In 2011 Tunisia, against the backdrop of the rising Arab Spring, unemployed graduate Aziz, nicknamed Zizou (Zied Ayadi), travels from his Saharan village to the big city of Tunis in search of a job. A modern Candide, Zizou is loveable, gullible, and optimistic, wearing his heart on his sleeve. When he reaches a souk in Tunis, he discovers his soon-to-be father in law’s shop, where he was supposed to work, permanently shuttered.
With the easy luck of a nice guy with a college education, the merits of which few comprehend in a country with rampant unemployment–“What’s the point of an education?” his friend Adel says. “I went straight into business.”–he gets a job installing satellite dishes on the roofs of people’s houses.
The story quickly turns comic, as his first customer–a fleshy, breathless woman who, unbeknownst to her husband, orders new satellite dishes as a means of meeting young men–casts him out of her house for lack of a cell phone on which to reach him for booty calls. Despite numerous setbacks, though, Zizou maintains his optimism and integrity, buoyed by his authentic country charm.
Zizou does many inexplicable things. He carries a feeble old woman on his back to a dog shop. He defends a woman being attacked and shamed by a male demonstrator, getting beaten in the process. And one day, while working on the terraces of the village of Sidi Bou Said, Zizou meets a lovely, weeping woman, Aicha, who is being held captive by a mafia group close to the regime. She’s showered with gifts and placated, but imprisoned nonetheless. Zizou snaps her picture and becomes enamoured.
He is soon approached by Mr. Sadok, head of the Moncef Bey party unit, who’s planning a rally.
“Your job takes you into people’s homes,” Sadok says. “You hear what they say, both rich and poor. If you hear something, tell us!”
“But they’ll say I’m a snitch,” Zizou replies.
“Not at all. You’ll be doing a good deed. How can we help them if we don’t know what they need?”
“Oh well, that’s fine, then,” Zizou concludes, gullibly.
Thus Zizou unwittingly becomes a key figure in a political struggle, and party to the chaotic protests of citizens living under a corrupt dictatorship. He meets many people, as the synopsis says, “from the pros of the despotic regime to the Islamist clandestine opponents, as well as with the new rich, greedy for easy pleasures, and with the lower strata who are getting poorer, but remain ‘macho’.”
Based on real events, the story is told in a humorous and ironic tone through which director Férid Boughedir paints a vivid portrait of modern Tunisia. A former critic, prolific author on Africa and the Arab world, and former director of the Carthage Film Festival, he’s made five feature films since 1983. His first feature, “Halfaouine (Boy of the Terraces),” was shown in Cannes in 1990 to critical acclaim and remains the biggest success in Tunisian film.
Apart from a TV movie in 2008, he had not shot a film since “A Summer at the Goulette” in 1995. “Zizou” is well worth the wait. The film delights with Oscar-worthy cinematography and performances, namely by lead actor Ayadi, whose naivete and youthful optimism make anything–revolution, rescuing a beautiful woman from thugs, or making a better life for himself–seem imminently possible.
Through comedy, Boughedir renders all the political players, from the activists to the bourgeoisie to the leftist militant Syndicato to the President, as caricatures. He even pokes fun at himself, making a cameo appearance as an unscrupulous real estate agent trying to get a family to sell their home to settle the mountain of debt he got them into.
“Who holds you prisoner?” Zizou asks Aicha.
She refuses to mention her captor’s name, only saying, “He wants me to love him.”
“Someone needs to rescue you,” Zizou replies.
“Like who? Who’s the hero of this tale?” Aicha asks, a cheeky bit of dialogue that showcases Boughedir’s ability to turn every theme on its head.
But apart from love and the occasional odd job, it’s unclear what Zizou really wants. He’s a proxy for the forces of the movement, with factions pulling in different directions, sometimes planned and sometimes not, sometimes with a purpose and other times without. In the hierarchy of needs, Zizou lacks safety and constant shelter, but clamors for fulfillment and self actualization like the ordinary, working-class citizens opposing the regime.
With nobody left to revere, Zizou emerges as an unsuspecting hero in spite of himself. And just when the protests reach a fever pitch, Boughedir inserts documentary footage of the actual revolution, lending weight to his absurdist tale. It begs the question why outstanding foreign language films, often more meaningful and evocative than formulaic Hollywood studio tent-poles, can’t enjoy similar theatrical releases.
In a word, “Zizou” is masterful, and should be required viewing for anyone hungry for a comedic study of the real forces that gave birth to the Tunisian Revolution or, simply, the lengths to which a man will go for love. Its only drawback is its limitations on the roles of women in the film and the struggle.
“Zizou” screens Monday, May 8 at 4:30pm in the 24th New York African Film Festival at Lincoln Center. Tix: http://www.africanfilmny.org/event/zizou-2/