Claire Belhassine, Hedi Jouini’s English granddaughter, only discovers that her grandfather is one of Tunisia’s most popular artists, at the age of thirty, while riding a cab in Paris. The radio was playing a song in Arabic when a curious Benhassine asked the driver if he knew the singer. His answer would set her on a long journey of self-discovery in which she interrogates her father’s silence about his past and, in the process, reconnects with Tunisia. In this sense Papa Hedi is both a biographical film about Hedi Jouini and an autobiographical film about Benhassine’s search for a sense of belonging in the midst of a complicated family drama. The director’s diasporic sensibility also allowed her to successfully weave together her feuding family’s history with the history of modern Tunisia.
The film situates Hedi Jouini at the forefront of the Tunisian cultural scene before and after independence. During the French occupation of Tunisia, Jouini appears as a rebellious artist and a member of the Taht Essur تحت السور intellectual movement. Later, he is portrayed as a leading nationalist modernizer in his role as director of the Tunisian National Radio and Television Organization. Benhassine tells us that despite his position within the system, Hedi Jouini remained a man of integrity, declining Bourguiba’s offer of a villa and never even hanging his two presidential accolades at home. The narrator who did not speak French or Arabic when Jouini was alive remembers a very humble grandfather and a very normal household with no signs of its proprietor’s fame.
According to Bingham, the charge of the biopic genre is “to enter the biographical subject into the pantheon of cultural mythology, one way or another, and to show why he or she belongs there (10).” Papa Hedi does the same with the figure of Hedi Jouini, but the mythologization of the singer is subtly balanced with a warts-and all narrative. In fact, much of the film is dedicated to exploring the cycle of violence that the artist perpetuated unknowingly. Jouini who comes from divorced parents renounced his father’s original name, “Benhassine,” and embraced a stage name instead. The artist’s father did not accept his love for music and even broke the child’s luth. This, the film tells us, damaged the child for good. Jouini’s childhood trauma turned him into an absent and controlling father. He forbade his partner and daughters from pursuing artistic careers, while allowing his sons to join music bands and travel abroad. His children remember him as always on the road and always bickering with his partner, Ninette when he returned from his tours.
Fred, the director’s father and Jouini’s first-born, knew early on that his father was a playboy, and as a result, developed a silent animosity towards him. When he left for England, he too, erased his father’s name from his new life, reclaiming the name Benhassine and hiding the albums Jouini gave him in the attic, away from his English family’s eyes and ears. He admits never even having listened to them. The rift between Fred and his family grew bigger after Jouini’s death when ownership of the artist’s music became a problem. Ninette gave her third son, Nanou, the exclusive right to manage Jouini’s legacy. Her decision pushed the director’s father to cut all ties with his mother and to sever his relationship with Tunisia all together.
The cycle of abandonment was only broken, we are made to believe, thanks to the film itself. The quarrel over the ownership of Jouini’s music fragmented the family into different factions for three decades. Only when the director began soliciting testimonies for her film, did the different factions finally meet and reconcile. Benhassine even managed to have three of Jouini’s six children, including her own father, sing Jouini’s songs together in Carthage, where Jouini once sang to a full auditorium in 1987. The children had the stage all to themselves, but they only sing in the stands in a re-enactment of their childhood memories of the 1987 concert. This re-enactment is very therapeutic for the family. Carthage in a sense becomes the therapist’s couch, but a couch that’s out in the open, a couch carefully chosen for our voyeuristic eyes. In this cathartic scene, the silenced and feuding children of a controlling father become a choir and singing the father’s songs in unison, thus “finally laying his ghost to rest.”
The scene is theatrical in every sense of the word. Not only does it convey the family’s love for drama and the arts in general, but it also calls attention to the staged narrative of reconciliation itself. It was Benhassine’s camera that brought the family together. Would they have been reconciled without Papa Hedi? Does it matter? Has a post-uprising Tunisia entered the postmodern “era of the testimony,” to borrow a term from Holocaust studies’s foremost scholars, Shoshanna Felman and Dori Laub? If we were to read the film as a national allegory, the way Frederick Jameson would want us to, given the film’s postcolonial undertones, we would perhaps read it as a scene of national reconciliation in which the sons and daughters of the nation make peace with their history and reclaim the microphone from the father. The film does indeed open itself up to such a reading, but such a reading does not do it justice. Focusing on the national allegory quite often leaves no space for the poetics of the film, especially if the film highlights the poetics of the everyday, like Papa Hedi does.
Papa Hedi juxtaposes documentary footage from a Tunisia in the throes of Nazi occupation with funny home videos of a Muslim-Jewish family at the dinner table. It celebrates the fact that Tunis was “the first Jewish community to be liberated by the Allies,” but also the beauty and strength of interfaith love. It does so without romanticizing cosmopolitanism or decrying its loss like many diasporic and Tunis-centric films do. In fact, it is thanks to the poetics of the everyday that the movie manages not to fall into that kind of nostalgia. The narrator’s family shares stories of being bullied at school for being half Jewish. They frame their mother’s desire to immigrate to Israel, not as a political decision, but as an inherently emotional one, i.e. as a reaction to Jouini’s failure as a partner. It is these stories that keep the narrative from becoming an elegy for cosmopolitanism.
The film’s focus on Tunis’s nightlife and music scene back then, and right now also performs the same balancing act. Papa Hedi highlights the youthfulness and liveliness of the capital today and thus counters “the narrative of loss” that characterizes much of the discourse on “Arab” cities. Benhassine zooms in on the faces of young Tunisians singing Jouini in the bars of the suburbs and in the cafes of the medina to show us how “integral his music is to the texture of everyday life in the country.” In one scene, we see a young fusion band playing her grandfather’s song Zine Ezzine (The beauty of all beauties) to a joyous crowd at a bar, and as the credits roll, we hear a bilingual adaptation of Taht al-Yasmina fi Ellil (Under the Jasmine Tree) by the young Swiss-Tunisian singer Soraya Ksontini and the British singer Mike Kelly. Both adaptations revive Jouini’s love for blending Western and Eastern music and stand as a testimony to the cultural richness of Tunisia’s indie scene.
In their study of American biographical films in relation to American nationalism, Epstein and Barton write that “biographical narrative of whatever kind has traditionally been an ally of dominant structures of socioeconomic authority, as have the film industry in general and the industrial, technical, and aesthetic practices of biopics in particular.” Does the same apply to Papa Hedi? Which dominant structures of socio-economic authority does it support? The film does indeed advance a Tunisian nationalist agenda, one that is critical of Arab nationalism, and favorable to multiculturalism. Jouini, we are told, did not win the competition for the creation of a Tunisian national anthem because he used to dress in Western clothes, as opposed to his competitor Salah Mehdi, who dressed traditionally. There is also a hidden bitterness in the scenes where the interviewed artists make fun of Benhassine for wanting to make an English-language film about an Arab singer.
Moreover, in the version of the film circulating in Tunisian cinemas right now, the English dialogue is subtitled in the Tunisian dialect, not Fusha, and French is not even translated. The narrator’s subject position as a diasporic half-Tunisian half-English woman warrants a narrative of infitah, especially given how excluded from Tunisian culture she has felt all her life, but on the other hand, this narrative is still worth examining critically, especially in relation to Tunisian state nationalism. I have to admit that my thoughts on this question are not fully developed yet, as I am unsure of how we would describe the agenda of the two ruling political parties or of the Tunisian constitution itself in relation to “Tunisian identity.”
Ps: I had the opportunity to discuss my reading of the film with Claire Ben Hassine (a very humble and very talented artist) after which I realized I was a bit harsh in interpreting Hedi’s character. I can’t wait to watch this movie a third time and to explore it even further.
 Dennis Bingham. Whose Lives Are They Anyway: the Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre. Rutgers UP, 2010.
 Said by the narrator in Papa Hedi
 Fredric Jameson. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text. no. 15, 1986, pp. 65-88.
 Yasser Elshshatawy. The Evolving Arab City: Tradition, Modernity and Urban Development. Routledge: 2008
 William Esptein and Palmer Barton. Invented Lives, Imagined Communities: The Biopic and American National Identity. SUNY Press: 2016