Longing for freedom in Morocco

Nabil Ayouch
Theo Zenou
Joseph Pomp

A discussion with Nabil Ayouch, the French-Moroccan filmmaker, who captures the struggle for outsiders who exist in an oppressive society.

Still from Razzia.

Contributors
Nabil Ayouch (NA)
Theo Zenou (TZ)
Joseph Pomp (JP)

The French-born, Morocco based filmmaker and educator, Nabil Ayouch, has directed five features in the last decade and produced nearly a dozen others. Along the way, he’s distinguished himself as one of the most dynamic and gifted directors in the Arab world. From his heart-rending breakout Ali Zaoua, about the embroilment of Casablanca street kids in gang warfare to Much Loved, a deeply sympathetic portrait of prostitutes that was banned in Morocco due to its “contempt for moral values.”

Ayouch treads where no one else in the country would. Every film captures the struggle for outsiders—which include figure such as independent women, Jews, and even suicide bombers—to exist in an oppressive society. But despite their arresting realism, Ayouch’s films are not documentaries. They’re meticulously crafted dramas about identity, change and redemption. Although his work is undeniably political, denouncing the ills of Moroccan society without fear or favor, Ayouch privileges immersive storytelling and arresting visuals over any blanket statements. His latest film, Razzia, especially pulsates with humanism. Set in Casablanca, it depicts the Morocco of the last thirty years with brutal honesty. Interweaving glimpses into the lives of a wide array of outsiders—from a Berber schoolteacher to a young Jewish man to an aspiring singer grappling with his queer identity—the film chronicles the destinies of men and women longing for freedom and a greater sense of autonomy. A narratively and visually ambitious tone poem, the film explores unmistakably Moroccan themes even as it keeps its sights set firmly on a universal humanism. Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Jewish Film Festival, Razzia was recently released in Morocco and France and will be traveling throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.


TZ

In Razzia, all the characters share the same status. They come from different backgrounds but all are outsiders. Where did the idea come from? Was it research and observation? You seem to be an artist that likes to delve deep into specific milieus.

NA

To me, it’s not really research but digging. I’m digging and I’m listening to my environment. I’m fascinated, for example, by Casablanca as a city, even if human beings are my first and only obsession. So, I meet people, visit places, and I dig. I find out what haunts me, inspires me, and shocks me.

TZ

So, what about one of the film’s most memorable scenes? The teenage girl is sitting on her bed, and her phone buzzes, so she goes over to her dresser to put on her djellaba. We think maybe she’s going out to meet a boy. But she doesn’t: She kneels and prays. In so doing, she exits the frame momentarily, and we are left watching her computer screen… playing a sexually risqué music video. That one shot captures the theme of your film: tradition and modernity at odds with one another.

NA

This scene came from my daughter and her friends. She went through a religious phase, between twelve and sixteen, and it was funny because I was watching her knowing that it wouldn’t last. Of course, you should never tell your kid not to do something because it only makes them want to do it more. So, I was just waiting and observing. She and her friends are so attracted to music, to parties, to media, and they’re living in the Arab world, but they don’t know the language so well, the country, or the people—the “real people”—, so they’re living in a bubble. Their way to feel part of the traditional culture is religion. It’s hard for them when so many cultures are mixed together. And I always told her, “You will quit,” and she said, “No!” Then last year, she told me, “You were right about the fact that I would quit. I’m not Muslim anymore!”

JP

Maybe you could say a little about if and how your audiences have changed over the course of your last few films. My impression is that your first features were made primarily for the festival circuit [although Ali Zaoua was a huge box-office success in Morocco, perhaps France too?] and the last two releases veer more toward popular entertainment.

NA

So, you thought Razzia was entertaining?

JP

Very much so! Let’s say that it stays clear from the ghetto of social realism. Does the broadening of your tone and subject matter have anything to do with the different sources of funding you’ve secured more recently?

For Razzia, we got French government funding [L’aide aux cinémas du monde administered by the CNC], but we also had money from Canal+, France 3, and the European Union, so in that way it’s more popular. I build the project and then I wonder how I’m going to finance it. Each time it’s different. But I’ve been able to get financing while keeping total artistic freedom—as long as I can maintain this, I’ll keep working the way that I do. It’s a mix of French, Belgian, and Moroccan money—private financiers plus state money, although from Morocco, less and less. Most financiers are just looking at the French territory. That’s where they know they can get their money back. For example, Much Loved sold 200,000 tickets, which is more than what they expected. After that, we have international sales agents, but they’re the only ones in the French system that are concerned with how our films do in the Arab world.

JP

What about for you, though? Is it important that your films will reach an audience in Morocco and other Arabic-speaking countries?

NA

Until now, the Arabic market was very small and quite hard to penetrate. We have similar languages [the Moroccan dialect is not mutually intelligible with modern standard Arabic] but not the same one. It’s weird, because it’s better to have a totally different language than a close language. When you want to do films in Moroccan Arabic, which is what I do, it’s hard to sell them abroad. Because of Much Loved, my previous film, this one (Razzia) has sold pretty well in the Arab world. It’s going to be released in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, the Emirates, and so on. This is the very first time, that we have an interest in the Arabic market for my films. Otherwise it was only festivals, where they were popular. Sometimes there was a limited release, like in Tunisia, but this time, it’s going to be wide.

JP

This means, of course, that there really was a huge number of people in the Arab world that saw Much Loved, whether or not many of those viewers would admit to it. It feels as if, when you were making that film, you had to have been thinking primarily of a Moroccan spectator.

NA

I never think about a spectator…

JP

You don’t think of the films as either French or Moroccan?

NA

No, never. I don’t think, “I’m French” or “I’m Moroccan” either. I never thought that Much Loved would be so huge. I remember after Cannes, when the film was banned in the Arab world, it had something like 30 million views on YouTube. Only in Morocco! People were like, “It’s a scandal! How can we make films like this?” But there were 30 million views. And people from around the Arab world were telling us that the movie is all they were talking about on social media. Even in Iraq, a country at war! Saudi Arabia… they became crazy, gossiping about clips from the movie. They hated me and at the same time I think there was a kind of respect. And now, with this new film, I can profit [laughs].

JP

Maybe my favorite part of Razzia was the first vignette about the Berber teacher, Abdellah, played by the incredible actor Amine Ennaji. How did you come to work with him?

NA

He’s probably the best Moroccan actor we’ve ever had. He’s been doing pretty uninteresting movies and TV series for years and years, but I believe he’s a really, really big actor, very strong, very powerful. I want to write a part just for him, opposite an American actor, because he has that kind of range.

JP

What is it like working with him, as opposed to a non-actor? Do you give more directions to him or to the non-professionals (e.g., in Ali Zaoua and Horses of God)? Is rehearsal an important part of your process? 

NA

I think that directing is really above all listening. You listen differently to professional actors, whom you have to help break out of certain habits, than you do to non-professional actors, with whom you have to build, because you are working from their real lives and you have to keep them natural, whereas in the other case, you have to clean in a certain way.

JP

When you’re working with street kids, as you often have, are they at all trying to direct you? Is it hard, in other words, to insert yourself and your crew into their community?

Still from Razzia.
NA

It’s not difficult when it’s a place where I feel comfortable, like in the shantytown of Sidi Moumen [outside of Casablanca] where I shot Horses of God and where I’ll shoot my next film. I’ve gotten really familiar with these kinds of areas, because I grew up in this suburb of Paris—Sarcelles—that, to me, is very similar. Sarcelles hadn’t been a shantytown since the ‘50s—I lived there in the ‘70s and ‘80s—but it has very strong, violent communities, and experienced the same problem of having no social link to the city center. Plus, these places are literally inaccessible. So, when I arrived in Sidi Moumen, I felt like a fish in the water.

JP

I know that you decided to make Horses of God (based on the novel, Les étoiles de Sidi Moumenabout the Casablanca suicide bombings in 2003) because you couldn’t believe it when you read that the kids involved were from that area [Sidi Moument], which you knew well. How has it changed since you shot that film? Is there anything specific that made you want to make your next film there?

NA

Yes, when I first started spending time there in the ‘90s, let’s say it was about 80% shantytown and 20% buildings. Today, it’s the reverse, 20% shantytown and 80% buildings. There’s a tram that goes to the center [of Casablanca], which is very new—so, now there’s not only a mental, but also a physical connection. And I built a cultural center there where 500 children now go every day to learn about how to open themselves to the world through arts and culture.

JP

Do you also have filmmaking workshops there?

NA

No, but I’m showing them films, and we have discussions. Because, I believe that when you say to these young people that violence shouldn’t be a means of expression, if you don’t offer them an alternative, you didn’t do a thing. So that’s what we did, me and Mahi Binebine, who’s a painter and friend of mine (whose novel we adapted into Horses of God). And we opened a new center in Tangiers, in the same kind of area as Sidi Moumen. And this is because in Sarcelles, from a cultural standpoint, I learned everything I know in a maison des jeunes et de la culture (or “MJC”)—tap dancing, singing; it’s where I watched my first Chaplin and Eisenstein movies. When I arrived in Sidi Moumen, I observed the same problem, with the same cause and the same consequence. It’s not a question of being happy or unhappy; I was very happy in Sarcelles. It’s a question of being cut off, of feeling abandoned, like a second-class citizen.

JP

It’s interesting that you pursued the reverse course of migration, leaving France to work in Morocco. Did you feel that your own options were a bit limited in Paris, that you’d be ghettoized in the rubric of banlieue cinema?

NA

Yes, you’re totally right. I quickly understood that staying in France would put me in a box. If I were really intrigued by French society, I would have stayed, but I was getting really bored. Things are changing a little bit now, but Morocco seemed like the Wild West to me. Everything could change in five minutes. If you wanted to do something, you could just do it. People are so generous; they have big hearts. Every day I drive across the city, it’s a short film: there are so many stories.

JP

So, was it specifically Casablanca that drew you to living in Morocco? What makes it special?

NA

Well, Tangier is the only other city in Morocco I would consider living in—my wife is from Tangier. But it’s a lazy city. There’s not a better place for my family to live in than Casablanca. I love it. The center is very small and not very interesting, but the surrounding area is big and very inspiring.

JP

I was very intrigued to discover the small Jewish community there, as you present it in Razzia. And then I realized that the Casablanca bombings that serve as the tragic finale to Horses of God were targeting specifically Jewish sites. Have those events affected the number of Jews that are still living in the city today?

NA

Not a lot. The majority of Moroccan Jews, of course, emigrated long before. Twenty years ago, there were ten to fifteen thousand Jews. Today, there are two thousand. The big exoduses are in the past, 1956, 1973, and again 1991 after the Gulf War. The number continues to diminish, but it remains the only country with the Arab world with a strong, influential Jewish community. The Jews living abroad are still very attached to the country. But there were so many important Jewish theologians that lived here, so every year we get 150,000 or so coming to make pilgrimages. And they’ve restored several synagogues, and the mellah of Marrakech. The monarchy has always felt it needs to protect the Jews. The mentality of most Moroccans is another story. For those that have actually worked and lived among Jews, there’s no question that a Moroccan Jew is a Moroccan. Those who haven’t, and only know about Jews through school and the media, it’s a totally different story. But real anti-Semitism is in Europe. In Morocco, it’s ignorance, stupidity.

JP

At the same time that I don’t want to ask you to decode the film, I’m wondering whether you see the angry mob at the end of Razzia as symbolic of changes in Moroccan politics and society—perhaps we could identify a wave of Islamic fervor that has been sweeping across North Africa in recent years.

NA

It’s been more conservative—that’s for sure. There’s less and less space for debate, discussion, tolerance, and universal values. At the same time, the people have this feeling that something doesn’t work. It’s not a feeling they would verbalize, but it’s that the system reached its limits and something has to change. So, beginning two years ago—and it’s a coincidence that the first time was during the shooting of Razzia, which we had written a year earlier—we’ve had a lot of major social protests.

JP

But, of course, you didn’t have the kind of uprisings that happened during the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond. Morocco has been more sedate.

NA

Yes, because the regime is not the same. I had the strong feeling that the Moroccan people were issuing a warning. It was like we were a basketball team entering [what is called in French] “money time.” It was like we said to politicians, “OK, we’ll give you some time. Let’s see what you do.” And nothing happened. Time is accelerating, and the pressure increases. The educational system is broken!

TZ

Do the Moroccan elites want to hear this?

NA

Of course not, but they have no other option, because when they banned my film [Much Loved], there was a huge debate that happened (about prostitution, etc.), even if it didn’t take the shape you’d have in this part of the world. Just as there isn’t good or bad publicity, there isn’t good or bad debate. There was a debate. And now that they haven’t banned this new film, a debate has already begun around it, and it’s going to be big, because I completely live with Much Loved and I’ve built Razzia on its foundations.

TZ

It’s very brave!

NA

I don’t know if it’s brave. I have no other option. If I don’t do this, I’d just shut down and quit. But as I’ve said, Moroccans are expecting something to happen. They’ve been living in an oppressive system, waiting for an explanation about why things are the way they are.

TZ

So, is this new picture you’re working on also set in the Morocco of today?

NA

Yes, it’s in Sidi Moumen. I’m following a hip-hop class in this cultural center, looking at how young boys and girls are expressing themselves through their words and bodies. It’s a musical. The teacher is a very handsome, charismatic man who quit rapping himself after he got disgusted by the system and decided to give his life to these young people.

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