In an amateur video posted on 1er June 2010 on Youtube, a shaggy white-bearded street singer sings the chorus “La Goulette, La Goulette, as summer approaches, you who are looking for love, come and settle there”. A year later, this video is circulating on the Tunisian web as the country rises against the dictatorship of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. In full revolutionary fervor, the words of singer Henri Tibi, unknown to many, moved many young Tunisians like Yassine Redissi, a student who had moved to Canada. He watches, dumbfounded, the artist sing lyrics “from another time, but which provoke nostalgia for a period that we have not known”. Eleven years later, having become a director, Yassine Redissi pays tribute in his first documentary, I will come back there, to this singer, Henri Tibi, Franco-Tunisian and symbol of the Tunisian Jewish heritage of the years 1940-1960.
The popularity of the documentary, screened in Tunisian cinemas for more than a month, has not weakened in a country which has only ten cinemas. In the midst of economic slump and political uncertainty, the film’s success challenges, “because it is against the tide” explains Yassine Redissi. “It tells the story of a return to the country at a time when everyone wants to leave, it evokes a time of carelessness that no longer exists”, continues the young director. The story of Henri Tibi is atypical, but it seduced the public of the Tunisian capital, “also because it evokes a forgotten history, that of the understanding between the Jewish and Muslim communities of the time”, adds the writer Mustapha Chelbi, friend of Henri Tibi and speaker in the documentary.
Franco-Tunisian born in 1930 in Tunis and died in 2013 in Beaumes-les-Dames near Besançon (Doubs), in France, Henri Tibi made live with his songs, for ten years, the district of La Goulette, in the northern suburbs of Tunis, known for its social and religious mix with Sicilian and Livornese inhabitants and a Tunisian Jewish community, under the French protectorate. Table tennis player and self-taught photographer, this bohemian singer spends his days in the cafes of La Goulette where he sings texts on the lightness of life and Tunisian summers.
His daily shots immortalize the diversity of this district, a small village where everyone knows each other and where everyone mixes. After his death, Yassine Redissi unearths more than 6,000 photographs in the last resting place of the singer, in the Besançon countryside. “We had to sort out, digitize all the negatives, a real work of craftsmanship”, testifies the director who took seven years to finalize the documentary ” lack of means “, he adds. A posthumous tribute to the one he never met in person, who died before the idea of his film germinated.
“Everything is a bit miraculous in the genesis of this film: I saw the video then I forgot about it, until I came across a book by Mustapha Chelbi two years later which evoked La Goulette sung by Henri Tibi and that I tell myself that there was something to dig”, remembers Yassine Redissi who stages in the documentary this quest to pick up the pieces of the artist’s history. A research accompanied by the notes of a young singer, Slim Ben Ammar, fan of Henri Tibi whom he had also discovered in the video of the revolution.
Together, they manage to give a common thread and a story to the scattered life of the artist who cultivated his independence and non-conformism and had never signed any contract with a record company. Most of his songs are available thanks to a few discs and audio cassettes as well as fan videos posted on Youtube, especially during the fifteen years that Henri Tibi spent in Besançon, singing in the streets of the city, also becoming a symbol for its inhabitants.
Because beyond a colorful portrait of an era and the focus on La Goulette, Yassine Redissi also shows through the story of Henri Tibi, that of an exile in France. In the 1960s, like many Jews, Henri Tibi left Tunisia because of the exodus due to the geopolitical repercussions of the Six Day War and the natural departure of certain families to France, where the children left to continue their studies. Henri Tibi’s songs, in French, do not interest Tunisians, in search of a reappropriation of their national history, after independence. The singer then tries to win back an audience in Parisian restaurants and then goes to Avilley, about thirty kilometers from Besançon, to settle in a house which welcomes the dozens of cats that the singer raises.
“One of the only visual archives of Henri Tibi is this video where he complains during the program “30 Millions d’amis” of having been kicked out of his accommodation in Paris, because of his cats ! But even this video, we have never seen it”, comments Yassine Redissi. The Golden City quickly adopted this warm-toned singer who hummed summer tunes in the alleys. But, between the carefree rhymes, his texts very quickly take a sad turn like the title ” I dream “, where he sings the pain of being far from his native country, in French and Judeo-Arabic, a dialect which has practically disappeared in Tunisia.
“Henri Tibi embodies a refuge Tunisia, a little out of step with current times, but which comforts”, adds Yassine Redissi. For Omar Lasram, merchant and resident of La Goulette, the film could also help to enhance the urban and historical heritage. “fallen into disuse, because living together no longer really exists in the neighborhood”, he laments. If the film testifies to the importance of restoring his place to Henri Tibi in the Tunisian heritage, it addresses less the political and historical issues of the departure of the Jewish community from Tunisia, still taboo. An assumed choice on the part of the director, who nevertheless interviewed at length around a table the friends of Henri Tibi, Tunisian Jews all settled in France. “It is above all a film about an unknown singer who loved his country to the end”, explains Yassine Redissi, who says he wanted “above all to unite and bring together” through his film.