Arts & Entertainment

Hollywood's Tunisian Film Festival marks Arab Spring anniversary

File: A Tunisian woman holds a flag of Tunisia during a demonstration in front of the assembly on December 3, 2011 in Tunis.
File: A Tunisian woman holds a flag of Tunisia during a demonstration in front of the assembly on December 3, 2011 in Tunis.
Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

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The first-ever Tunisian Film Festival in the United States starts Tuesday in Hollywood.

All the entries were made in Tunisia by Tunisian filmmakers. Organizers say the three-day festival marks the first anniversary of the Tunisian revolution.

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia on the day a fruit vendor set himself on fire to protest inhumane treatment by a city official.

That dramatic protest incited thousands to take to the streets in the small North African country best known, much like L.A., for awesome weather and gorgeous beaches.

And a year ago this week, Tunisian president Zine Ben Ali fled the country, ending his 23-year dictatorship.

Dhia Rabiai is helping organize the Tunisian Film Festival. He says lines written by Tunisian poet Aboul Qacem Echebbi inspired the Arab Spring. Thousands of protestors chanted the nearly century-old poem in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt.

Translated into English, it says, “If, one day, a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call. And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall.”

Rabiai says he hopes the poem will inspire Americans, too. He says that’s why one of the films in the festival is a documentary about Aboul Qacem Echebbi’s life.

"He died at 25, yet he remains as the most known and respected Arab poet. He stood up for women’s rights and women were a big, big part of the revolution, and he was a revolutionary, he had a lot of poems addressed to dictators."

Organizers say the Tunisian Film Festival marks the end of dictatorship and the beginning of free expression in their homeland.

So there’ll be plenty of documentaries about the revolution, but that’s not all.

There’s an action film in the festival lineup — and a comedy about a bank heist.

“Cinecitta” is a comedy about a film crew denied funding from the Tunisian ministry of culture. So they rob a bank to get the cash.

Dhia Rabiai says while the film was made a couple of years before the Tunisian revolution, it’s a subtle jab at Ben Ali’s long rule.

"Back in the day," Rabiai said, "the dictator, his favorite number was seven, and the car that they used to rob the bank had the seven painted very, very big!"

Rabiai says he hopes the Tunisian Film Festival will give Angelenos a better understanding of the small North African country that sparked the Arab Spring.

The Tunisian Film Festival starts Tuesday and runs through Thursday at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.