revolutionary movies as Halfaouine and the Blues, one must first understand what the Blues are. The Blues are a lot of things, but primary amongst all of its descriptions is that the Blues give voice to a bone-deep longing for something that is always just out of reach. It is an expression of wanting something so bad you can taste it, but never being allowed fulfillment. Whether it is freedom, liberty, happiness, love, sex, a home- any number of things a person could long for- all the subjects of the Blues share the quality of being just out of reach. The Blues then becomes that deep down wail of anguish and frustration that has to be let out in the face of hopelessness in order just to keep on going. This is the side of the Blues that people worldwide can relate to upon first listening, that part that communicates soul to soul and experience to experience in a kind of cathartic release. However, the Blues also serves a dual purpose, that of telling the untold history of a people and a place in time. As movies have come to replace oral traditions like those expressed in the Blues and other genres, the same primal sob that the Blues embodied before can be seen re-formulated into cinema- as can the re-telling of “official” histories with coded messages to rebel.
            Set within a recognizable time period of Tunisian history, the movie Halfaouine spins “official” history as it ducks past censors with a simple but potent message smuggled in its plot. To start with, the story of young Noura as a "Mannish Boy"[3] struggling to insert himself into the ranks of men contains all the necessary distractions needed to maintain a theme of dissent hidden in plain sight. Filled with bright, busy scenes bursting with bodies and sexuality crosscut with isolated, dark dream-like sequences immersed in fairytale and metaphor, Fèrid Boughedir artfully constructs a superficial storyline that masks its true purpose from censorship as ingeniously as Noura (initially) masks his voyeurism in the hammam. The impression of a lighthearted film centered on Noura's discovery of sexuality seems complicated only by the repeated question of "When does one become a man?" that continually edges in around the corners of the comedy. This question becomes a pivotal theme within Halfaouine, as implicit within it is the question of Tunisian autonomy- but this necessarily remains caught up within the brighter distraction of Noura and his quest for belonging in manhood. By using a young boy as the main character and expertly combining such cinematic techniques as switching the level of framing to Noura's perspective, point-of-view shots and following shots, the film absorbs the audience into the naïve worldview of a child watching gravely serious affairs take place with sometimes humorous and always uncomprehending eyes. It is precisely the success of this absorption that allows the deeper message of the film to succeed. As the viewer becomes wrapped up in the nostalgia of familiar lived experiences, distracting naked bodies (well, distracting to some) drenched in water and light, and in deciphering a convoluted half-imaginary half-real world of childhood, the main question of the film- "When does one become a man?"- becomes hidden among the folds of familiarity, as does the film's answer to its own question.
            This diversionary tactic is fine until closer inspection shows that the simple, comedic quality of Noura's story doesn't hold up too well to the question of the film. Focusing primarily on Noura (which the cinematography eagerly invites the viewer to do) actually reveals darker implications for Noura's "manhood" at the end of the film than the movie's happy-go-lucky tone would suggest. Superficially, Noura's laughing refusal of his father at the end mimics a feel-good closure of the quest for manhood and place that allows a similarly superficial happy feeling of resolution to be imagined. Yet given a bit more thought, the conclusion seems to fall short of true resolution. The question of manhood has not been answered either by Noura or by his actions; in fact, Noura is proven to be only a vehicle for the larger motive of the film. Noura is not the point of the movie, but a tool to demonstrate Boughedir’s response to the question of Tunisian independence and autonomy.
            It is not through Noura's story, but through the shoemaker Salih's response to the confines of the oppressive regime, that the question of manhood/autonomy is addressed. This unseen but felt external ruling force is directly (and safely) linked to Bourguiba through historical clues, but by not directly giving the regime a name the movie leaves an ambiguity in its presence as if to implicate any leader who follows this pattern of rule. Outside the immediate scope of the film- but implied within its setting- is the history of Tunisia's struggle with independence from a variety of external and internal restrictive forces. Salih's response to the question "When does one become a man?" is to re-write the leader's slogan on the wall to emphasize the people's collective opinion over that of the head of the nation. Read within the context of Tunisian political revolt, Salih's answer can be seen not as a stance against Bourguiba but as a stance against all oppression, whether it is perpetrated by Bourguiba, Ben Ali, or any other who would follow in their footsteps. One becomes a man, then (or so Salih seems to tell Noura), when a person takes a definite stand against injustice with full knowledge and understanding of the consequences. This is the call-and-response of the film[4], the preacher calling out a question to an audience primed to already have the answer, written as it is in everybody’s minds and hearts through hope and rote.
Seen in hindsight it appears Boughedir’s call in Halfaouine is one whose answer was already known to most Tunisians. Not just this film, but many others from before the Tunisian Revolution contain expressions of hope frustrated and a longing unfulfilled[5] characteristic of- for lack of a better descriptor- the Blues. Behind the figure of Noura peeks a movie that re-writes Tunisian history as surely as Salih edits the writing on the wall to say what best suits the Tunisian people, but it also reveals an unrealized dream for autonomy in the final actions of Noura to claim his “manhood.” After receiving the key answer to the question of the film, Noura makes the decision to mimic what he’s seen of other men instead and follow personal satisfaction at the expense of others. His attainment of “manhood” is a pitiful parody of what Salih exhibited in taking a stand, which doesn’t speak too hopefully about a positive future for Noura or Tunisia and leaves the new question of “how many more years?”[6] burning for an answer. Although, it would seem from recent events that perhaps the beginning of that answer has finally started to come into its own, hopefully to culminate in leaving those “long time coming” Blues at the doorstep to be swept away for good.


[1] For a few brief samples of resistance hidden within seemingly innocuous lyrics, see "Mr Charlie" by Lightning Hopkins, "John the Revelator" by Blind Willie Johnson (or, for an alternate version, see Son House's "John the Revelator"), "All the Pretty Little Horses" by Odetta, and "Go Down Moses," "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" by Paul Robeson.

[2] For example, the story in "Mr. Charlie" hinges upon one's familiarity with the use of the phrase "Mr. Charlie" as slang for "white man" and the history of "race" relations in the South; "John the Revelator" requires an understanding of the prohibition against literacy amongst slaves; "All the Pretty Little Horses" references the forced servitude as wetnurses of many enslaved women to their masters' children while their own were taken from them or left alone; and "Go Down Moses" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" use Biblical references to name specific geographical areas in the United States and real stories of resistance as further inspiration.

[3] A name coined by Muddy Waters in his song of the same name.

[4] I use this reference to Southern Christian church services here not to place the movie Halfouine within that context, but as a way of tying the Blues back in, as they were born in large part from that atmosphere.

[5] Perhaps this is a conclusion reached just from following the suggestions of others so far, but it would seem every movie watched- Silences of the Palace, Red Satin, Man of Ashes, Halfaouine, and Bezness- contains an element of this.

[6] I couldn’t help it, I had to add one final Blues reference into the paper. This is a song by Howlin’ Wolf.


It doesn't take too great a stretch of the imagination to see the connection between "aliens" in modern sci-fi films weighed down with jingoistic slogans and shot through with militaristic hyper violence and the hate-filled reactionary xenophobic clutchings at some wisps of an imaginary "American dream" prevalent in the political punditry and yellow journalism of "modernity."