Clay Dolls


Tunisia / 2002 / Arabic & French

Directed by Nouri Bouzid

With Hend Sabri, Ahmed Hafiene, Oumeyma Ben Afsia

Still From 'Clay Dolls'Among the love songs recalled throughout Nouri Bouzid’s Clay Dolls – the sultry and vaguely ribald blues ballads that seem to course through the characters’ subconscious like nursery rhymes – there is a recurring one that lacks any eroticism whatever. It is about a windswept woman, made of wind, whose tears are paper, and thus leave no stain. The woman in the song could be any of the women we meet in the film, certainly Rebeh, taken from her village at a young age by the enterprising Omreh, a seasoned middleman from Tunis, and sold off as a housemaid. According to the plan, she will be married off to a man when the time is right, either by Omreh or her employers (whoever does it first). But she is too restless. She maneuvers around her economic captors and disappears into the belly of the city. When Omreh returns to the village for a routine harvesting of young girls, he has to tell Rebeh’s mother that he has lost the young woman, along with any money that she may have had with her.

This is regrettable for both him and the family; they’ve both lost a source of income. But he doesn’t return to Tunis empty-handed – two young sisters, Nejma and Feddah, come with him in his truck. Before taking the elder girl, the teenage Nejma, he inspects her as though she were a prize horse, examining her teeth and checking for head-lice. In the city she is snapped up immediately by a household in need of a maid. Meanwhile Feddah stays in a corner of Omreh’s dingy apartment until he has found an employer for her. From her father, a maker of clay figurines back in her home village, Feddah takes with her a lump of clay to keep her busy during the long hours spent alone in the dark.

Omreh strikes a lonesome, contorted figure, his living space stacked high with dirty dishes, his walls plastered with pictures of women suggestively cupping their breasts. He drinks himself into nightly stupors, and usually escapes with free booze when the police come to raid the bar that he favors. When Rebeh comes spinning back into his life, he sees a return of opportunity, but also a worrisome burden. She is unpredictable, possibly pregnant, and has been through a lot. She has had all of her savings stolen, and has been violated by her master. A disastrous affair with a local laborer resulted in her leaving her household and seeking shelter with Omreh, who is as trapped by economic circumstances as she is, the two of them sucked deeper and deeper into the urban whirlpool.

ClayDolls4 - CopyWhile her seedy protector contemplates ways he can still make money off of her, Rebeh is threatened by Riva, a volatile young thug in the employ of her master. First Riva stalks her and Omreh because he wants her for himself, and later because his boss needs her to keep quiet about his having raped her. While Omreh is a brutal companion, he is still preferable to most of the other men out there. This is more than merely a sad story of the symptoms of economic disenfranchisement; it shows us the possibilities available to those who are disenfranchised, and none of them are pretty. None of them lead back to the village, and even if they did, that would just be another avenue of misery.

Rebeh finds herself locked in Omreh’s apartment, and sets about dramatically cleaning it, scrubbing walls and floors, and disposing of the dishes of ancient, half-eaten food. It is as though she is trying out a sort of pantomime of normal domesticity, a choice, a bit of agency. But she is still confined. After finishing this act, she then reacts violently to being imprisoned, and escapes from a window. This seems only a point in a repeating cycle, and Omreh remains determined to make a return on the young woman. Acculturated but still reactive against service, Rebeh rebels at every turn, only to discover multiplying paths to exploitation. If it isn’t as a maid and concubine, it’s with the frightening Riva; if not with him than the desperate and equally volatile Omreh; if not with him, then any man on the street who wants to pick her up. She takes refuge with her urbane friend Aziza, and begins to learn belly-dancing in order to perform at parties. This would make her independent, but any slippage and she will wind up back with Omreh. And she is more vulnerable than ever without a tyrannical male looking after her. Meanwhile Feddah is sold off to the household of Baba Jaafar, a senile man whose bedpan she must change several times a night. In this opulent mansion, the little girl feels more imprisoned than ever, and longs for the terrible quarters of “Uncle Omreh.”

The chapters of the story move ahead in a way that is essentially picaresque, not in the sense of being altogether unrelated to one another, but by occurring independent of a definite sense of succession. The comings and goings are too numerous to recount, and represent winding but steady trajectories. We move between the stories of the three main characters, and occasionally they all cross paths. As entwined as they are, however, they’re also hopelessly at a remove from one another, like individual lines of destiny that criss-cross repeatedly but never converge, eventually spilling off the edge of the hand having never known a true companion. The most heartbreaking and unrelenting story is, of course, Feddah’s, and we see the formation of a character like Rebeh, whose personal strength is like a beacon of hope at the end of a long corridor, as sure of getting blotted out as it is.

We can only speculate on what became of Nejma, the character it would ultimately be the most interesting to follow. While she is brand-new to the world of indentured servitude, at the same time old enough to recognize its machinations, the film nonetheless abandons her story as soon as she is sold off. Instead we are stuck with Rebeh and Omreh, two characters who are jaded to violence and exploitation, and Feddah, who cannot distinguish it from other realms of human behavior. And so the film proceeds in this gauze of benumbed incomprehension. The camera wavers and pulls focus, the compositions divvied up by the blunt edges of grimy background blurs. Bouzid seems equally at home with the traumatized young woman and her captor to whom she continually returns. Each side of the out-of-focus narrative feels true, the air in each scene as crisp and present as it is stale.

Still From 'Clay Dolls'The film deals with a lot men’s ambivalent feelings towards women and alcohol, those which, if the man is privileged, he can easily foist upon the women in his life. A character like Riva, for instance, has so many ways to give vent to his frustrations. He practically is a vent, as a misogynist, as an enforcer, and so does not feel frustration. For a man like Omreh, who does not have such easy outlets (or, possibly, does not allow himself them) the conflict rages across his weathered face, which appears like earth that is too dry to absorb anything. He can’t drink in private, nor hold onto a woman to abuse, and perhaps he wouldn’t want to. Alcohol washes over him. Sadness passes beneath him. Like the North African males around him, his depression is concealed, and his rage must always be large. Hundreds of empty bottles lie dashed around him, like the sand of a green, gleaming beach.

The torn relationships that Omreh has with both alcohol and women sometimes overlap one another, as in the scene in which Rebeh first comes back to him. She walks right into a bar where he is drinking, and the all-male clientele freezes. It looks as though they are poised to inflict violence on her, when Omreh identifies her and escorts her out. The presence of a woman, the battleground for so much patriarchal hypocrisy, in a similar battleground (the local pub) brings on a twofold confusion that manages to dig at the foundation of their society. Men are not supposed to drink; they are also not supposed to look at women. You’d think that one infraction would negate the other, but Rebeh’s presence only makes their shame worse. But as usual, she is the one who is meant to be ashamed. She’s beyond strong – she’s self-destructive. Even a character like Omreh cannot pull her down further than she already is.

Like the director’s earlier film Man of Ashes, which interrogates masculinity from the level of a maturing boy, Clay Dolls dwells in the distant cloistering of the sexes, not so much physically, but philosophically. Here it is even more extreme, but this heightened separation emphasizes an even greater porousness and fragility. Bouzid gives us this sense of how the hypocrisy of this separation gives way to a type of mania, for both men and women, that has few outlets. There’s an interesting gender-bending scene in which the social worker character (a woman who recognizes Feddah from her home village and takes pity on her) is playing at face-painting with her orphan charges. She draws a mustache on a little girl and tells her she would make a fine man, and then compliments the little boy she has given women’s make-up. The children, who are still uncorrupted by the strident standards of their society, accept this game happily, but in Feddah we can see a character who has, at a young age, already largely accepted the hetero-normative boundaries being installed around her. She has been around the block, and so sits apart from the other kids.

In the depths of the frame we see glimpses of the brightly-lit innards of a modern metropolis, the high-rise apartments climbing and electric trolley cars gliding. Indeed, Bouzid chooses to end the film with a shot of a clean and shimmering boulevard, reminding us that this is essentially Southern Europe, or may as well be for the rural workers who come there. Compare that with the roaring of the primitive, outdoor kiln that begins the film, and you see worlds that are impossibly far apart and yet, at the same time, sit uncomfortably close to one another. The central characters are surrounded by the affluence of the city, which is being fed every day by immigrants from the countryside’s outer reaches, but it is nothing but a backdrop for them.  On occasion they will pass through it as though it were a mist, but that is the closest they will come to experiencing it.

ClayDolls8 - CopyThe girl being the mother of the woman, Feddah holds onto her creativity as long as she can, smuggling the lump of clay with her wherever she goes, until it is eventually discovered by the housemaid and thrown away. Throughout the film, the little girl shapes it into individual dolls, hooded and faceless women, before rolling them back into the muddled mass of the clay. The sad realization, within this apparent vestige of happiness that she holds onto throughout her journey, is that it isn’t even a sign of her personal creativity. It was her vocation, back home in the village, an artisanal production passed on through tradition. Like the formation of the acceptable female in society, it is a process of replication, out of the undistinguished mass, destined only to return to it again.


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