Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Railway Men, Tunisia’s Complicated Present

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Aisha Jamal on Erige Sehiri’s Railway Men and its character driven depiction of contemporary Tunisia in the wake of the Arab Spring.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, Arab filmmakers face pressure to make a certain kind of documentary cinema – one that addresses the post-revolutionary context head-on and which relies less on interpretive than explicit subject matter. In contrast, Erige Sehiri’s film Railway Men appears on first glance to tackle a benign subject: a profile of some of the people that work for Tunisia’s infamous national railway. However, through the story of this semi-dysfunctional company and a handful of its employees, Sehiri offers us a film that begs its audience to extract the metaphors and symbols that speak to Tunisia’s complicated present. If the country is to thrive, Sehiri posits, then it will be because of resilient and determined Tunisians like the ones features in her documentary feature debut.  

There is a meaningful allegory in the fact that the film focuses on Tunisia’s national Railway Line Number One, dubbed the “normal line,” which used to reach from Tunis along the Mediterranean Sea to Marrakech. Today, the film informs us, the line stops at the Algerian border. The connective tissue between these Arab nations has disappeared. Line Number One started operation in the fifties, incidentally at the height of a pan-Arabism, an ideologically driven, transnational movement to build solidarity between Arab identities across North Africa and Western Asia. In the wake of the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia, like its neighbours Libya and Algeria, has folded inward and is focused on its own unique national struggles. Now each national rail line stops short of the other’s borders. Perhaps this focus on the self is a welcome turn because what also connected these nations across borders was the harsh reality of dysfunctional governments.

It is possible to read the film’s ability to lay bare the problems of a company as powerful as the national railway in an optimistic light. But for Issam, a train conductor determined to fight the railway’s corruption, his participation in a TV program appropriately called El Haak Maak (The Truth) comes at a high professional and personal price. Each of the characters Sehiri chooses is emblematic of a new, determined and struggling generation of Tunisian; including Afef, the railway’s first ever female train conductor; Abee, who dreams of a career in hip hop while paying his bills via a rail job; Ahmed, an art director turned train conductor, and his grandfather, also a former train conductor driving the same line. Amongst the film’s five characters, Issam is perhaps the most compelling and telling character. Faced with the reprimands of a police officer for filming trouble brewing outside his train cart on his mobile device, Issam retorts “It’s my right to film the problems of the company.” As a man of principle, he is determined to expose the neglect and mismanagement of the rail company by those in power. His tenacity costs him dearly but he never falters in his commitment. 

In Sehiri’s hands, the story of Tunisia’s railway and its men and women becomes a multifaceted portrait of a country undergoing an incomplete and difficult yet encouraging transition post revolution. Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, widely believed to be the catalyst for the domino of pro-democracy movements across the region dubbed the Arab Spring, began almost nine years ago. A simple story line of a troubled railway becomes a telling portrait of a country’s future, marred both in hope and despair and wholeheartedly reliant on the bravery and strength of its people.

Aisha Jamal is a filmmaker and Canadian Film Programmer at Hot Docs Documentary Festival & Programming Associate at TIFF. 

Railway Men screens on Sunday 8th September at the Prince Charles Cinema