Mead 2016: Director Jesse Deeter on Documenting a Revolution

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Two decades after Jessie Deeter first worked in North Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, she went back to document Tunisia's tumultuous transition to democracy in her new film, A Revolution in Four Seasons, which opens this year's Margaret Mead Festival. Deeter, who co-produced the film with her husband, Rob Peterson, and Sara Maamouri, a Tunisian-American, spoke to us from her Piedmont, California, home.

 


How did you decide to tell the story of Tunisia?

I was familiar with the region from working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco in the 1990s. My husband, then a friend, was a volunteer in Tunisia. I knew that when the Arab Spring revolution happened, life in Tunisia would never be the same.

The interesting question after a revolution to me was: Then what? What happens to all these Islamists, whose party was outlawed under the former dictator? How do we incorporate them in a democracy? That was and still is a big challenge.

 

The two women at the heart of the film, the secular journalist Emna and the Islamist teacher Jawhara, are on opposite ends of Tunisia’s political spectrum, but they have so many parallels in their personal lives. How did you find them?

Sara, my Tunisian-American co-producer, knew Bassem (Emna’s eventual husband). Through him, we met Emna. She was famous, a popular public figure. Because I also wanted an Islamist perspective, I went to Ennahda (the Islamist party) and asked if they knew any women with a unique personal story we could follow, who was willing to be interviewed.

Jawhara was clearly the most open, the most friendly. At the time she was a teacher. Then, the party put her up to run as a candidate for the new parliament. When I chose her I had no idea she’d run for parliament.

In another lucky break, Jawhara was engaged, then Emna got engaged, and they married within a week of each other, finally giving birth to baby girls two weeks apart.

 

Woman taking photo in a still from A Revolution in Four Seasons.

Still from A Revolution in Four Seasons.

© R. Peterson


You’ve said Tunisia is uniquely positioned vis-à-vis the rights of women?

Tunisia is a bit like Turkey in having had a secular push in the 1950s. There was quite a policy of modernizing. Women were educated. President (Habib) Bourguiba forbade wearing the veil in public. But that’s why it means so much to Muslim women to be able to wear what they want. Before the Revolution Jawhara’s family had been in exile because they were too religious. 

 

What do you hope the audience will take away from the film?

Tunisia has done something pretty incredible over the past five years. They are fighting the good fight, and very few people outside Tunisia seem to know it. 

 

Both women seem to be sending a message that they wouldn’t impose their way of life on others but want to be able to teach it to the children.

That lays out the entire thing exactly, the good and the bad. This is Jawhara’s view, and what’s really interesting is that Emna can say the same thing. That’s the hope—and the fear.

 

For more details and showtimes, visit the Margaret Mead Film Festival.