Mainstream media reports often paint Tunisia as the “success story of the Arab Spring.” While other countries in the region are today either locked in civil war or have slipped back into some form of authoritarian politics, Tunisia seems, despite sporadic violence, to be transforming itself into an open, inclusive society. After the popular uprising against corrupt Dictator Ben Ali in 2011 — the event that sparked the Arab Spring — the country has negotiated a series of political crises as it slowly meets the benchmarks of a fledgling democracy: the formation of a truth and reconciliation commission, the drafting of a new constitution and, in 2014, the first free and fair elections since the country’ independence in 1956.
Jessie Deeter’s documentary A Revolution in Four Seasons provides a fascinating glimpse of this turbulent and at times painful transition. The film tells the story of post-revolution Tunisia through the lives of two young women, journalist Emna Ben Jemma and Constituent Assembly member Jawhara Ettis. While Emna, a self-described “blogger of the revolution,” dreams of a secular Tunisia in the image of western democracies like Sweden or France, Jawhara works with the Islamist Ennahada party to create a country that is both democratic and true to its Muslim roots. While they occupy radically different points on the political spectrum, both women are passionate about their country and determined to transform it into a functional democracy. Though the two women never meet on screen, Deeter uses the tension between them to explore broader fissures in post-revolution Tunisian society.
Despite a narrative built around these two very different women and their opposing visions for their country, A Revolution in Four Seasons avoids stale cliches, and it would be a mistake to see the film as a simple story of the clash between tradition and modernity or Islam and secularism. Like the country they live in, both Emna and Jawhara are complicated, and Deeter does a good job of leaving space for this ambiguity and letting the characters and their lives guide the story. Jawhara in particular belies categorization; while she looks down on alcohol and bikinis and is never seen without her headscarf, she leaves her husband at home to care for their newborn daughter as she works long hours drafting the country’s new constitution.
Contradictions like this pepper the film, and they provide a sense of just how complex life in Tunisia can be. Democracy is a messy business, and we see both characters struggle to remain hopeful as their post-revolutionary optimism gives way to frustration in the face of obstacles and missteps. When Ennhada wins a majority in the constitutional assembly, Jawhara is ebullient while Emna and her fiancé bitterly joke about drinking a last beer before alcohol is banned. When tensions between Islamists and secularists erupt in political violence and the assassination of key opposition figures, both women express fear that Tunisia is sliding into chaos. Throughout, Deeter does a good job of avoiding any easy answers — rather than advocating a particular point of view, the film celebrates the energy and excitement that suffuses the country as civil society blossoms and Tunisians embarks on their first experiment with democracy.
One of the most striking aspects of A Revolution in Four Seasons is the intimate relationship the director establishes with her subjects. Deeter follows the women over four years, from 2011–2015, and in that time we witness their own lives changing in tandem with their country. Both women get married, face challenges in their domestic and professional lives and have children, and these major life events give Deeter space to further draw out the choices and opportunities facing Tunisian women as they navigate the competing demands of tradition, globalization, career and family.