In memory of Moufida Tlatli: a conversation about The Silences of the Palace

The late Tunisian filmmaker, who has died aged 73, reflects on the legacies of colonialism and patriarchy, as distilled in her stunning debut feature, in this conversation with Laura Mulvey, originally published in our March 1995 issue.

Hind Sabri as young Alia in The Silences of the Palace (1994)

In its new year issue Time magazine listed the ten best movies of 1994. Predictably, Pulp Fiction was at number one. Less predictably, eight of the other nine were made outside the United States, though inevitably these nine included such well-known directors of art films as André Téchiné and Krzystof Kieslowski.

However, the real surprise was there at the bottom of the list: a first film by a woman director from Tunisia, a Third World country struggling even to establish a film industry. This is Moufida Tlatli’s The Silences of the Palace. Time called it “a Stella Dallas story”, and quite rightly placed it in the melodrama tradition. However, since the Egyptian film industry has dominated the Middle East and the Arab-speaking world since the 20s, the tradition of melodrama at issue derives from Cairo, not Hollywood.

Opening in the mid-60s, the story is told through the flashback memories of a young woman, Alia, a professional singer who returns after an absence of ten years to the palace of the Bey, where she had spent the first 16 years of her life (the beys being the royal rulers – under the French – of Tunisia). These memories include her early music-making, her observation of palace life and her gradual discovery of her own sexuality, but they revolve particularly around her mother, who worked all her life as a servant at the palace – and around her father.

The first silence surrounds his identity (the beys demanded sexual services from chosen women working in their kitchen). As a child, Alia’s curiosity about her father had focused on the bey Sidi Ali, and she had spied on his relationship with her mother. As she re-explores the decaying palace, her memories rise up like ghosts, and she lives again the enigmas of her past, that were only ever acknowledged in silence between the women in the kitchen.

Her flashbacks are taking her back to 1956, when Tunisia won independence from the French. As the film unfolds, the silence that has surrounded the politics of colonialism and rising nationalism achieves a certain articulation, which even begins to penetrate those rooms in the palace where the women live, in almost complete isolation from the outside world. But the silences that surround their sexual exploitation by the beys never find a voice. Prior to this, Alia had been too young, but now she is beginning to mature, and to attract the attention of the younger beys, the princes.

In the final flashback, an adolescent Alia, now Sidi Ali’s favourite singer, had interrupted her performance at a royal engagement party with the forbidden nationalist anthem. With this act, both musical and revolutionary, she seemed to have broken out of her mother’s menial and exploited world – but her mother meanwhile lies dying, in another part of the palace, of a self-performed abortion.

However the message of the film’s present – the mid-60s – is that for any woman, even in this post-revolutionary world, sexuality and the body are inescapable, and difficult. Alia faces a present-day crisis also: she is pregnant and her companion, the young revolutionary who once rescued her from the palace, has persuaded her to have an abortion, also. lt is only through her memory, or rather through the process of deciphering her memories, that she and the film can bring to this crisis a new understanding: that independence and liberation are not solely matters of the public sphere and political struggle. The polarisations of gender, which had formerly co-existed with a world divided by class, have once more risen to the surface.

Alia’s processes of decipherment are shared by the audience. In keeping with the aesthetics of the melodramatic genre, those things which cannot be said, the unspeakable, find expression through the mise-en-scène, the framing and the camera movements, while these same beautifully choreographed movements allow the viewer the time and space to read the images framed on the screen.

Moufida Tlatli studied at the Paris film school, IDHEC. After working as a script supervisor until 1972, she built a career as an editor. When she was in London for the screening, I was able to discuss her film with her.

Moufida Tlatli

Laura Mulvey: Could you begin by talking about your relationship with Arabic cinema?

Moufida Tiatli: When the Arab countries won their independence, their first instinct was to build a cinema that would be the exact opposite of the existing Egyptian industry, which they saw as escapist and stultifying. So the initial intention was to build a cinema d’auteurs that would be intellectual and would deal with important themes, such as the condition of women. But the people were bored by these movies, because they were used to Hollywood, or to Indian or Egyptian melodramas.

Today we have a better balance. I think our cinema went through a period of self-criticism, as a result of which something positive emerged. We are coming back to the melodrama, but in a much more nuanced manner. Nowadays our cinema is trying to reach a popular audience, and is branching out into love stories and comedies. The Arab cinema-going public loves to laugh. And to cry. Of course, this new wave of popular film owes a lot to the Egyptian cinema of the 50s, which was a cinema of excess: of both excessive melodramas and excessive comedies.

What part does the theme of women and their liberation play in this cinema?

Through my work as an editor, I have close contact with the contemporary preoccupations of Arabic cinema. I’ve worked with several male and two female directors and I’ve noticed that they share a common interest in the condition of Arabic women.

I often wondered why it was that male directors should be so preoccupied with the question of women, until I realised that, for them, woman was the symbol of freedom of expression, and of all kinds of liberation. It was like a litmus test for Arab society: if one could discuss the liberation of women then one could discuss other freedoms. Most likely there would not that much freedom of expression, and most likely they could not speak freely about political problems, but the question of women could still be discussed. I think that each country in the Mahgreb [i.e. North Africa] tends to take up particular themes and the theme of women’s liberation is the one that has been special to Tunisia.

How important is the relationship between Arab cinema and wider aspects of Arabic culture?

I think that poetry and an oral tradition are particularly significant for Arabic culture. Poetry was something that existed in the spoken word. At the same time it was subject to censorship, so poets frequently had to make use of symbols and metaphors to express something that could not otherwise have been spoken. Poetry allows this: it gives a fantastic freedom. You only have to have a small amount of imagination to extract another reading from the words. Perhaps the cinema is the same. It too has to make use of metaphors and symbols, in keeping with this lack of directness that so characterises Islamic society.

At the same time, Arabic culture has not been a culture of the image. We have preferred to express ourselves through words, through poetry. One could almost say that there was a sort of blockage in relation to image, which was something we had to learn, something we had to adapt little by little to our own culture. But the effort of mastering something new also leads to something good: a new mode of expression, but one that is right for and specific to this culture.

But though Arabic culture may not be a culture of the image, poetry makes use of images through its metaphors and symbols, as you implied. One finds images inside poetic language.

That’s right. Poetry is made up of a superimposition of images on words. Perhaps this culture of the indirect has advantages over a culture valuing simple and direct expression. Here everything is a little bit devious, a bit unformulated – the unsaid, and so on. This is why the camera is so amazing. It’s in complete harmony with this rather repressed language. A camera is somewhat sly and hidden. It’s there and it can capture small details about something one is trying to say, so in a sense it can be an instrument for poetry.

I’d like to move on to the question of rhythm. It can be difficult for those used to watching contemporary Hollywood movies to accept films that are shot with such long takes, like The Silences of the Palace.

As someone who works as an editor, I was worried that the way that I was filming would not be acceptable to Western audiences, which are completely attuned to a Western rhythm which is extremely fast and quite different from ours. Western cutting is very accelerated and the shots are very short. An enormous amount is assumed in the ellipses between shots: one never sees a door shut once it has been opened – one is suddenly in a car or a plane, or another country. Geography collapses, everything becomes very condensed.

The Silences of the Palace (1994)

But I was interested in the bodies of women who move, and work, with all the time in the world. The women, the servants who work in the palace, have the whole day to do the cooking, to wash and to iron. I couldn’t allow myself to show them in an ‘efficient’ montage, which would be false, because the content and the form would not correspond. I had to show them in their own rhythm, in their own way of living and breathing. I had to show the slowness of their lives through my use of the camera.

Poetry can use several different words to evoke one word. So a long camera movement may be travelling from one face or object to another to reach a point I have chosen, but on the way it accumulates all the detail which makes the final point.

Most of the long takes are in the kitchen.

That’s because the kitchen is the living heart of the film. It’s the place where the women live, work, laugh, sing, dance, eat, communicate or not. It’s there that the women have to create a world in order to survive. The world of the first floor is closed. The princes and princesses are shut in their own individual rooms and their own particular solitude.

In the kitchen you sometimes used a single shot to show a series of events. I’d like to ask you about the shot which starts with two of the women quarrelling, and then Houssine, the palace majordomo, comes in. In fact, apart from an aside between the beys and French officials Upstairs, this is the first time that we can actually place the story at the time of the liberation struggle. Like the women, we are confined inside the palace; the outside is another world for the women, and off-screen for us. Only Houssine moves between the two. So when he comes in, everything changes, but the shot carries on.

I wanted to preserve the unity of simultaneous actions in the unity of a single shot. If I had cut the scene, each shot would have been superfluous. What would have been the point of showing the women quarrelling? I could have cut it and started with Houssine arriving with news. But this way he makes a link, saying, “You are all fighting. Stop it. The fighting has started outside.” And I end with Khedija angrily sending Alia out of the kitchen and away from the grown-ups’ conversation. You see, I was always afraid of losing Alia’s story when filling in the wider story. By shooting in long takes, I could keep the links between the two.

One last general point. I would like to ask you to say something about the use of music in the film.

First of all, music is very important in Arabic culture. Everyone listens to music and people sing a lot. Even quite a small gathering of people turns to music and singing, someone picks up a lute, someone with a good voice starts to sing and someone else will get up and start to dance. Even today. In the film, music is part of the everyday reality but it’s also symbolic. The women sing in the kitchen and Upstairs the beys listen to music and play the lute.

Alia grows up in the midst of both and when she tries to escape from the constriction of Downstairs, she wants a lute, which has fascinated her since she was a little girl. The lute becomes her fetish/companion. Whenever she can’t communicate with the grownups, she takes refuge in the attic with the lute she has made for herself. It becomes a point of dispute between her and her mother, who says, “You’re not a princess. You have to stay in the kitchen and learn to cook. I can’t afford to get you a lute.” So for me it’s an extraordinary moment when her mother gives her a lute, because it means that she has understood that the lute, music and singing are the only things that can save Alia.

The Silences of the Palace (1994)

Let’s use this point to discuss The Silences of the Palace more specifically. Perhaps we could start with the divided society in the palace and its affect on your use of space and exchanges between spaces. For instance when Alia leaves the attic and meets Sidi Ali in the garden, and he asks her to tell the kitchen that he would like ‘favala’ for dinner, it’s like an exchange between them.

For Alia the attic is an intermediate space that she’s made for herself, between the world of the servants and the world of the princes. She is uncomfortable in both worlds. The attic is a bit of both: it’s Upstairs, but it’s also poor. Sidi Ali is also a little bit in between the two worlds; his wife makes this point at the end of this conversation, when she says “Look how low you’ve fallen.”

I was very struck by the way that the film reflects on the way that metaphors of space come to inhabit our social understanding. The palace is divided along class lines between the Downstairs, the world of the female servants, and the Upstairs, dominated by the princes. High and low.

The film juxtaposes this spatial metaphor with the metaphor associated with the human body itself. As you just said, Alia aspires to the mind, to music and abstraction, as symbolised by the lute and her hope that Sidi Ali is her unacknowledged father. On the other hand she relegates her mother to the realm of the body. She distances herself from the women in the kitchen at certain moments almost with disgust. For instance, when an old woman comes to visit and all the others give that characteristic cry of triumph, Alia runs out of the room.

That’s because of all the questions that she is asking herself about her adolescence, and about her first period, which has just happened. That woman has brought her daughter’s wedding night sheet with her, which is stained with blood and proves that her daughter was a virgin. For Alia this is a traumatic moment.

There’s a sequence that moves from the front gate to Sarra’s music lesson with the lute to the family photograph. 

I had wanted to shoot that scene in a single take, because it tells a lot. Of course it wasn’t possible; it would have covered miles. The gate represents the constraints of the palace grounds. And the lute is Alia’s point of attraction. When Sarra is called to the photograph, Alia follows, imagining that she will be included, only to be sent back to stand with the servants.

This sequence contains the whole story of the palace. For me this scene shows everything. The palace is a huis-clos, wholly shut off. But within it, music plays a crucial role for Alia. She is rejected by the beys and belongs among the servants. But as soon as the photograph is finished and Sidi Ali calls her, she goes back very happily. She’s always caught between the two sides.

At a certain point, even this sense of being caught between the two is blocked for Alia. When she runs around in circles in the garden, it seems almost as though she was experiencing a first moment of desire. She’s waiting for something, but what she finds is disaster.

When she looks through the window and sees her mother with Sidi Ali, she feels a kind of desire and spins round as though she were crazy. But this leads to the scene when she witnesses her mother being raped by Sidi Ali’s brother. She is traumatised. The sight of her mother with Sidi Ali had been reassuring. She can see that there is something good between them and she is pleased because she wants to believe that Sidi Ali is her father. But the rape is unbearable and she retreats into silence.

The rape raises the question of the palace’s silences. During the film, the struggle against colonialism achieves articulation. But the silence covering the women’s sexual exploitation is never lifted. Khedija has no right to refuse one prince even though she ‘belongs’ to his brother Sidi Ali. Divisions of class and culture are constantly crossed by the sexual. Before the rape, the brother is introduced walking quietly in the garden with a book, absorbed in scholarly reflection. The first part of the film explores these contradictions beautifully. Isn’t it Lotfi, arriving on the scene almost as the means for Alia to emerge from her silence and literally to ‘find a voice’ with her singing, who offers the possibility of synthesis, of resolution?

But it’s an illusion, as we discover at the end. Though it is indeed present at the beginning, before the first flashback into Alia’s childhood. He does seem to offer the possibility of escape. It’s only through him that Alia begins to identify with the nationalist struggle. She begins to believe that if the country can be freed then she too will be. She believes him when he tells her that she will be a great singer if the country can achieve its independence.

The Silences of the Palace (1994)

The beginning of the film shows that she has left the palace with Lotfi, that she has lived with him for ten years but they have inescapable problems. She’s pregnant and he wants her to have an abortion. She doesn’t want to. Why does he want her to? Because she is both a singer and illegitimate – so social and family pressures, typical of 60s society in Tunisia, prevent him from marrying her. He is unable to live out his revolutionary ideals.

Alia takes the opportunity offered by her return to the palace to relive everything that happened before Lotfi arrived. She goes back and realises that, in fact, she had rejected her mother and that she had been wrong to do so. She realises that Lotfi had done nothing to change her life and it’s at that moment that she takes control of her own fate. But to reach this moment of realisation she has to think about her mother and the way they lived before.

So this is where we can find the film’s feminism? We can’t understand the film’s politics through Alia. We have to understand, perhaps with Alia, just what her mother’s life was like as a woman, and as a servant, sexually exploited and unable to speak about her suffering.

For me, this is the point where the social metaphors of space open up onto another level, beyond the spatial patterns formed by opposition and polarisation. We easily use the phrase ‘buried’ for the past and its memories. Alia returns to the past and its ghosts but it’s not enough to dig them up – they also have to be deciphered. Is it that she has to turn back to her mother and to understand the complexity and tragedy of her mother’s life, even though she was an illiterate and despised servant?

It’s only by absorbing herself in her memories of her mother that Alia can understand Khedija’s courage and the extent to which she had struggled on Alia’s behalf, and in fact the extent to which she had been a liberating force. It was the day her mother died that Alia left the palace. Alia only begins to understand when she talks to the blind old servant woman before the flashbacks start.

Is there a connection between the mother/daughter relation and the language of cinema? Of course, they talk to each other, but their relationship is also to a large extent one of silent exchange. The Silences of the Palace is in some ways almost a silent film. I was thinking of the scene between them at the mirror.

I particularly like this scene because of its silence and the importance of looks and gestures. Everything is transferred into symbolism.

We talked about poetry at the beginning. In this scene I wanted to show the different levels to telling things. The scene has to convey the way that Alia’s fate is hanging in balance. Is she going to follow in her mother’s footsteps, and gain access to the Upstairs in the way Khedija had done? Is she going to replace her mother? We see the mother watch her daughter literally taking her place, sitting in front of her mirror, putting her lipstick on, making her gestures. And Alia confronts her with a look which says “I’m going to follow your example.” At that moment the mother realises that she is going to lose her daughter, who is about to go Upstairs and sing, and that there is nothing she can do about it. She can’t say, “No, don’t go,” because she has to obey the beys. She is impotent. Alia exploits this in a rather childish and Machiavellian manner. She’s playing with fire.

The audience has to read what’s happening through the image?

Yes, through the exchange of looks, through the exchange of their positions in front of the mirror, through their position in the frame.

The Silences of the Palace (1994)

It’s hard to think of a film which uses the potential variety of meaning in looks to the extent you do here.

For me, the women’s silence is a silence through the inability to speak. Their mouths are closed. Human beings want to speak, to express themselves. If the mouth is closed then the eyes speak. I wanted to make their eyes speak – and say a great deal. All the women are within the tradition of taboo, of silence, but the power of their look is extraordinary. They have had to get used to expressing themselves through their eyes.

So Alia’s attempt to find out her mother’s actual role in the palace has to become an investigation. She looks through keyholes, through a crack in the door. Her look is searching for things that she shouldn’t see. But when her mother is raped in front of her eyes, her look becomes that of someone who has seen what she should never have to see. It is unbearable to the point that she then refuses to speak any more. After that it’s only her look that can bear witness to her feelings, to her fear and her panic. Her contact with other people is reduced to the tiny nuances of a half look.

At first Alia’s look is one of curiosity. lt’s quite innocent even though it’s voyeuristic. Children are, after all, voyeuristic.

Yes, of course, children are voyeuristic. My point here goes far beyond Alia’s own particular case. I’m pretty sure there never has been a small girl who hasn’t tried to see things that people would rather she didn’t. And of course her parents will be the main and available subjects of her investigation. In this sense, Alia is just the same; her curiosity is innocent and typical of an adolescent. She steals images when she can.

But when she becomes a young woman, she starts attracting a voyeuristic look herself. So now we get yet another kind of look.

As soon as Alia grows up and starts to sing she immediately attracts this new look. Before that, the princes paid no attention to her, apart from Sidi Ali, who had always looked at her with affection. When Alia sings Upstairs, suddenly everyone realises that she is now a desirable young woman and a possible mistress for the princes.

I had a beautiful, very long shot, which unfortunately I couldn’t use because of technical problems in the lab. The shot showed the way everyone present looked at Alia and how each of them responded. It’s really a pity that I couldn’t use it.

I would like to end with the scene in the kitchen when Khedija comes in having found out that she’s pregnant. Once again the shot is long and quite complicated. And, once again, the rhythm changes. At first the women are singing as usual and then a kind of melodrama erupts. But it’s not excessive. The camera takes over.

The point is that Khedija’s screams affect all the other servants. I wanted to show that for her being a woman has only given her pain. She can’t stand her body or her femininity. But all the women take it differently. They identify with her pain but they also understand it as their own. I wanted to show the way that, within their solidarity with Khedija, each one can see her own fate. That was the point of that shot.

But the scene is shot to draw attention to the camera as it records the various reactions of the women. So that we feel ourselves watching the screen, and watching the women, from inside a movie theatre. The camera frames each women in turn, and the usual rhythm of their work slows down as each becomes absorbed in her own thoughts.

As they pause to think, so does the camera – and so does the audience. We are forced to step back from the story, and to think about history.

Further reading

The female gaze: 100 overlooked films directed by women

In this list we aim to write women back into film history by championing 100 female-directed hidden gems that have been forgotten or unfairly overlooked – with contributions from Jane Campion, Greta Gerwig, Claire Denis, Isabelle Huppert, Agnès Varda, Tilda Swinton, our regular contributors listed below and many more special guests.

The female gaze: 100 overlooked films directed by women