Tunis, 1942: Against the Allied bombs and the goosesteps of the Nazi occupiers, two teenage girlfriends, one Muslim, the other Jewish, cling to the bond they’ve shared since childhood. Between these two, there are no secrets. In her bold second feature, Karin Albou returns to the themes of her first, La Petite Jerusalem: mapping the intersection of Jewish and Arab cultures and exploring female sexuality. Nour (Olympe Borval) is engaged to handsome Khaled, a physical attraction that Myriam (Lizzie Brocheré) takes vicarious pleasure in abetting. Myriam, for her part, has opportunity Nour lacks, namely an education, until the outspoken girl gets herself expelled from school. Outside the female quarters of home and hammam, the world shared by Jews and Arabs is being split by German promises of liberation—they’ll rid Tunis of the French and the Jews. The propaganda seeps through the gender wall; the Germans, after all, are “polite and blond,” Arab girls remark. Now between Nour and Myriam there are secrets. Myriam and her mother Tita (played by director Albou) are no longer safe, and Tita attempts to marry her reluctant daughter to a wealthy doctor to save them both. How thoroughly Jewish and Arab female worlds are merged is evident in the elaborate, intimate preparation of the bride for her wedding night, “Oriental style”; how thoroughly politics have infused the personal is evidenced by what happens after the wedding. Marriage, like friendship, becomes a test of ethics and courage.
In beautifully limning a multifold micro-universe, Tunisian-French writer-director Karin Albou follows on the success of La Petite Jerusalem (SFJFF 2006), which won Best Screenplay in the Cannes Critics’ Week. Her documentary My Country Left Me (SFJFF 1998) described the transplantation of Tunisian Judeo-Arabic culture to Paris. Her shorts include Aïd El Kebir (1999), set in Algeria, her parents’ country of origin.