Directed by Jilani Saadi
Global Film Initiative, Tunisia, 2002
Tunisian filmmaker Jilani Saadi’s first feature film is a charming yet merciless farce, a contradiction as perplexing as Khorma himself.The “idiot” of the title is an odd creature: tall and lanky, with orange hair and a stupid grin, he seems to invite the ridiculous. He entertains street kids with his cow imitations and delights in urinating designs on the medina walls.
But we also feel for this strange man. Med Graya’s acting of the role and Saadi’s direction highlight the effect of various humiliations on Khorma’s sensitive soul. When he is the only worker not paid as wages are handed out, the camera lingers on his face. We see his hurt as he realizes that he doesn’t count – that his presence isn’t even acknowledged by the man who distributes the wages.
Khorma is aware of all that goes on around him, and has deep feelings. Women laugh at his never-ending attentions, so he pours out pangs of unrequited love by singing alone to the sea or on rooftops, imitating the late Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez, gesture by gesture. We cannot help but feel for this fool.
Saadi has given us a carnival experience in the time of the annual moussem in Bizerte, tying together Christian and Muslim festival traditions. Khorma is an orphan who has been adopted by Bou Khaleb, one of the zawiyya “clerics” who announce weddings and funerals in the medina, the old part of the city. Thesefuqha are part of the local zawiyya culture surrounding a saint’s tomb in the cemetery, which is a site for pilgrimages and visits to family tombs during the moussem. Often they are paid to recite the Quran by families visiting the tombs of deceased relatives.
The zawiyya culture also includes the tomb makers and those who sell bread for tomb offerings and water for washing of the tombs. They share the food donated to the local mosque and comprise a subculture that exists primarily on the good graces of the cemetery visitors.
One day Bou Khaleb has a psychic premonition of a woman’s death and announces it in front of her house as she is busy cooking inside; the startling pronouncement brings predictable farcical consequences. The kind-hearted Bou Khaleb is unfortunately becoming clairvoyant as he is going insane, and the zawiyya folks decide that Khorma should take his place. They assume that Khorma is too stupid to do anything other than what he is told, so he will be easily manipulated.
However, Khorma takes his transformation quite seriously: he dons a prayer shawl and robe, takes a walking stick, and announces that his name is from then on “Billal” – that of the black slave who became a companion of the Prophet. In true carnival fashion, he turns things topsy-turvy when he, the lowly village idiot, takes Bou Khaleb’s place and challenges the economic and class system of the medina.
Khorma decides that water should be sold, not given away, at the cemetery. He creates an elaborate scheme for all involved in cemetery “production” to get a cut of the profits, which are created by increasing the prices of all services, from tomb making to henna-painting of dead women. He intends to “charge the rich twice so that the poor don’t have to pay.”
Not only does Khorma change the economic system of the zawiyya, but he stands up for orphans and women who have been exploited by local merchants. “What do you get for this?” someone asks him. “God will thank me,” he replies. “All I want is his consideration.”
Khorma is not, however, a saint. He unfortunately miscalculates when he offers a free funeral to a woman in exchange for a party in her family’s house. The dead man’s niece discovers Khorma and his friends dancing and drinking, toasting “Hadj Billal” only three days after the death of her uncle, and she turns Khorma in to the medina elders, who are only too glad to “crucify” him to put an end to his high prices and social disruption.
The elders haul him through the streets of the medina to the seashore, where they strip him, cover him with honey and seeds, and tie him to a sign post which reads, “Trash Dumping Prohibited.” They leave him overnight, exposed to the mosquitoes, the birds and the cold wind. The reference to Christ’s final journey is foretold by one of his companions the night before, who had said to him, “Jesus proclaimed the truth, and he was crucified. It can easily happen to you, a poor man.”
This is farce, however, not tragedy or religious drama. Khorma survives the night, is brought his old clothes by an orphan boy he had befriended, and dances off along the seashore. Returned to his former self, he and his anarchy will live to disrupt another day.
This review will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 10, no. 46.
Copyright © by Al Jadid (2004)