Tunisian Ambassador to India, Hayet Talbi talks about how the scenic locations of Tunisia can cater to the needs of the Indian filmmakers looking to shoot outside India, and the need to make Tunisian cinema more accessible to the Indian audiences.
Situated on the Mediterranean coast of Northwest Africa, Tunisia has been a favorite shooting destination for leading Hollywood filmmakers over the years. Some of the biggest blockbusters shot in Tunisia include “Star Wars: A New Hope,” “Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “The English Patient”. The world renowned Carthage Film Festival that takes place in Tunisia’s capital city of Tunis every year is the dean of Arab and African film festivals.
In this interview, Tunisian Ambassador to India, Hayet Talbi, who is the first woman ambassador of Tunisia not only in India but in all Asia, talks about how the scenic locations of Tunisia can cater to the needs of the Indian filmmakers looking to shoot outside India, the need to make Tunisian cinema more accessible to the Indian audiences, impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the interaction between the two countries in the field of arts and culture, and Tunisian cuisine as well as some famous preparations, among other things.
Q. Tunisia has been a favorite shooting destination for leading Hollywood filmmakers. How well can the scenic locations of Tunisia cater to the needs of the Indian filmmakers looking to shoot outside India?
A. With vast areas of unspoilt desert, traditional towns with Berber and Moorish style architecture and colorful, lively medinas, Tunisia offers a wide choice of filming locations that could suit all sorts of productions. Many of its towns have a traditional look, with well-preserved architecture that would be ideal for a historic piece.
Over 130 productions have filmed under Tunisian skies over the years. “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” was filmed in Tunisia, with the country standing in for the “Holy Land”. “The English Patient,” and the first Indiana Jones film, “The Raiders of the Lost Ark,” were also filmed in Tunisia. Perhaps, the most famous production to be filmed in Tunisia was the original Star Wars movie, “A New Hope”, which used the traditional cave homes in Tataouine and the surrounding desert to create the look of a distant planet.
Legendary film director George Lucas arguably awarded Tunisia the greatest cinematic accolade when he declared that Tunisia was the only place on earth to shoot the Star Wars series. Today, many thousands of Star Wars fans make the pilgrimage to Tunisia to visit all the film set locations in the country’s south.
In this context, Tunisia has many advantages that make it an attractive destination for Indian filmmakers to shoot Indian films in Tunisia including variety of landscapes, wonderful attractive historical sites and monuments, availability of experienced technicians and actors, modern infrastructure and easy and speedy administrative authorization for shooting films.
Q. How high is it on your priority list to make Tunisian cinema more accessible to the Indian audiences?
A. We believe that it is very important for Tunisian cinema to reach every Indian citizen. We have participated in several film festivals in various Indian states, where the last released Tunisian films were screened with English subtitles to overcome the language barrier. In 2019, in cooperation with the Federation of the Film Societies of India, we organized the Tunisian Film Festival in India where Tunisian films were seen by thousands of audiences in across about 20 Indian cities, such as New Delhi, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Kochi and Pune.
Q. Tell us about the nature of the cultural exchange between India and Tunisia.
A. In fact, despite the geographical distance between Tunisia and India, I believe that the cultural ties between the two friendly peoples are strong and deep. The open nature of the Tunisian people and the cultural diversity of India have contributed to the strengthening and consolidation of these bridges. Today, the Tunisian people follow the cultural developments in India, especially in the cinema. Besides, yoga is very well known to Tunisians. From our side, efforts are continuing to further promote Tunisian culture in India, and through Tunisia’s multiple participations in festivals and cultural events organized in India, we have seen the interest of the Indian people to learn more about our culture.
Q. How can the cultural ties between India and Tunisia be strengthened further?
A. Strengthening cultural relations between Tunisia and India and the bonds between the two peoples is at the heart of our work programs in India, and is among the important strategies that were emphasized in the Road Map for Strengthening Bilateral Cooperation between our two friendly countries, which was announced on the 12th Session of the Tunisian-Indian Joint Commission held in October 2017. We are currently working on discussing a new MoU for cultural cooperation between Tunisia and India, and it will be signed soon after the technical discussions on its details and terms between the two sides are concluded.
We will also work to raise the level of Tunisian participation in cultural events in the Indian states, as well as the possibility of organizing Tunisian culture days in India, if the situation related to the outbreak of the Coronavirus continues to improve, including displays of Tunisian traditional costumes handcrafts and music. As far as cinema is concerned, since the previous participation of a number of Tunisian films received admiration from the Indian audience, we will enhance Tunisian participation in film festivals in India.
Q. How has the C0vid-19 pandemic affected the interaction between the two countries in the field of arts and culture? Also, tell us about its impact on socio-cultural issues and the field of art in Tunisia?
A. The spread of the Coronavirus has affected the implementation of cooperation programs between Tunisia and friendly countries, especially India, in addition to the disruption of international flights and the suspension of all cultural activities in Tunisia and India. Currently, signs of victory over the epidemic are starting to strengthen with the progress of vaccination campaigns in Tunisia and India, and we hope to continue implementing our programs to strengthen cultural ties between the two friendly peoples.
With the outbreak of the epidemic in the world, the Tunisian government rushed to take proactive measures to avoid the spread of infection and control the few cases that are discovered, while taking balanced measures to ensure the continuation of a normal life and protect the health of citizens. But with the second wave of the epidemic, which was severe, and the high number of daily cases recorded, it was necessary to take strict measures in order to protect people’s health, which became the government’s top priority, including imposing a strict lockdown and suspending cultural activities in theaters, cinema and closed cultural spaces.
This negatively affected many vulnerable groups working in the cultural and tourism sectors, and the Tunisian government has succeeded in mitigating the negative repercussions of these measures through accompanying measures to support them, such as providing monthly grants to those who have lost their jobs or the cessation of their activities due to the closure and providing additional funds and financial support to revive the affected sectors.
Q. How keen are you in taking the Tunisian food to the common Indian household?
A. There are several points of similarity between Tunisian and Indian cuisines. We are working to exploit this convergence in order to further spread Tunisian food in India. We believe that encouraging exports of Tunisian products used in preparing Tunisian dishes, especially olive oil, harissa, and dates, is one of the most important steps. The Indian market is important for us, not only from an economic point of view, but also from a cultural perspective to introduce the products of our country and the Tunisian food. In February 2020, we participated in the second edition of the International Food and Fashion Festival, which was held in Noida, by presenting a variety of Tunisian dishes to the festival’s visitors, in addition to organizing fashion shows with the participation of a fashion designer from Tunisia, and a special pavilion to introduce olive oil.
Q. What would be your recommended delicacies/preparations to someone uninitiated to the Tunisian cuisine?
A. French, Roman and Ottoman influences have lead to a culinary confluence that brings something to the table for everyone: from the French bread to the Turkish sweets and Italian pasta, all made in the Tunisian way. Tunisian food is spicy, sometimes Indian-level spicy, with a use of seafood, olive oil, and harissa, a hot chili paste served with most meals as a dip and is often used as an ingredient in stews and soups. It is sometimes described as “Tunisia’s main condiment”. “Couscous” is very well known Tunisian food which can be prepared by lamb, fish, or vegetables. “Lablabi,” the perfect plate for winter, consists of bread, eggs, harissa and spices all mixed with olive oil. “Brik pastry” and “Mechouia salad” with tomatoes and peppers are appetizing starters, as are fresh bread and sauces, tuna, olives, roast green peppers and harissa.