Nadia El Fani
'They say I’m a Zionist, a traitor, everything you can imagine, but I think it’s important for people from my country to come here to break the taboos,' El Fani says. Photo by courtesy IWFF
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Courtesy IWFF
'There is a long road ahead, but Tunisia is still the only country in the Arab world where men go out and demonstrate for women’s rights,' El Fani says. Photo by Courtesy IWFF

For other documentary filmmakers, it would have been their worst nightmare. For Tunisian director Nadia El Fani, it was more like serendipity.

El Fani, visiting Israel this week as guest of the International Women’s Film Festival in Rehovot, was in Paris putting together the final cut of her film “Laicite, Inch'Allah!” (Secularism, Please God!) when her story suddenly took a dramatic and unexpected turn. Four months after she had wrapped up filming on the documentary, which examines religious oppression in Tunisia, that nation's now-infamous and catalytic revolution broke out.

To make her film relevant and timely, she would have to scrap all of her editing work and start again, from scratch.

“It was wonderful, though,” El Fani said in a conversation at the festival between screenings of that film and her latest, “Meme pas mal,” (No Harm Done). “I told my producer that I’ve got to go back to Tunisia and begin shooting the demonstrations and get those in the film. After all, my film was all about separating religion and state, and that’s what people were debating about in the streets back then.”

There was another real-life plot twist waiting, as well. Around the same period, El Fani was diagnosed with breast cancer. The proscribed treatment: A mastectomy, followed by extensive chemotherapy.

“Laicite, Inch'Allah!” had its premiere in Tunis in April 2011, several months after longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted from power. In a television interview shortly after, El Fani declared she was an atheist and has since been the target of death threats and a radical Islamist hate campaign on Facebook. She also faces possible arrest on charges of blasphemy if she ever sets foot in Tunisia again.

She now lives full-time in Paris, afraid to return to her country for fear or ending up in jail, or worse.

Three months after its premiere in Tunis, “Laicite, Inch'Allah” was screened again in the city. In the director's absence, Islamists attacked the theater, summarily assuring that this second screening was also its last.

“It’s being shown now in Israel, in France, in Germany and in Spain,” remarks El Fani wryly. “The one place I can’t show it is in Tunisia.”

This is El Fani’s second visit to Israel. Her first visit, made five months ago at the invitation of the French Embassy, was met with backlash from her critics.

“They say I’m a Zionist, a traitor, everything you can imagine, but I think it’s important for people from my country to come here to break the taboos. I’m not here to say that Israel is a free country or that it has a marvelous government. I’m here to talk about my convictions about separating religion from politics, and I think that in Israel, the situation is very similar to Tunisia in this respect,” she told Haaretz at the festival, which runs from Nov. 5-11.

At a panel discussion following the screening of “Laicite, Inch'Allah!” El Fani was challenged by an Arab-Israeli panelist who suggested that by visiting Israel, artists like her were lending their tacit support to Israel's Palestinian occupation. Asked to respond, El Fani told Haaretz: “I always say to the Islamic people that I am not against the Israeli people. I’m just against the politics of their government. Maybe in 10 years, I’ll regret my action, but right now, this is what I choose to do.

El Fani was motivated to make “Laicite, Inch'Allah!” to warn the public of the rising power of religious forces in Tunisia, most evident in the widespread observance of the month of Ramadan. To get clearance to shoot the film, though, she hid her true intentions from the authorities.

“I lied. I told them I wanted to make a film about the ambiance in Tunisia during the month of Ramadan,” she says. In the fashion of other documentary filmmakers like Michael Moore, El Fani makes her presence very much felt on the screen, challenging passersby in the streets about their religious practices, particularly fasting and refraining from alcohol consumption during Ramadan. She often follows them into restaurants and liquor shops and catches their transgressions on camera.

“No Harm Done,” the sequel to “Laicite, Inch'Allah!,” was completed this year. That film draws parallels between two battles its director fought while making the film – one against the cancer in her body and one against the Islamists in her country, who seized control of Tunisia after the revolution gave way to elections.

She often appears on screen with a bald head, her exposed scalp an undeniable mark of chemotherapy.

El Fani has since been given a clean bill of health by her doctors. And as her body heals, she says she is optimistic for her homeland, as well.

“There is a long road ahead, but Tunisia is still the only country in the Arab world where men go out and demonstrate for women’s rights,” she says. “This gives me great hope.”