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Stories of fools are likely as old as the telling of stories themselves, second only to those of powerful heroes  –a way  to explain difference, odd behavior, odd ideas, not monstrous oddness, but oddness nonetheless. There are innocent fools and holy fools, wise fools,  jesters and clowns  Though often linked in tribal societies to those on the margins of normalcy  — dwarfs, schizophrenics,  hallucinators, counter-gendered — as populations grew, and stories with them, fools became an important way for story tellers to show the foolishness of others — of the powerful, of the listeners themselves, of behavior and ideas.

Movies KhormaKhorma(2002) a first time feature by Tunisian director Jilani Saadi [FR], set in a small beach town on the Mediterranean, makes wonderful use of the convention. Khorma himself [Mohamed Graïaa – one of the few professional actors in the film,] is a pale skinned, red-haired, young man, a stand out of difference in the darker skinned, dark haired population. The opening shots show him running and jumping along a beach, shirt open like wings — an eight year old’s joy in body and freedom not, in Muslim Tunisia, what is expected for a grown man.   An orphan of sorts and not able to fend for himself it seems, he is taken in by Bou Khaled [Mohamed Mourali,] one of several quasi religious fixers in the town. Bou is hired by locals to go through town crying the news of births and deaths, marriages and good fortune.  Khorma is his boy-Friday, doing errands, carrying messages and, after a fashion, learning the trade.  There is a measure of scoundlery in the two as, under the color of spiritual caring, in the local cemetery, they gather up loaves of bread left for the deceased, and sell them back to the vendors outside, to re-sell to mourners.

One fateful morning, Bou Khaled, growing deaf and senile, cries news of a woman’s death instead of the marriage of her daughter. As it happens, she does die three days later.  Brouhaha ensues: demands for reparation against the shame endured; the upsetting of a communal tradition; the possible loss of income.  A council of elders, men in similar trades, decides Bou Khaled can no longer continue as the crier and in a fit of conniving good-will they tell Khorma, the job is his.  As a fool, he will be able to be controled, to their own benefit.

Khorma, however, is not so pliable.  Foolish after his own manner, he has decided that supplying cemetery services for “whatever your honor decides,” is old fashioned and unpredictable.  It would be better to get organized and set fixed prices.  Aided by Kamel [Ramzi Brari] and meeting with success as younger men agree with him, the old guard is thrown into turmoil.  When Khorma seeks to find protection by ingratiating himself with local tough guys — alcohol included — well, enough is enough, even for the relatively tolerant Sufis.

The party is broken up and Khorma is marched out to the deserted beach and strapped to an upright pole, stripped, in well known Christ-like symbolism.  A light is lit to attract the mosquitoes at night;  he is slathered in honey to attract the bees daylight comes.  And he is left.

When Kamel appears to cut him free, we expect the worst, a broken, humiliated dispirited man. His whirling, almost dervish like dance of freedom, however, is a wonder to behold.  The resilience of the oppressed and foolish against the authorities, but a cry for individual liberty in a culture of participatory uniformity,   from a director for whom, as for all story tellers, liberty is their life-blood… There was much some question about whether Khamel would be shown at all in Tunisia.

It’s a little hard to track down interviews or more information about Saadi, and most of that is in French.  Since Khorma he has directed at least one other film, Tender is the Wolf, in which, according to an interview, he takes on the growing violence between men and women in Tunis.

As with many of the films I’ve been enjoying, Khorma is associated with Global Film Initiativesandor.  It is available at Fandor and Amazon Prime