Moroccan Filmmakers Turn Attention to Islam

Several recent films in Morocco have focused on issues surrounding the rise of Islamism in the country, leaving some uncomfortable at the human way in which Islamists have been portrayed, writes Meryem Saadi. 

al-monitor A view of Jamaa Lafna square in Marrakech, Morocco, where a big cinema screen has been set up for people to view films, Dec. 7, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Abderrahmane Mokhtari.

Topics covered

salafist movement in morocco, salafist, morocco, moroccan society

Feb 8, 2013

Over the past few years, Islamism has become a recurrent topic in Moroccan films. Are we walking in the footsteps of Egypt, where it's rare to find works that do not evoke the Muslim Brotherhood? Let’s decipher this.

In the past few years, specifically in the wake of the May 16, 2003 attacks, several directors have produced films focusing on the Islamization of Moroccan society. “Casablanca Day Light” by Mostafa Derkaoui (2004), “Tu Te Souviens de Adil?” (Do You Remember Adil?) by Mohamed Zineddaine (2008), “Mort à Vendre” (Death for Sale) by Faouzi Bensaїdi (2011) and, recently, both “Les Mécréants” (The Miscreants) by Mohcine Besri and “Les Chevaux de Dieu” (God’s Horses) by Nabil Ayoush (in theaters beginning this month [Feb.]).

Even when religious conservatism is not the main topic, several feature films tackle it implicitly, like “Amours Voilées” (Veiled Love) by Aziz Salmy, or more recently, “Femme Ecrite” (A Written Woman) by Lahcen Zinoun. Why have directors given so much importance to this social phenomenon?

A call for debate

“Cinema is like a stretched bow that vibrates according to society’s rhythm," says Noureddine Saїl, director of the Moroccan Cinematographic Center. "So, it’s normal for Islamism to be brought up, in one way or the other, in the movies of Moroccan directors.”

One thing is certain: If our filmmakers have decided to take interest in this theme, it is because they know that it affects Moroccans immensely and that it is the center of current affairs. Those two factors have always been instinctual in filmmakers' choice of themes, monitored as they are. Islamism interests everybody to a certain extent.

“We cannot produce movies with a setting in the year 2000 without talking about the bearded men," says director Mohamed Achaour, who is currently working on his feature film “Once Upon a Father,” in which Islamism is a central theme. "We cannot exclude them from our works because they exist in flesh and blood in our lives. Whether we like them or not, they are part of the setting. So, it would be quite hypocritical to dismiss them from our movies.”

Ayouch says that it is both important and natural for producers to tackle this topic. "It seems logical to me that Moroccan producers talk about Islamism," he explains. "Americans do that all the time, so why wouldn’t we? We have the right to express our point of view about such an influential topic.”

Besri shares a similar opinion. “I produced ‘Les Mécréants’ because I felt like dealing with this topic from our own point of view, far from the occidental vision of Islamism which, I believe, does not reflect the reality," he states. "It does not present anything new to the debate either since it is based on prejudice.”

Between humor and hyperrealism

Although several producers chose Islamism as the main theme in their movies, none of them adopted the same approach — a good thing for the Moroccan public. For instance, producer Brahim Chkiri decided to talk about Islamism with a touch of humor. “Road to Kabul,” which achieved great success in theaters last year, is a movie set in Afghanistan. Its delirious characters find themselves there by accident and are obliged to become mullahs.

But most filmmakers are sticking to a more realistic register, in an attempt to portray their characters in the most possible credible way. This is the case of Ayouch, who started to work since 2008 on “Les Chevaux de Dieu,” a feature film inspired by the May 16 attacks and which has taken five years to make. "It is a very sensitive topic, and I did not want my characters to be ridiculous caricatures of Islamists," Ayouch says. "We see that often in Egyptian cinema.” Ayouch has read a lot of theses and studies on the subject and has watched videos of lectures — or even calls for jihad — for hours on end. He's had discussions with several Islamists and even work sessions with Salafist sheikh Mohamed Fizazi. The producer doesn't want to miss any detail that might give a “false” representation of Islamists. He goes so far as to “analyze their way of sitting, praying or saying hello.”

In contrast, Besri chose a different approach. “The intellectual repertoire was useful, but it was necessary to keep it in the background. ‘Les Mécréants’ is above all a fictional movie focusing on the psychological state of the characters.”

A certain image

In the movies “Mort à Vendre,” “Les Mécréants” or even “Les Chevaux de Dieu,” the Islamist characters are far from the clichéd ultra-violent armed militants of Hamas or Hezbollah.

The spectator delves into their psychology and feelings and can even feel compassion for them.

“Many people told me they were annoyed by the extremely human side of my Islamist characters," Besri explains. "However, in general, these remarks came from people who have not been well informed on the topic and who have based their opinions on what they saw through the media. My characters are simply human, like all of us.” For Ayouch, the situation is a bit more delicate, since his movie is inspired by real events that deeply traumatized the Moroccan population. The producer notes, “I did not want to make my characters unreal and portray them in a monochrome manner. My movie is based on the human condition and on boys from Sidi Moumen who suddenly decided to become human bombs.”

Is humanizing radical Islamists not a terrible act of standardization? Ayouch continues, “I understand people who reproach me for humanizing Islamists. However, I don’t think that trying to understand means forgiving. The idea behind my movie is not to justify the acts of Islamists but to understand where they come from. This is what we should do if we don’t want such acts to be repeated.” It is an interesting and analytical approach that must be adopted by other producers.

“The aim of Moroccan cinema should no longer be restricted to entertaining the spectators," explains film critic Hammadi Guirroum. "It should push them to think and to ask themselves questions about their society.”

Why is there this tendency to be always so strictly in step with current events?

At the start of the year 2000, following the creation of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission, several movies went back to the Years of Lead. Shortly thereafter, movies tackled the red-hot situation of women, in the wake of the Moudawana reform. At the end of the 2000s, illegal immigration became the most popular topic among Moroccan producers. So, does Moroccan cinema follow thematic cycles?

“The major problem with our cinema is its constant and tight closeness to the current events," says Guirroum. Many producers have the tendency to think they are journalists and never take the time to have enough hindsight. For this reason, all the movies about the Years of Lead were superficial and lacked emotion, unfortunately.”

Where does this desire to accompany the current events, at all costs, come from?

“Some producers are mostly searching for provocative themes that sell at the same time and that have greater chances to interest spectators and movie festivals,” Guirroum says.

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