Africa

Film festival offers Tunisian inmates rare escape

The initiative is the latest stage of a project that began with festival film screenings inside prisons seven years ago. (Photo by Yassine Gaidi-Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

For the first time, three prison inmates in Tunisia were allowed a brief taste of freedom for the sake of art.

The prestigious Carthage Film Festival offered the prisoners the chance to briefly escape confinement – under police supervision – to help make a documentary about the festival.

“To be free, even for a while – nothing is more beautiful,” said one of the inmates, who gave his name as Nemss.

The trio were chosen due to their “good behaviour, but also their audiovisual gifts”, said Tarek Fanni, the head of cultural programmes at the prison authorities.

“It’s an important means of reintegration,” Fani said.

The idea was the result of a collaboration between the film festival, the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the North African nation’s prison authority.

Nemss, 30, who has already spent one-third of his life in prison and has five more years left to serve, said leaving the confines of jail was a major event.

“After this moment of happiness, I ask myself how I will return to the prison,” Nemss said.

The three inmates had already undergone eight months of training at a club in their prison in Mahdia city, on Tunisia’s eastern coast.

‘Feel free’

The training “had a very positive effect on the behaviour of the inmates”, the deputy head of Mahdia Prison, Colonel Hamdi Halila, told AFP.

“We would like to expand it to all prison establishments,” he added.

Similarly excited was “T”, 30, a former architecture student who was arrested for drugs leaving the same festival in 2016.

“All the key moments of my life seem to have to do with the Carthage Film Festival,” he said, smiling.

“This outing gives us the impression of leading a normal life.”

The third prisoner, “K”, who has spent five years in prison and is expected to leave in two, hopes the skills will help him once he is free.

He plans to launch an audiovisual production company.

“Since joining the club… I have been less stressed. I have other objectives in my head, it makes me feel free even within the walls of the prison,” K said.

The initiative is the latest stage of a project that began with festival film screenings inside prisons seven years ago.

This year, movies were shown to about 14 000 inmates, and the three prison filmmakers helped screen a film for 40 teenagers from Tunisia’s juvenile detention centres.

“Here, we discovered the value of life, art and freedom,” one inmate said in a voiceover on the documentary they made, screened at the closing of the festival’s 32nd edition on Saturday.

Tunisia has about 28 prisons incarcerating some 24 000 inmates, according to the OMCT.

Gabriel Reither, OMCT’s director, said the project was aimed to “offer inmates a moment of relief, to have them participate in something truly pleasant”.

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