The second and concluding part of TUNISIENNE. A Bare-Handed Revolution (2011) a two-part article from Antonio Denti’s ongoing series The Surviving Frame. You can read part one here.
The Surviving Frame is a collection of still images drawn from nearly two decades of video footage shot by Denti while working as a cameraman for Reuters. As Denti expresses it: ‘These images were not born as photographs, […] but they have chosen to be photographs.’
Editor's note: All images are stills taken from video footage courtesy of Denti.
I had never seen, like in those days, people speaking and listening to each other ravenously, almost with hunger and greed. Almost as if they had been starved for too long of that fundamental right that we give, luckily, for granted: that to say what you think in public, without fear. That to listen, with curiosity, to what the person in front of you thinks, looking at his eyes, touching his shoulder – the way people have talked to each other for thousands of years on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Then the incredible day came when many policemen abandoned their place and their uniforms to join the demonstrators. Deeper beyond the shadow line.
Every day relatives of people who had gone missing or had been killed during the unrest joined the advancing protesters in the streets.
They reminded me of the very hard, cruel aspect of every revolution. Of every historical change. They reminded me of those who are lost, spent, those who disappear on the side. Days that will probably be celebrated in the years to come, but that – for some – will always be the days when their lives got broken.
Their heartbreaking screams, the infinite pain in their eyes took the centre of the stage for a few seconds, but then faded back to the background as the powerful cry of the victorious rebellion shrouded the streets of the city like a veil, covering everything else.
It made me think of a song by Italian songwriter Francesco De Gregori, ‘La Storia siamo Noi’. The song goes: ‘History really does not stop in front of a door, History enters our rooms and sets them on fire, History singles out who is right and who is wrong, History is us… History has no hideouts, History does not lift a hand, History is us, this plateful of corn.’
I was in Genoa when days of fierce clashes between anti-G8 protesters and police resulted in the death of a young demonstrator. I am not sure the two things are in any way related but I thought about Genoa, ten years later, in the streets of Tunis.
The anti-globalization movement, until Genoa, had been gaining strength and was trying to change the course of global politics. The level of its clash with the state had been growing accordingly, and in Italy, in the summer of 2001, reached its peak. After that, the movement seemed to loose strength and eventually die out. The reasons for this are complex, a lot having to do with the changes caused shortly after the G8 by the 9/11 attacks on New York. But I have always had a feeling that the death of Carlo Giuliani was not irrelevant.
I saw them at dusk, carrying the wounded man on their shoulders towards the frontline as if he was a battle flag. In the streets of Tunis I saw things I had very rarely seen before, even in apparently similar situations. This – people going back to the streets every day despite being tear-gassed, beaten, shot at – was one of them. The wounded man was proud and there was no visible fear in his eyes. The crowd was right to hold the man like an ensignia. His tenacity- and that of those like him who came back to the front after a beating- did much to make repression powerless.
EYES OF A REBEL.
The young man bared his chest and proudly showed a small wound. It looked like a gunshot wound, it was probably the mark of a rubber bullet. I thought of French writer Albert Camus. A man in revolt is a man who says ‘no’, ‘this, not anymore’ (I quote from my memory of my youthful passionate readings). But, whilst saying no, a man in revolt is a man who says yes. He says yes to the part of himself that he wants to survive. He declares his loyalty to the part of himself that he wants to live on in dignity and, possibly, to thrive.
Looking at this man’s eyes I am reminded of a beautiful technicality of my job. So beautiful, that it is almost a metaphor. The one detail in the frame that the cameraman must look for to focus properly is the human eye. The spark of the human eye.
And it is in the eyes of people, on the streets of Tunis, that I saw a glimpse of what is very hard to describe in words: people at once proud and scared by the steps they are taking. Steps leading to the unknown, maybe to the conquest of one’s fate, maybe to something much worse than what they have decided to rebel against.
Whilst I was still in Tunis, unrest started in Cairo. Egypt – a crucial country in the Arab world – became the main focus of attention and this time, contrary to what had happened with Tunisia, everyone was ready. We reached Tunis in a hurry, with limited means. Our satellite equipment was seized at the airport. We could not do the long live transmission but had to cover like in the old times: on the road, filming, then editing and then transmitting. I am sure the same was happening in Cairo, with wealth of excellent cover, but soon, it was the long live transmissions from the rooftops around Tahrir Square that took over the most part of the narration of the Arab Spring. Initially powerful, the shots of tens of thousands of humans crowding the square, seen from above, lacked something for me. I could not see their eyes. Was the picture in focus? I don’t know.
The story of the Arab Spring is yet pretty much to be written, including in Tunisia. But the days of Tunis, quickly overshadowed by what followed, will remain with me for ever. When I think of them I have a sparkle of excitement. I think it is for a few reasons. Because Tunis was the beginning. It was new, it had no precedents. Because I was not ready and was surprised. Because people could not speak of rebellion without speaking of the love for their land. Because Ben Ali was intelligent and careful to make his rule authoritarian but bearable. The revolution was not unavoidable. Because, despite efforts, I could not find or see a chief, a puppeteer, a grey eminence. Because people were scared and went ahead. With bare hands.
Antonio Denti is an award winning cameraman for Reuters – to see more of his project The Surviving Frame, please visit @antclick on Instagram.