by Charles Green
This compelling documentary tells the story of a son’s struggle to connect with his father.. The director Alex Pitstra is the son of a Dutch mother, Anneke, and Tunisian father, Mohsen, who met when Alex’s mother went to Tunisia for a vacation. The relationship ended badly, and Alex, originally named Kazim, didn’t see his father again until he became an adult, when he began to travel regularly to Tunisia to get to know Mohsen.
The film’ title comes from the practice of bezness, where a Tunisian man would spend time with visiting European women in exchange for money and gifts. As Mohsen’s brother Salem explains, they “were like giggilos.” More than a few ended up marrying the tourists and living in Europe for a while. It’s seen as a respectable condition; one of Mohsen’s female relatives tells Alex, “I hope my sons will marry Europeans.”
Alex clearly has mixed feelings about Mohsen. As he tells Anneke, “there’s obviously love there, but also some manipulation.” Mohsen has asked for money over the years, sometimes to help set up businesses, that have all failed. Towards the end of the film he sends Alex a video message requesting money for dental work. At one point, Alex explains to his father that he feels like a European bank account his father opened in 1979.
Complicating matters is the fact that Mohsen has a wife and daughter in Tunisia. They are loving towards Alex, but as he says, they don’t really know him, and to some extent see him as their rich European family member. They can play “happy family” but it doesn’t necessarily feel authentic.
Alex connects with his half-sister Jasmin, Mohsen’s daughter from another European woman, who also comes to Tunisia. Alex describes her as “a vegan and feminist activist” and she expresses her concern about seeing Mohsen. According to her, when the relationship between him and her mother ended, he threatened to kidnap Jasmin and take her to Tunisia. Mohsen counters that he “would never have done that”, and remarks that he was accused of being “a terrorist” in Switzerland. Jasmin also tries to challenge the slightly chauvinist view on women that Mohsen has, but the conversation doesn’t really go anywhere. Father and daughter just can’t seem to connect.
This theme of not connecting runs through the film, even between Alex and his mother. Anneke remarks to him that “for your friends you would do anything, but your own mother can go to hell.” Growing up, Alex was extremely close to his mother; for most of his childhood, after his father left, it was just them. In a heartfelt conversation with Anneke, he explains that growing up, he felt like he had to take care of her, so he pushed down all the questions he had about his father. Now that he’s getting to know Mohsen, all his questions are coming back, as well as some resentment towards his mother. It’s one of the few genuine conversations in the film.
Salem presents a fascinating story. Mohsen’s oldest brother, he was also involved in the bezness and married a European woman. His daughter and granddaughter visit him, but only sees them after much pressure from the family. A self-described playboy, he brusquely shoots down Alex’s attempts to get him to open up, saying “I like to keep things private.” He’s loving towards his European family, but doesn’t seem to care if he has a relationship with them.
Ultimately, Bezness as Usual seems to be about the challenges of connecting across cultures. “Only connect” said E.M. Forster, but this family just can’t seem to. Watching them try makes for an engaging film.
Charles Green is a freelance writer and editor based in Annapolis. His reviews appear in several publications, including Publishers Weekly and DC Metro Theater Arts.