In order to examine a factual event that fed both the press and an unhinged rumor mill, Ben Hania embraces the format of a mockumentary in the Agnès Varda tradition of Documenteur (Documentarian, 1981). Varda's film examines with self-reflexive honesty the very project of documentary filmmaking itself, containing within the film's title an unavoidable play on truth and lies— menteur in "documenteur" translates to "lier" in French. Similarly, under the guise of tracking down the elusive figure of the slasher, Ben Hania offers a cross-sectional view of Tunisian society by examining the myriad ways it deals gender and sex in two different time periods— in 2003 and ten years later— thus offering a picture of gender relations on both sides of the revolution. Furthermore Ben Hania's documenteur interweaves several narratives: e.g. her own search for the Challat; stories of the Challat in 2003, in 2013; the ever-present ghostly story of the revolution in between; competing narratives of the police, the court, and the people.
The film seems to follow the conventions of an investigative documentary in search of answers: who is the Challat? Where is he now? Who are his victims? What prompted him to thus lacerate women's behinds? The documentarian conducts her research at institutions where one might hope to gather information: the prison, the district police station of Tunis, and the tribunal with their respective archives. She also interviews the usual suspects: witnesses, victims of the Challat and people close to him. Ben Hania also looks for the Challat himself to glean a first person account of his misdeeds.
Yet from the very beginning, the intrusion of various elements of Tunisian socio-political reality wreaks chaos on a narrative that rests on the seemingly solid structure of a classic documentary. In the opening scene, the director goes to the men's prison of Mornag, south of Tunis, in search of information on the criminal slasher. The guard outside the building, however, does not want anyone to film him or anything related to the prison— under Ben Ali, filming any official governmental building was strictly forbidden and the sign to that effect is still up on the wall. The guard thus immediately invokes a bureaucratic set of obstacles to the making of the film and swiftly confiscates the camera. We are therefore given immediate access to the contradictions of post-revolutionary Tunisia: the previous regime may have been ousted, but its old signs and enduring habits remain. The director stands firm: "Give me back my camera. I am not scared." She will, however, be denied entry to the jail. The opening scene echoes a fellow Tunisian filmmaker Alaedinne Slim's characterization of the police in post-revolutionary Tunisia as "an armed gang fighting the people for territory."
Stopping at her next institution, the police station, Ben Hania will be given a name for the Challat: Jallel Dridi. But the police will be able to provide no further detail associated with the ten-year old file that is stored somewhere in the maze of police archives. The same story repeats itself at the Tribunal. And when Ben Hania attempts to define her subject and locate the whereabouts of the Challat by way of interviews, comparable obstacles pop up on her way and derail the investigative documentary at each turn. Documentary and fiction soon join and contradict each other, the way two flint stones do when they rub against each other: the result is a delirious, flamboyant filmic narrative, replete with tall tales and pure lies. From the men in a café exchanging contradictory views on whether or not a female pedestrian deserves to have her derriere cut by a male, to a woman stuck in a smothering marriage posing as a victim of the known slasher, the reality of the Challat story always seems to recede further into the inchoate, the unknowable.
That said, there is method in this apparent madness: the film becomes polyphonic, its discordant choir taking on the absurdity of late global capitalism as it intersects with the hyper-sexualization of women and the violence of men in the form of commercial innovations. To wit, banking on the attraction of males to the adrenaline of the slasher's chase and targeting of women's behinds, the Challat serves as the premise of a colorful cartoonish computer game played increasingly by Tunisian youth. Of all people, a female entrepreneur commissions an international team to create a 'virgin-o-meter' to test the veracity of fiancées' claims, thus further supporting the cultural commodification of women's bodies and sexuality.