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‘El Gort’ offers insight on impoverished youth in Tunisia

A documentary sheds light on the lives of two young men who represent a wider affliction of unemployment amongst youth in Tunisia
Hamza Ouni, the director of Tunisian documentary 'El Gort' (MEE/Christine Petre)

Since the December 2010 uprising swept through Tunisia, unemployment rates amongst young Tunisians have increased. The lack of opportunities left many with a desire to leave. While some tried their luck by attempting to go to Europe, others have been lured to fight with militant groups in Syria or Iraq. One Tunisian film director is trying to shed light on the worrying development.

“A majority of the young Tunisians want to leave Tunisia,” argued the 39-year-old film director Hamza Ouni. “Why is it the youth aren’t finding their place in the society?” he asks.

It was questions like these that paved the way for Ouni’s first documentary film “El Gort,” slang for “hay/straw” which premiered on 13 February 2014 after six years of filming. The 87 minute documentary, the first from the director, has been awarded a number of prizes and has been showcased at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

The film follows Khayri and Wechwecha, two young Tunisians, who are trying to make a living by selling hay, a common but particularly harsh occupation in Tunisia. The camera follows their lives as they get up early in the morning and work until late at night, sometimes without food. The profession was close to home for Ouni, whose father used to work in the hay industry.

“I wanted to know what Tunisia has done for my father, and what my father has done for my country,” explains Ouni.

The dialogue is quick and brutal. It was important for Ouni that Khayri and Wechwecha felt comfortable in front of the camera, and he succeeded, to the extent that the film was banned in some places and censored in others for its strong language. Despite their gloomy everyday lives, the two boys crack jokes and sing along with the local radio station, while sitting next to the truck driver. Many of the lyrics they sing along to depict the reality they live in, the lack of future prospects, the risk of exploitation and the desire to leave and start a new life. This becomes clear through the scenes of drinking and evident despair. 

High unemployment rates among the youth

Ouni explains that there were both personal and social reasons behind the making of the film, and that he wanted to place the audience in the shoes of the youth.

“Many of the young people that I spoke to were without hope,” he told Middle East Eye while smoking in a small café in central downtown Tunis. “I noticed how the young kept a lot of frustration within themselves.”   

After the uprising, the unemployment rate among the country’s youth increased and is today estimated to be more than 30 percent. Tunisia has one of the region’s highest numbers of young men and women between the ages of 15 and 29 who are not in employment, education or training (NEET). It is thought that at least half of them are estimated to feel discouraged from even searching for work opportunities. Factors such as bribery, nepotism and regionalism were, according to the World Bank Report Breaking the Barriers to Youth Inclusion, reasons that make employment successful. According to the same report, the situation is especially bad in rural Tunisia, where more than two out of five youth are NEET, compared with around one in three in the urban parts of the county.

Ouni is passionate about depicting the reality of young people. He believes that the media has failed to candidly represent everyday Tunisian life, which is one of the reasons he decided to film from his hometown El Mhammedia, south of the capital Tunis, where he grew up and continues to live. In El Mhammedia, he noticed that many of the young people are forced into work in areas like the hay business, due to the lack of other opportunities.

High trust in military and religious organisations

While many hoped to see quick improvements in the aftermath of the uprising, the lack of opportunities has contributed to an increasing level of distrust of politicians and public institutions, Ouni says.

An estimated 8.8 percent of rural youth and 31.1 percent of urban youth claim to trust the political system. Trusting the police is also on the low side, which is depicted in the movie. During one scene, the two boys sit in the truck singing: “This country disgusts me, earning a living is dangerous, I’m honest, yet I end up in jail.”

Instead, it is the military and religious organisations that are gaining the youth’s confidence, with trust rates up to 80 percent. This development has contributed to the increasing desire to leave the country, claims a distressed Ouni.

“The rich want to leave, the poor want to leave, the educated want to leave, the uneducated want to leave,” he says.

“People try to go to Italy to live, and to Syria to die,” said Mohamed Iqbal Ben Rejeb, who has founded RATTA, an organisation that tries to prevent young people from going to commit “jihad” in Syria or Iraq by spreading information about the phenomenon and assisting affected families.

The risk is that the recruiters will be able to influence the country’s disillusioned youth, Ben Rejeb argued. This was what happened to his younger brother Hamza.

Hamza, paralyzed from the waist down, was persuaded to go fight in Syria. It was brain-washing, states Ben Rejeb.

“They [the recruiters] managed to convince Hamza that he was a genius,” he said and sighs.

But Hamza, unlike many other young people who leave their country to go to Syria, was lucky and able to return safely to Tunisia shortly after his departure. When asked how Hamza is feeling today, Ben Rejeb shrugs and shakes his shoulders. “He is okay,” he said.

It has become clear that the country’s disillusioned youth have become a targeted group for recruiters with a radical agenda. Earlier in March, Tunisia experienced its worst terrorist attack in many years, as 24 people were killed at Bardo museum in the capital city.

The two attackers, 19-year-old Saber Khachnaoui from the marginalised city of Kasserine, one of the birthplaces of the revolution, and 27-year-old Yassine Laabidi from a Tunis suburb, were both killed on the scene. They were believed to have been lured to Libya where they received their training.

“I would give my life to know who did this,” cried Sayida, one of Yassine’s cousins, outside his house in a neighbourhood still in shock a few days after the attack. She blames the recruiters who are able to get inside the heads of these young people.

Stay and build the country?

Today, as El Gort is screened again in some of the cinemas in Tunis. Its message remains important and strikes a chord with viewers.

“The film is very authentic,” said 22-year-old Shams Radhouani Abdi who is studying to be a teacher. “It speaks of a reality of a majority of young, poor Tunisians…a marginalised youth.”

According to her the film has a critical message, and although she believes it shouldn’t be seen as a representation of all young Tunisians, it does reflect a visible issue in Tunisian society.

“The biggest challenge for the youth is to keep hope alive,” she said.

At the same time, Ouni argues that there is a trend among some young people to consider themselves as victims.

“I don’t like this label. It’s an individual responsibility too,” he pointed out.

Radhouani Abdi is part of the same age group as some of the young people who leave for Syria, Iraq or Libya. To her it is difficult to understand why they leave to these countries. She also has friends who want to leave Tunisia, but not for the same reasons as Khayri and Wechwecha. Instead her friends dream of studying or living in a European city for a limited time period.

But Radhouani herself doesn’t want to leave Tunisia.

“No,” she determinedly said, “I have chosen to study to be a teacher here and that’s what I would like to do.” 

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