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French Version

Behind the scenes with Moncef Kahloucha

Nejib Belkadhi's 'VHS Kahloucha' is a hilarious guide to the idiosyncratic work of the indomitable director and star of 'Tarzan of the Arabs'

One of the institutions of contemporary film consumption is the "making of" documentary. Its origins are murky but it seems to have sprung from promotional considerations - producers sending cameras onto film sets for candid shots of actor and auteur at work. Sometimes such documentaries become features in their own right - witness "Hearts of Darkness," the art-house hit documenting Francis Ford Coppola's travails in filming "Apocalypse Now."

The genre's appeal rests on the atavistic voyeurism of consumers. Depending on whether the marketing department wants to appeal to low-, middle- or highbrow audiences, such documentaries can take the form of mindless star chatter a-la "Entertainment Tonight" or the somber musings on the "creative process" you find among the special features on certain DVDs.

With "VHS Kahloucha," Tunisian director Nejib Belkadhi has found an excuse to turn the "making of" documentary into cinema that's at once insightful and hilarious.

The main reason is his star, Moncef Kahloucha, a resident of Kazmet - a working class quarter in the Tunisian tourist city of Sousse, which happens to be the home town of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Though he makes his living as a housepainter, Kahloucha's passion is filmmaking. He writes, directs and produces his films. He buys his props (wigs, vampire fangs, television husks) from the local souk. He is also his own principle actor.

His collaborators are one pal who owns a Panasonic VHS camera (who films weddings for a living) and another pal who owns some video-editing equipment (who goes on to create a company that edits wedding videos). His co-stars are his relatives, friends and neighbors.

Belkadhi's film follows Kahloucha's creative process - cajoling his actors to come to work, filming, advertising and "screening" the finished product. Though it follows the making of the filmmaker's "Tarzan of the Arabs," many of the scenes recorded in "VHS Kahloucha" involve a cops-and-gangsters scenario that bears no obvious relationship to the hirsute hero in the leopard-skin loincloth.

One of the striking things about Moncef Kahloucha is how seriously he inhabits the role of filmmaker. He discusses and goes about his work with single-minded determination and is unwavering in his creative disagreements with his collaborators. The editor and cameraman's remarks about Kahloucha's know-it-all egomania echo anything you've heard about Hollywood's A-list talent.

The friction between Kahloucha's earnest exertions and the amateurish cheesiness of his finished product make for plenty of comedy.

"Tarzan of the Arabs" is a comic masterpiece - from Kahloucha's version of the Tarzan call to Tarzan's wrestling in the dirt with a vicious "wolf," a pointy-eared dog that's been stuffed into a rigid, tail-wagging posture.

One of the gangster sequences calls for a thug to shoot down another character in cold blood. Kahloucha doesn't have any mock blood on hand, so he improvises by slashing open his forearm with a razorblade. He slaps it to coax up some blood, then dabs it on his actor to make the fake wound look convincing.

Cheesy as it is, Kahloucha's work is undeniably popular among Kazmetis, who also find it hilarious. The VHS tapes bearing his work have remarkably wide distribution. They're shown in the cafes of Kazmet and the home VCRs of the Tunisian emigrant community in Italy - whose ranks are thick with Kazmetis.

The film aesthetic Kahloucha emulates is that of the American B-movie, evidently the stuff to which he's been most exposed. It's unclear whether the popularity of his work means Kazmetis share his love of the genre, or whether there's something else going on here.

Belkadhi doesn't speculate on the matter, preferring to allow his subjects to speak for themselves. Kazmet's expats seem to enjoy the rare privilege of seeing friends and family and their neighborhood landmarks.

For those still living back home, the pleasure of seeing themselves and their surroundings in Kahloucha's creations seems to alleviate the boredom of unemployment.

Kahloucha's workaday dealings with his neighbors-cum-crew provides Belkadhi with a unique window on the lives of the quarter's residents and makes his film more than just a laugh at Kahloucha's expense.

One issue Belkadhi's camera repeatedly encounters is the ambiguous position of Kazmet's women residents. Kahloucha's female actors are all too aware of what they are and are not willing to do on camera. One middle-aged neighbor has a recalcitrant husband who arbitrarily refuses to let her appear on camera.

Another actor, musing on the rate of emigration from the quarter, remarks that lots of women work illegally in Italy because they'd rather risk prison there than work as prostitutes here.

The grinding poverty of Kazmet, especially as it contrasts with the relative opulence of Sousse's tourist economy, contributes to the violence of the place. One of Kahloucha's bit-players (generally employed to play a thug) drives around town with a machete under the seat of his moped - a necessary tool, he says, for neighborhood scuffles.

The violence endured by Kazmet residents is foiled by B-movie violence at the core of Kahloucha's oeuvre, which may go far to explain why it so reverberates with local audiences.

Two years after "VHS Kahloucha" was completed, the audience is informed, four of Kahloucha's bit players are in prison, as is his one of his sons. Kahloucha himself is still working on building sites, but is planning a slasher flick.

Beirut,30January2007
Redaction
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