TUNISIA

Tunisian artist creates children’s cinema centre to fight extremism

Welcome to Semmama cultural centre: a cinema with haystacks for seats and an arts studio in the middle of a cactus field. Created by a Tunisian artist, this unique venue aims to fight bring culture to one of Tunisia's most isolated and impoverished regions, which has become a breeding ground for extremism.

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Children at the cinema house during its inauguration on March 1. All photos by Karim Belhadj.

Welcome to Semmama cultural centre: a cinema with haystacks for seats and an arts studio in the middle of a cactus field. Created by a Tunisian artist, this unique venue aims to fight bring culture to one of Tunisia's most isolated and impoverished regions, which has become a breeding ground for extremism.

The children’s cinema club was unveiled at the beginning of March and is the brainchild of Tunisian comedian and poet Adnen Helali. It's tucked away at the foot of Semmama mountain some 300 kilometres to the south-west of Tunis in the province of Kasserine. The mountain is the site of frequent fighting between the Tunisian army and jihadist fighters. Nearby, in the middle of a cactus field, Helali has also put together a plastic arts studio for the local children.

The Semmama cinema house.

"The region is undermined by poverty and terrorism"

Adnen Helali told France 24 that the centre isn't just a simple cultural project, but a way of fighting back against religious extremism.

I launched this project because I noticed that culture in Tunisia was always centred in the cities. Outside the town of Kasserine, there are practically no cultural venues, even though 60% of the region's population lives in the countryside.

We put the cinema club together with next to nothing. The room is actually an old henhouse which was left to us by a local retiree and the projector was given to us by a teacher. We started with a movie cycle devoted to Charlie Chaplin, with a screening every Sunday aimed at the children and teenagers that live in the nearby villages.

At the start, we wanted to make use of the empty houses that dot the mountainside for our cultural projects. Unfortunately, the military dissuaded us because the mountain is swarming with jihadist groups and some areas are mined. So we pulled back to the foot of the mountain, in a safer area, around 150 metres from the military zone.

We also put in place a plastic arts studio for children located near the cinema house. Since we didn't have a room in which we could put the arts studio, we just put it in a cactus field. We're also in the process of building an open-air theatre with rocks and tree trunks.

Carrying out these kinds of projects in remote areas is a way of fighting against extremism, especially in this region. Kasserine is undermined by poverty and terrorism. One of the brothers of a break dance group that comes to practice at the cinema house actually went to Syria to fight with jihadists.

Our efforts form part of a much larger project that aims to put an end to the isolation of children living in remote areas in the countryside. During colonial times, primary schools had houses for teachers; today, most of these houses lie unoccupied. We want to make use of them for our project.

Last October, we got things going by putting up a mini cultural centre in an old teacher's house in a small village that had only 24 students. It was in the region of Foussana near the Algerian border. Today our ambition is to spread the project across the entire country with the support of the education ministry.

On March 28, we're organising a demonstration in Tunis with at least 2,000 children from 15 regions to raise public awareness of our project.