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Prostitution is a taboo subject in Arab countries. The movie was screened at the Cannes Festival in the spring of , but was banned in Nabil Ayouch's homeland Morocco. Tunisia was the first Arab nation to screen the film in November and levels of public interest have been high.
The film was awarded the "Grand prix" at the film festival where it was screened. Tunisia is currently the only Arab country where sex workers - in "maisons closes", or brothels - are still tolerated and not forced into illegality. They can apply for a licence for their work, although they are subjected to strict monitoring by the morality police. During an extended stay in Tunisia, they carried out research into the subject of prostitution and drew on their findings to develop the installation "Grande Maison".
Sidi Abdallah Guech: one of these notorious "milieus rouges" is located in three narrow winding alleyways in the old town of Tunis. Only men — and of course the women who work here — are allowed to enter. A scale model of the area stands on a table inside a house in the district of Beb Menara.
The audience enter the house just like punters enter the cul-de-sacs of Sidi Abdallah Guech. Photos are not allowed, indicates the guard on the door. He requests that mobile phones are turned off. Guests are received by the smiling "patronne", the brothel manager, who assigns us a room. The door is slammed behind us.
There's no sex worker here, but a historian presenting facts about Tunis' red light district. In , the Tunisian government legalised the status of sex workers as "fonctionnaires" — or civil servants and since then the state has collected taxes and supervised the women. And it does this very stringently, says Belgian artist Ruud Gielens. The everyday lives of these women are regulated to such an extent that it could be described as almost total control by the state, he says.