Winner of the International Secular Prize, Tunisian-Franco filmmaker Nadia El Fani, an avowed atheist, takes a personal approach to this cinematic exploration of secularism in the Muslim country of Tunisia before and after the deposition of Ben Ali.
The film, which was made by at the height of the 2010-2011 revolutions in North Africa, has proven so controversial that it has made the director a target of extremist death threats.
When the Tunisian people toppled dictator Ben Ali, they sparked an unprecedented era freedom and optimism and launched the Arab Spring in country after country. El Fani argues, however, that a resurgent Islamism threatens these gains.
Officially, Tunisia is not an Islamic nation. Indeed, in an archival interview, President Habib Bourguiba, who ruled the country for 30 years, affirms equal rights for Jews and Christians. But El Fani also sees troubling signs that Tunisia may be becoming less tolerant of non-Islamic beliefs.
Liquor stores around the country shut down during Ramadan, the month-long period in which Muslims must refrain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset. Families who eat before the official end of the fast do it in secret. Tunisian women fear abuse and violence if they are seen eating or drinking in public.
Visiting cafes during Ramadan is so clandestine that El Fani compares it to slinking guiltily into a sex shop. To demonstrate, she and her cinematographer enter one, causing the crowd of all-male patrons to hide their faces and threaten them unless they turn off the camera. Later, El Fani visits a restaurant where the policy is to serve only foreigners during Ramadan. "We have doubts about you," the waiter says. "You might be Tunisian, or you might be French."
Perhaps most troubling is the confusion between Islamic doctrine and national law. Over and over, El Fani encounters Tunisians who mistakenly believe that it is illegal to serve alcohol to Arabs or to break the fast during Ramadan. One man even claims that the constitution says all Tunisians must be Muslim and, at a demonstration, an Islamist throng chants, "Our constitution is the Koran!"
El Fani is casual and outspoken; she introduces viewers to Tunisians, including many women, in their own spaces – sprawled across a living room couch, gathered together on the front steps of a building, enjoying a cup of coffee in the garden – and discover just how much they have to lose. Neither Allah, Nor Master! documents Tunisians resisting religious ideology and fighting for a secular state in their everyday lives.
"Tunisians have wrested power from a decades-long dictatorship," El Fani says. "Now can they embrace the future by adopting a secular constitution?"
“Instructive and constructive!” —Premiere
2012, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival
2011, International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA)
2011, Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Conference Film Festival
2011, International Secular Prize Winner
“Fascinating! Useful for understanding the Arab Spring.” —Le Monde
"El Fani's deceptively simple film – which juxtaposes interviews with scenes of bustling markets and beaches – thought-provokingly argues that Tunisia may be in the throes of simply replacing one master, the deposed dictator, with another, an emboldened religious establishment. Recommended." —Video Librarian