Directed by Moufida Tlatli
In the King’s Palace a large group of women sit in a circle and cook. They idly chat away as they prepare large dishes of food. They laugh and gossip as the day goes by, as so many have before. But things are different today. There is an unspoken tension among the servants as they go about their tasks. Outside of the palace is the country of Tunisia, ruled by Ottomon Beys like their master Prince Sidi Ali. A French protectorate since 1881, they are in the midst of a war for independence that has been going on for two years. Soon, Tunisia will become a republic. But until then, the prince and his servants live cloistered lives. While the country is rocked by internal warfare, a similar revolution is taking place inside the palace. From as long as anyone can remember, the women who work at the palace have had two jobs: to keep house and to serve as sexual playthings for their master. One of these women, Khedija, has been one of Prince Sidi Ali’s favorites for years. When she is called to bring refreshments to his room, the women murmur that she will be gone for the rest of the day. We feel that she has long accepted her fate. But now, her daughter, Alia, is coming of age. Prince Sidi Ali has been starting to look at her as more than just a young girl. Determined to keep Alia from suffering her own fate, Khedija struggles to break the long line of tradition that will make her daughter nothing more than a toy.
Such is the story of The Silences of the Palace, one of the most important films to ever come out of the Arab world because it was the first to be directed by a woman. The director, Moufida Tlatli, constructs in her debut film a powerful story of female oppression and the women who must suffer it. The aforementioned Khedija and her daughter Alia are the central characters of the film. It is told largely in flashback from Alia as she visits the old palace ten years after the story takes place. She returned upon hearing news that Prince Sidi Ali had died. Once there, Alia must face her overbearing memories as she tries to grip with the reality of her life. At twenty-five, Alia is a singer and lute player. But her life isn’t a happy one. Her boyfriend is turning out to be a deadbeat and is making her have the next in what we assume is a long line of abortions. Although she is not a sex slave like her mother was, she is still subjugated to a life that is largely outside of her control. Learning the lute when she was a child was one of her happiest memories. But as she confronts her past, she realizes that the lute was a means of escape from one life into another.
The palace itself is rife with decay. Once, it was regal and beautiful, but now it reflects the lives of the women it once imprisoned. During Alia’s childhood, the women that she lived with did their best to keep her happy even though they lived in a constant state of self-loathing and shame. They are cut off from the outside world. One servant confesses that her cousin once tried to see her but was turned away. The only link that they have to the outside world is the radio where they hear updates on the nationalist movement and music. Here, Alia develops her love of music. She borrows her friend’s lute until she saves up enough to buy her own. Her teacher (and later lover) Lotfi tells her about the nationalist movement. Alia hopes that this will mean that she can escape from the palace. She develops a fierce, independent spirit. Unfortunately, her mother has a breakdown caused by the sorrow over her role in the palace. In one touching scene, Khedija tells Alia, “If a man touches you, run away.'' Khedija later tells her, “Your place is with me in the kitchen." Alia tries to convince her to leave together. She responds simply, "Where would we go? This is the only home I've ever known."
And here we learn about the silences of the palace. Indeed, the name of the film may seem confusing considering how loudly the women talk, sing, and shout. But the silence in question is a more insidious one: the one of acceptance concerning their fates as slaves. The women don’t speak up when one of their number is used or violated. What good could it do? They are silent because they have no voice with which to speak out. So they must rely on each other. One of the major themes of the film is the idea that women can and must stick together and support each other in times of hardship. But alas, that support can only go so far. It is a man’s world. They must accept this or perish.
Alia’s attempt to separate herself from the world that was destroying her mother is reminiscent of the struggle for Tunisian independence. One of the Tlatli’s most brilliant choices was to frame the Alia’s struggle with Tunisia’s. Both seek to rid themselves of the old guard. Both want freedom from the rules of the past. One is being fought by men. One is being fought by women. Of course, the men’s struggle eventually pays off. But for the women it is a different story. True, with Tunisia’s independence the old guard fell and it is safe to assume that the servants could leave. But instead of being free, Alia is a slave to another life.
And that is another point of silence. The film doesn’t offer any answers for how the role of women in the Arab world can be improved. Just as Alia looks back over her life, Tlatli merely regards her story and shares it with the audience. It is up to them to come up with a solution. For the women of the Arab world, at least of that time period, their opportunities were limited. But what could they do? How can women live independent lives and maintain their dignity? The film is silent. But it is vocal on one thing: women have the ability to support and help each other. Tlatli dedicated the film to her mother who was a constant source of support while she was making it. One can only imagine how hard it must have been for Tlatli making this film in the Arab world. Just like Alia, she struggled to find her own way. And like Khedija, one can only imagine how instrumental Tlatli’s mother must have been to the completion of the film. It’s funny how life can mirror fiction sometimes. Let’s hope that the future doesn’t have to mirror the past. For while the palace is old and rusted, it still stands. It is up to us to make sure that it stays empty.