Discuss the passage from boyhood to manhood in Férid Boughedir’s film Halfaouine.
Manhood, that is to say “the approved way of being an adult male in any given society”, is a state to be won by boys against “powerful odds” (Gilmore 1990: 1, 11). These powerful odds can be identified as a series of rites of passage which a boy must go through in order to change one’s age group, and thus pass from boyhood to manhood (Olson 2018: 88). Set in the Tunis neighbourhood of Halfaouine, Férid Boughedir’s 1990 film Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces follows the journey of Noura, a twelve-year-old boy navigating his way between boyhood and manhood. Following his sexual awakening, the film documents Noura’s transition through rites of passage that teach him the behaviours and attributes necessary to eventually establish his own male identity and become a man. This essay will examine how the passage from boyhood to manhood is represented in Halfaouine through the use of spatial representations and camera techniques. It will go on to comment on how Boughedir uses opposing attitudes and behaviours to represent the confusion that boys must contemplate during their quest for a male identity. It will then explore the suggestion that Noura’s journey may be allegorical to Tunisia’s own struggle for a national identity, before examining the film’s final representation of the harsh world of men.
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Halfaouine documents the different steps involved in the passage from boyhood to manhood, as experienced by its protagonist, Noura. In an interview, Boughedir described the film as a tale set “within a conservative society where strict separation of the sexes rules” (Armes 2005: 143). It is within the context of this strict separation of the sexes that Boughedir succeeds in clearly communicating Noura’s status in society, as either a boy or a young man. The space of the hammam represents the strictly-separate worlds of women and men, where a member of one space may not access the other. Gilmore cites the post-Freudian theory that “all infants, male and female, establish a primary identity, as well as a social bond, with the nurturing parent, the mother” (1990: 26), and it is for this reason that Noura is initially granted access to the female hammam, for he is viewed as a child. Though his initial identity begins in boyhood and thus the female sphere, the passage to manhood involves breaking this identity and social bond, and overcoming “the previous sense of unity with the mother in order to achieve an independent identity defined by his culture as masculine” (Gilmore 1990: 27). Noura’s expulsion from the hammam is the central moment of the film which represents this departure from the word of the mother, and relinquishing the nurturing bond which was present during his childhood. At the end of the film, Noura is told that the male hammam is closed for cleaning, which suggests that he does not yet belong in the world of men, rather in an in-between zone beyond which Noura may not advance. The space of the hammam thus holds a symbolic function through which Boughedir is able to clearly demonstrate the progress of Noura’s passage, by distinctly situating him either within the world of women, or on the threshold of that of men. Halfaouine therefore depicts the passage from boyhood to manhood as a passage from the world of women towards the world of men, and does so in a clear and simple way that allows the audience to identify Noura’s current stage in the journey at any given time.
While the hammam holds a significant symbolic function in the film, it also acts as a catalyst which advances Noura’s passage between the two identities of boy and young man, for it is the central place for action and discovery. Triggered by his sexual awakening, the plot follows the growth of Noura’s sexual desire as he journeys towards manhood, and this growth can be best observed in the change in his gaze between each of the scenes set in the hammam. Gilmore states that manhood is gained through “tests or proofs of action” (1990: 12), which can be identified in Halfaouine when Noura’s older friends Mounir and Moncef encourage him to view, and tell them about, the women’s bodies in the hammam. As these tasks take place, the orientation of Noura’s gaze changes. The opening scene in the hammam sees Noura gazing apathetically into the distance, with very little concern or regard for the naked female bodies before him. As the film goes on, however, his passive gaze transcends to that of an active nature which, during his final time in the hammam, intentionally seeks out women’s bodies. Olson notes that “as soon as the oriented gaze of the young man replaces the innocent gaze of this young boy, he is excluded from the feminine community” (2018: 87). To undertake these “tests or proofs of action”, Noura’s gaze must change to seek out the female bodies, and thus lose its innocence, which ultimately leads to his expulsion from the hammam. Therefore, one can suggest that in Halfaouine, the growth of sexual desire, which is represented through the gaze, constitutes one of the rites of passage that one must go through in order to pass from boyhood to manhood; as soon as it grows to such a point that the gaze becomes oriented, a boy is viewed as a man and must leave the female space.
The growth in desire that is involved in the passage from boyhood to manhood is clearly displayed in Halfaouine through the use of sophisticated camera techniques, which successfully communicate the shift in Noura’s gaze, thus allowing for a better understanding of the behavioural changes that occur in the process of achieving manhood. The first hammam scene shows naked females walking by while Noura stares ahead vacantly, and when the shot depicts Noura’s point of view, the camera does not move to follow their bodies. During the second scene in the hammam, however, when Noura’s gaze is oriented towards the figures with the intention of viewing female body parts, the camera shot follows the women’s bodies and zooms in on their breasts. This subtle camerawork allows the audience to better witness and experience the loss of innocence that Noura encounters as he passes from boyhood to manhood, for they are placed in his position. Camera techniques in Halfaouine thus contribute to the audience’s overall understanding of the changes that occur between boyhood and manhood, and so the rites of passage that Boughedir depicts become more striking and clear.
The rooftops of the Halfaouine neighbourhood are another significant space in the film, as they symbolise the transitional zone which Noura occupies during his passage from boyhood to manhood. Following the initial scene in the hammam, the establishing shots of Halfaouine depict high-angle views of the rooftops. These shots look from above to show women in the domestic space of courtyards and men in the public space of the mosque, reinforcing “the notion of a world divided into separate spheres” (Lang 2014: 73). Throughout the film, however, Noura is seen hopping between the rooftops, occupying the “free zone” (Lang 2014: 73) of the rooftops. His status as both a boy and young man grants him unique access to both the female and male worlds, allowing him to navigate between the two without categorically belonging to one. However, this space cannot be occupied forever, and eventually “the individual must make a life choice of identity and abide by prescribed rules of sexual comportment” (Gilmore 1990: 9-10). The rooftops provide Noura with a space in which he is able to contemplate his observations of the male and female spheres below and form his male identity, before conclusively leaving the female world. The space of the rooftops in Halfaouine thus represents the transitional nature of the passage from boyhood to manhood, in which an adolescent is able to contemplate the ‘rules of sexual comportment’ before committing to manhood and leaving the female sphere. What’s more, it is worth noting that Noura’s older friends, Mounir and Moncef, also occupy the rooftops at points during the film, which could suggest that the passage from boyhood to manhood is a process lasting several years. Through the rooftops, Halfaouine portrays the passage from boyhood to manhood as a somewhat lengthy transitional phase, in which a boy may learn and deliberate the rules of masculine behaviour before forming his own male identity.
Escaping to the rooftops allows Noura to observe and learn from male behaviour, and it also provides him with a space to contemplate what he is taught by those around him. Older characters in Halfaouine teach Noura opposing ideals of what it means to be a man, and represent the conflict and confusion that must be navigated and made sense of as one passes from boyhood to manhood. As previously stated, manhood can be defined as “the approved way of being an adult male in any given society” (Gilmore 1990: 1), yet the subjective nature of approval means that certain people may deviate from the behaviours deemed to be approved, and hold different attitudes towards manhood. Noura’s father, Si Azzouz and the Sheikh represent the dominant “approved way”, where according to Si Azzouz, a man “never cries”, and never “hangs around with women”. From this, one can deduce that manhood in that society consists of a commitment to prescribed rules that result in the repression of emotion and separation from females. On the other hand, Salih represents liberty and freedom, teaching ideas of manhood to Noura that oppose the “approved” traits taught by his father. Equally, Salih acts as Noura’s sexual mentor by demonstrating moments of sexual liberty, which counter the taboo of the female body which was taught by his mother during the story of the ogre, presenting a different approach to the female body. Described as “a catalyst for transformation that facilitates Noura’s journey toward maturity” (Yacoubi 2016: 7), Salih encourages Noura to pick his own male identity, rather than the one prescribed by society. Towards the end of the film, Noura asks “Salih, when does a boy become a man?”, to which Salih signals that his lips are sealed. The events that follow see Noura reach his “sexual maturity” with Leila (Yacoubi 2016: 15), and defy his father, escaping his control by climbing to the rooftop and asserting his independence from him. In this way, Halfaouine suggests that a male identity is not one which can be taught and subsequently adopted, but something which is a result of experiences and choices. The opposing mentor characters in Halfaouine thus represent the conflicting options that are presented during the passage from boyhood to manhood, and in the film, Boughedir suggests that maturity is to be reached through one’s own free will. In this way, the passage from boyhood to manhood is presented as a confusing transitional period in which a boy must navigate conflicting advice in order to form a masculine identity.
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Noura’s journey towards maturity and finding his male identity is unequivocally the central theme to the plot of Halfaouine, however one must question whether it is simply a story of a boy journeying from boyhood to manhood, or whether the story may be an allegorical comment on Tunisian society’s own journey through a period of transition. Robert Lang suggests that “the movie is as much, or more, about a place – a society – as it is about a character”. Citing the film’s title as evidence for allegory, Lang states that ‘Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces’ conflates place and character, for it appears as though Halfaouine is the name of the ‘Child of the Terraces’ (2014: 69). Building upon this, one can thus assume that Noura, who is in fact the aforementioned child, is symbolic of Halfaouine and wider Tunisian society. As a result, Halfaouine can be read as a journey of Tunisia’s national passage from boyhood as a young nation recently freed from French colonial rule, towards an independent future as a mature and independent state. Commenting on the subject of national identities, Catherine Hall speaks of an identity “forged against the ‘mother country’ through the achievement of manly independence” (1992: 100); Noura’s quest for manhood in Halfaouine involves the breakage of bonds with the mother and a strive for manly independence, much like Tunisia’s own quest for a national identity against that of the legacy of French colonialism. Therefore, the passage from boyhood to manhood in Halfaouine can be read not only as a study of male adolescence and the transition into manhood, but also as a comment on Tunisian society’s journey towards forging an independent and meaningful mature identity that has broken away from the bonds of the ‘mother country’.
Finally, one must address the meaning of Noura’s brother’s circumcision. Described as “a central landmark in the movie”, it is played out concurrently with Noura’s entrance to the male world, and marks his “traumatic separation from the cherished world of women” (Yacoubi 2016: 6). The younger brother’s circumcision, however, is in fact experienced through Noura’s own memory in a graphic and shocking display of uncensored footage, which communicates the “abrupt and aggressive growth into manhood” (Yacoubi 2016: 6). Its occurrence just after Noura’s expulsion from the symbolic space of the hammam represents the “tough masculinity” (Horrocks 1994: 32) that is expected upon reaching manhood, yet its traumatic portrayal through Noura suggests that this entrance into the male world demands an aggressive hardness that he does not yet possess. Furthermore, a scene which takes place the following evening depicts Noura nostalgically remembering the hammam, in which his memory shows a look of delight and comfort within the protective female space. When compared with the first hammam scene, however, where Noura appeared bored and indifferent, it seems as though his nostalgic memory of the female sphere was embellished. The stark contrast between his fond memory and the reality of the hammam suggests that Noura yearned for the childhood he had left behind as he realised the harsh truth of the tough world of men. The passage from boyhood to manhood in Halfaouine is therefore presented as a passage into a hardened world, in which boys may yearn for the life of comfort that they were once so desperate to escape.
To conclude, Halfaouine offers a fascinating portrayal of the passage from boyhood to manhood and the intricacies at play during this transitional period. Through symbolism and character dynamics, Boughedir succeeds in clearly presenting the rites of passage that one must undertake in order to learn and adopt the traits of masculinity before entering manhood. Furthermore, in addition to being a study of masculinity, the passage from boyhood to manhood in Halfaouine is a means through which Boughedir can explore Tunisian society’s own struggle to find a mature and independent national identity.
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- Armes, Roy (2005), Postcolonial Images: Studies in North African Film, Bloomington: Indiana University Press
- Boughedir, Ferid (dir) (1990), Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces, Tunisia: Cinétélé Films, France Media and Scarabee Films
- Connell, R.W. (2005), Masculinities, Cambridge: Polity Press
- Gilmore, David D. (1990), Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity, New Haven and London: Yale University Press
- Hall, Catherine (1993), ‘Gender, Nationalisms, and National Identities: Bellagio Symposium, July 1992’, Feminist Review, 44: 97-103
- Horrocks, Roger (1994), Masculinity in Crisis: Myths, Fantasies and Realities, London: Macmillan
- Lang, Robert (2014), New Tunisian Cinema: Allegories of Resistance, New York: Columbia University Press
- Olson, Debbie (2018), The Child in World Cinema, Maryland: Lexington Books
- Yacoubi, Imen (2016), ‘Agonising Transitions and Turning Away from God in Two Tunisian Movies’, Journal of Religion and Film, 20: 14
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