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Long regarded as North Africa's leading film critic, Ferid Boughedir must now be considered one of the region's leading filmmakers on the basis of this, his first feature, which has already collected a swag of international awards and enjoyed enormous popular success in Tunisia and France.

The tender, relaxed story of a lad's sexual awakening breaks new ground for Tunisian cinema. Its explicit female nudity and inherent sensuality will probably get it banned in most Arab countries.

Noura is a 12-year-old curious about the facts of life, Because he's small for his age, his mother still gets him into the ladies' Turkish baths where huge, Feilini-esque women stroll half-naked through the stream. Childhood and sexuality are not familiar themes in Arab films. Halfaouine breaks the taboos, certainly not just filmic, to show naked women in a land of veils. Further, it insists female sexuality is natural and uninhibited. Beneath the veils are real flesh-and-blood women with an enviably healthy attitude towards their bodies.

Set in the old Arab quarter of Tunis called Halfaouine, the film captures the flavour of the colourful old Arab city several decades ago, yet presents a new image of Tunisia. More than a Muslim society, it seems .to be a free-thinking, laughing Mediterranean country, warm with eroticism. Continually surprising and amusing, Halfaouine is a delight to watch from start to finish.