Nadia El Fani’s Laicite, Inch’Allah or Neither Allah, Nor Master came out a decade ago. It made some waves within the festival circuit more than a decade ago. And the few English language critics who saw it billed it as a time capsule. It captured life before and during the Tunisian theatre of the Arab Spring. Tunisia’s Arab Spring seems successful because that country hasn’t been on the headlines for a decade. But between 2009 to 2011, everything was up in the air, as the documentary captures.
El Fani and her fellow upper to middle class intellectuals are seeing the slippery slope between secularist dictatorship and Islamism. OVID is re-releasing this film during Ramadan of all months. I had serious doubts about this documentary. It made me think that El Fani and her fellow intellectuals are the kind of people of colour who wish they were white. But it thankfully finds a few different angles within that main one even if it treads on familiar grounds.
El Fani is often in front of the camera, but she shares that screen with others. And the flaw of those talking heads is that they rarely deviate from what she’s saying. These other interviews though drop breadcrumbs. They hint at what it’s like to experience Ramadan as an atheist or secular Francophone in a supposedly multilingual society. Atheists have other unwritten laws against them in other Christian countries, like being unelectable. However, they can, in Christian countries, live their lives next to religious people. In Tunisia, atheists have to hide the fact that they’re not fasting. Other subjects talk about how they, as women, face more consequences. And they do so for not fasting, much more than dressing in secular ways.
Neither Allah, Nor Master is an interesting observation of people. Never have I seen scenes of shirtless men in beaches and think that life is unfair, which is what El Fani is thinking. She surmises that the reason there are no women on the beach is because they’re cooking for those shirtless men. It’s also a confrontational film, where El Fani debates servers on why he served her alcohol during Ramadan. This opens a can of worms about the racial divide on Tunisia. On how the country treats its citizens like they’re of a lower class.
These debate scenes though makes me think that she doesn’t know who the bad guy is. And she returns to her observations, where she sees more men in the streets being subject to historical revisionism. An innocent call of prayer turns into a diatribe. The man making the call then digressed into the rise and fall of the Ottomans and thus of Islam. The call to prayer says that the Ottomans took Constantinople from the Christians despite their fast. Come to think of it, this makes no sense if we look at working class Tunisians today. As El Fani shows, they can barely work during Ramadan much less invade another country. What makes people think people in the past were stronger?
Again, a lot of El Fani’s positions are u to debate based on an individual viewer’s context. But this raw documentary serves as counter propaganda. And there’s something admirable in making a documentary for that purpose.