"Even in 2022, we still can't open up fully to the general public as an LGBT festival."

Queer Film Festival in Tunisia
Between fear and courage

With queer people facing widespread discrimination in Tunisia, the Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival will kick off in the country's capital Tunis on 22 September in a semi-public setting. Sarah Mersch reports

Activist Karam Aouini says organising a queer film festival in Tunisia forces you to tread a fine line. On the one hand, those involved are keen to raise public awareness, but at the same time they fear reprisals, the artistic director of the Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival, which starts on 22 September, told Germany’s Evangelischer Pressedienst (epd). "Even in 2022, we still can't open up fully to the general public as an LGBT festival."

The festival – primarily aimed at lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people, as well as other sexual minorities – is being held in the capital Tunis for the third time and will last four days. Audience safety is an absolute priority, Aouini stresses. "We haven't had any problems in the past, but because of the violence and discrimination we face on social media alone, we are taking precautions."

The organisers' aim is to relax festival restrictions gradually, over time; this year, for instance, it will be held in a semi-public setting, Aouini explains. Guests invited and known to the organisers are permitted to bring friends and family. "Cinema and art, in general, are crucial for bringing queer issues to people's attention and broadening horizons." If just a little of this can be achieved, he will consider this year's event a success.

Symbolic image of rainbow flags in Tunis (photo: Shams)
Treading a fine line: given widespread social prejudice, the situation for Tunisia's LGBTQ community is precarious. With the Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival, those involved are keen to raise public awareness on the one hand, but at the same time they fear reprisals, said Karam Aouini, the festival's artistic director

A hot topic in Tunisian society

In Tunisia, homosexuality is criminalised: homosexual acts can carry a three-year prison sentence. "In addition to legal discrimination, there is also social discrimination: in public spaces, social networks, political speeches, the media," says the festival's artistic director. And unlike other countries, there are no laws in Tunisia that protect people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation.

A total of 32 feature films and documentaries, mainly from countries of the Global South, will be screened at the festival. There will also be art exhibitions, workshops and panel discussions. The idea for the festival originated at an internal film club run by the Tunisian organisation Mawjoudin (Arabic for "We Exist"), which was founded in 2014. Says Aouini: "We want to show films that represent the queer community in Tunisia and the region, because Western productions often have little to do with what life is like here."

The festival had to be postponed several times because of the coronavirus pandemic. This year's event is therefore an important opportunity for the queer community in Tunisia to finally meet up again in person, says Aouini. The motto for 2022 is solidarity. This is not just a reference to the pandemic, the director adds. "We have seen many new cases of HIV infection recently, which is why we’re focusing on sexual health."

Sarah Mersch

© epd 2022

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