Boy Voyeur

When does a child become a man? That key question inspired Tunisian writer/director Ferid Boughedir to make his lyrical comedy Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces, about a pint-size lad allowed into the Turkish baths of Tunis well beyond the usual age. (A hit at the 1991 San Francisco International Film Festival, it finally opens at the Roxie Friday, Sept. 29.)

There's an autobiographical element to the tale, the genial 5-foot-2 director explains. “I am very short. The mothers in my country never admit their boy is grown up, even when they're married. So they're always lying to the [women's] bath keeper about the age of their boys to make sure they're well-washed. After six or seven years, the boys have to go to the men's bath, and they lose all the softness and tenderness and warmth of the women's world.”

Boughedir's mother would lie that he was 7 or 8 when he was 13. “I had to look very dumb to continue to go there,” he recalls. “I was impressed by the fact that even though the women were fat, they had dignity. They walked like queens. That's what you don't understand from the outside, where there are a lot of stereotypes. You always imagine they are veiled and jailed, but when you're within, like myself, you discover that Arab women are more at ease with their bodies than men. A strong sensuality is hidden behind the puritanism that is only seen from the outside. The baths were not an erotic experience. I didn't have an erection. We were there discovering the other sex. It was like a fairy tale.”

The boys don't only observe that sensuality, they feel it, Boughedir emphasizes. “You're not afraid anymore of touching someone else's skin. A mother with too many children may ask someone else to bathe and massage the child. You're used to being taken by other hands. When you're in the Arab world, men may hold hands in the street. When somebody speaks to you, they touch you all the time. I think it's very fundamental in our experience of growing up.”

In the film, Noura (the director's alter ego, played by his nephew, Selim Boughedir) conveys a sense of wonder and innocence as he watches the partially draped women in that misty world. At the same time, the camera captures rounded beauty with Renoir-like felicity.

Egged on by randy older boys, Noura becomes a peeping Tom on their behalf, but his own sexual curiosity is aroused by the coquettish behavior of a beautiful, unconventional relative with a flirtatious shoemaker/singer in the working-class district of Tunis known as Halfaouine. Clambering over the rooftops, Noura catches glimpses of secret romances — as well as the roughshod police tactics against “subversives.” Although his imagination is gripped by the women's tales of ogres and castles and kidnapped princesses, his fancy turns to the charms of Leila, a lovely, quiet 15-year-old orphan placed in the family's care. His leap out of childhood sends him flying over the rooftops again with joyful abandon, new master of his fate.

Boughedir believes that the director, like Noura, is “a peeping Tom of life — sometimes for very intimate things, not for himself, but for the audience.” He wanted to show that the fantasy world was real to Noura: “Since he believes in that, he can discover the magic and myth beneath reality. Thank God, cinema has the same ability. The camera can make you see the magic where you usually see only the things of daily life.”

Before Halfaouine premiered at Cannes, people told Boughedir, ” 'You must be crazy filming Arab women naked in a Turkish bath. The censorship board will cut it.' ” The film passed, however, without interference; the minister of culture noted, “There is no rape, no sexual abuse, and we all went to Turkish baths, so what is the problem?”

But two months after the film's release, with two screenings a day to full houses, some fundamentalists in the Tunisian parliament asked why it had not been banned. For five days, the debate dragged on. Finally, the president of the parliament declared: “This is not a cinema club. Please stop speaking about the film. This film is about little birds on the roof, and the bird is a symbol of freedom. Why do you want to shoot this bird? Let it fly!”

Halfaouine opens Fri, Sept. 29, at the Roxie in S.F. and Fri, Oct. 13, at the UC Theatre in Berkeley.

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