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A Revolution in Four Seasons: Democracy, Feminism and A Western Lens

A Revolution in Four Seasons director Jessie Deeter speaks about the significance of the Tunisian Revolution on global democracy, the changing role of women in the Islamic world, and capturing those processes as a westerner.

HD: There are charismatic idealists and revolutionaries on all sides at the time of revolution. How did you land on your characters Jawhara and Emna?

JD: Sara Maamouri, my Tunisian-American co-producer, knew Bassem (Emna’s husband). Through him, we met Emna. She is a famous blogger/journalist and popular public figure, referred to as a heroine of the Revolution, and also quite engaging. Because I also wanted an Islamist perspective, I went to Ennahda (the Islamist party) and asked if they knew any women with a unique personal story we could follow. They introduced us to a handful of young women, and of those, Jawhara was the most forthright and open with us.  At the time she was an English teacher and youth organizer for Ennahda. When we chose to follow her we had no idea she’d run for parliament, which wound up being the first of several of the film’s “happy documentary accidents”. 

HD: On paper, a secular western audience may have more sympathy for Emna, a secular journalist, versus Jawhara, an Islamists. But in the end, Jawhara is arguably the more sympathetic character: she is solution-oriented in a nuanced conflict, while Emna is, at times, paralyzed by her blunt idealism.

JD: We initially wanted to make a film that would tell a story even Americans would understand, and with recent political developments it is more critical than ever to challenge negative stereotypes by telling real stories about relatable people in the Middle East / North African region of the world. We hope that people watching this film will see that the modern and changing role of women in Islamic countries mirrors the struggles of women in the West. Many Westerners think that women in the MENA region are relegated to conservative and traditional roles. In Tunisia, they actually hold great influence in building and driving culture from a leadership perspective. Ironically the same is not always true in the West.

 At the same time, it’s increasingly important to also get this perspective to Europe, and particularly Tunisia, where the conversation between secularists and Islamists is still very much front and center. Tunisia is still struggling to make good on the hopes and promises of the Revolution and still faces challenges of eradicating corruption, engaging marginalized populations in its interior region, reducing the weight of bureaucracy, getting people productive jobs, and translating reforms into tangible results for all Tunisians.

Nonetheless, I hope that the Tunisians and others who see the film are heartened by all that Tunisians have managed to accomplish in such a relatively short period of time. They negotiated a peaceful transfer of power from a transitional government to a democratically elected coalition government and drafted a new inclusive constitution that protects the freedom of assembly, the freedom of the press, and the freedom of religion, upholds human rights, and guarantees equality for men and women. They cast ballots in a free and fair elections, choosing from more than 100 political parties. It sounds trite for an outsider to preach tolerance, patience and peace, but I think that those were takeaways for me from the making of this story. And considering our current political climate in the United States and some European countries, there will hopefully be lessons in this film that resonate on a global level.

Tunisia has done something pretty incredible in the years since the Revolution but very few people outside Tunisia seem to know it. Democracy is a wonderful ideal but is also a messy, clumsy, dynamic, terrifying and sometimes boring process that is, as our title is meant to suggest, not achieved overnight. That the country is still struggling to make good on the hopes and promises of the Revolution is no surprise. What is surprising is the fact that, of the six countries that experienced an Arab Spring, Tunisia is the last democracy left standing.

HD: There are amazing parallels in your two characters’ lives, getting married and having children at the same time. How did these domestic events dictate the direction and intention of the film?

JD: In the making of documentaries like this one, where you are following real characters and real events as they unfold, you every now and then get fortunate enough to have “happy documentary accidents,” such as Emna and Jawhara getting married the same summer, then pregnant and then finally giving birth to girls two weeks apart. For the purposes of our film, the layers just kept getting deeper and better. The simultaneous pregnancies were painfully wonderful, contrasting their personal and professional struggles, as the women were both heavily pregnant in the summer of 2013, when Emna was outside the parliament protesting Jawhara’s Ennahda-led government on the inside, trying to finish writing the constitution. As Jawhara says in the middle of it all, “My personal situation is inseparable from the general situation in the country.”

Although I had initially wanted to be done with the film in a couple of years, once our characters both got pregnant I knew we had to stick with them through the journey, as the stakes for both would necessarily radically increase. Our heroes gave birth a couple of weeks apart to baby girls named Lina and Leila. They then both faced the additional and universal challenges of all women who have to figure out how to balance work and family. I found the stories of Jawhara and Emna became more poignant after they had both given birth and were struggling to figure out when and how to go back to work, and under what circumstances. It also increased the stakes of their investment in their country as, for example, Emna and Bassem were considering whether having a daughter increased the likelihood that they would want to flee the democracy they had been fighting to achieve.

HD: What do you find are the biggest barriers to financing and other institutional support when filming a society in the midst of a revolution?

JD: We had several things that made funding this documentary difficult; ironically, some of these were also our strengths.

I think it really hurt us in the eyes of funders that our film did not present immense suffering or violence, like war or refugees, but a quieter unfolding of stories that grew increasingly dramatic as the years marched on. We sensed that if we just had the patience to stick with our two main characters, Emna and Jawhara, their narratives would reveal the larger story of a country trying to come to terms with what it means to grow up into a democracy.

Because I am an American director, we didn’t qualify for most of the grants from North Africa and the Middle East, which was hard. But I strongly believed that this film required a director who didn’t have a horse in the race. It was important to us that one of our main characters was an Islamist, as one of our main questions was initially what would happen to the Islamists, who had been outlawed and exiled under the old regime, not allowed to participate in any part of the politics of their country. Since the Tunisian filmmaking community is, by and large, quite secular, a Tunisian filmmaker alone would not have made this film. That said, it was equally important to have a Tunisian filmmaker on the team with that insider’s perspective, and that the collaboration of Sara Maamouri and I produce a product that neither of us could have produced alone.

HD: What changes did the film undergo since pitching at Hot Docs Deal Maker? Did you pick up any financial support or beneficial connections from your one-on-one meetings?

JD: We made good connections in Hot Docs Deal Maker, one of whom introduced us to our international distributor, Sideways Film.  After pitching at Hot Docs Deal Maker we got very serious about finishing our shooting and settling down into the edit. It wasn’t until the fall of 2015 that we settled on the structure of the film, which led to the new title of the film. That was how TUNISIA 2.0 became A Revolution in Four Seasons. Once we had decided that our film fit pretty neatly into four years or, for the purpose of the structure and the title of the film, “seasons,” we properly launched into the edit. Getting the film finished in time for it to premiere at the Hot Docs just a year after being a Deal Maker project was a feat that required the amazing good will, talent and sheer hard work of our entire team plus a few good friends of the film. We were thrilled to have A Revolution in Four Seasons World Premiere at Hot Docs 2016, and it was well worth the struggle to get it there. Our Hot Docs premiere was then instrumental in securing our North American distributor, Women Make Movies.

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Coordinated by Madelaine Russo

Categories: Director's Notebook


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