BIFF 2013 - Cursed Be The Phosphate - Cinema Review

'A self-penned poem, read by a third party, shows up repeatedly, weaving a factual tale with creative embellishment'

One of a growing number of very necessary and welcome documentaries covering the Arab Spring, Cursed Be The Phosphate sees Sami Tlili travel to Gafsa and Redeyef in central Tunisia, to examine the impact a labour dispute had on the region's recent political instability. Starting in 2008, well before many other better-covered flashpoints made national and international media, Tlili tells a now-familiar story of slowly escalating rallies, arrests and, eventually, violent put-downs. For the most part, he tells it well.

Outside of the context of this individual film, there is a growing problem with Arab Spring documentaries that each seems to take its given piece of the puzzle in isolation. Phosphate is no different. There is focus here on two places in one country and only those two places, with little context added to the effects felt outside of these locations, other than the members of the resistance who claim that the Redeyef uprising was the real start of the unrest. It feels like we are still waiting for the definitive word (or, hopefully, words) to be produced in this topic area, or at least still waiting for all of the voices to chime in. Normally this would not feel like so much of a problem but with the Spring being an event which so clearly was one borne from several ripples, understanding of the wider situation is vital.

What Tlili does do excellently is find clever and interesting ways of telling what could have been, and can be, a very straight-faced documentary. A self-penned poem, read by a third party, shows up repeatedly, weaving a factual tale with creative embellishment, as subjects deliver talking heads interviews. There's great music too, again following a 'revolutionary poet' slant, a nice meld of form and message.

The desire of the inhabitants of the economically weak region too has interesting echoes to consider in Western culture. It feels currently as though we are being told near-constantly that we are a nation of 'scroungers'. In contrast to these claims, Tlili proudly presents people who are so desperate for work and a fair share that they will risk their lives to get both of those things. The relationship between the two is almost certainly tenuous but the message and topic could not be more timely and relevant for us to contemplate.

Whilst this is going on though, sometimes the journalism and research appears to take a hit. We are notably never told the details of the labour dispute that sparked the riots. An interviewee who returns home late in the film never really gets to tell us why or how he left, nor why he is returning, which feels like a huge missed opportunity to capture a story. What is here though is, at the very least, highly accomplished, and possibly a vital entry on the topic.

Cursed Be The Phosphate screens again on Friday 19th April.

The 19th Bradford International Film Festival runs from 11th to 21st April 2013 at the National Media Museum and other venues near to the city.

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