Her marriage dissolved, Aicha, the heroine of Moufida Tlatli’s unsparing The Season of Men, leaves Tunis to take refuge on Djerba, the small Tunisian island where she was born. Aicha hopes to recapture a tranquillity that she remembers from her childhood. Instead, the return to her husband’s family villa, where she lived as a virtual prisoner for more than a decade, awakens painful memories, not only for Aicha, but for her two grown daughters, Meriem and Emna, who have accompanied her to help care for their young autistic brother.
The Season of Men is Tlatli’s second film, the follow-up to her tumultuous but incisive The Silences of the Palace (1993). The two films are similar in that they deal with the relations between mothers and daughters and the heritage of institutionalized misogyny in Tunisia, where women, legally, are more emancipated than in any other Arab state. Tlatli, who was Tunisia’s most important film editor before becoming a director, benefited from this relative liberalism, but her own privileged status also made her aware of the degree to which the laws did not translate into practice for most women.
Exactly how threatening Tlatli’s films are was brought home to me at a recent conference on Middle Eastern and North African film when a male Arab film scholar chastised me for reading The Season of Men as anything other than one neurotic woman’s personal fiction. He told me that it’s fine to enjoy the film but not to extrapolate from it anything to do with the condition of women in Arab society. But what’s strongest in both The Silences of the Palace and The Season of Men is the way Tlatli uses narrative to show how traditions governing the family and sexuality are still passed from generation to generation and are internalized as obstacles to change.
For this end, the flashback structure that Tlatli employs in both films is crucial. For Aicha and her daughters, revived memories open old wounds. However agonizing the process, only this confrontation with the past offers the possibility of moving forward. But the dominance of flashback aside, The Season of Men is stylistically different from The Silences of the Palace. In her first film, Tlatli infused old-fashioned Egyptian melodrama with new meaning by refashioning its alluring surface and narrative of sexual jealousy and revenge to a female point of view. The Season of Men is also a very beautiful film, but its bleached desert colors and flatter perspectives are less inviting, and the back-and-forth between present and past can occasionally be confusing. These very well may be conscious tactics on Tlatli’s part. Rather than drawing on traditional genre, she’s trying to fashion a new form for new meaning, and the complexities of doing so are no different in art than in life.