Tough Love for Morocco

1 December, 2017
 
Razzia, Nabil Ayouch’s poetic movie portrait, gets under the skin

 

Jordan Elgrably

 

When it comes to mak­ing movies about Moroc­co, tough love is the only way direc­tor Nabil Ayouch can ful­ly express himself.

Like nov­el­ist Tahar Ben Jel­loun and artist Mounir Fat­mi, who also divide their time between Paris and Moroc­co, Ayouch is among a small elite that gets away with crit­i­ciz­ing his coun­try. “I just for­bid myself from con­sid­er­ing any­thing off lim­its,” he said in an inter­view with me dur­ing the 39th annu­al CINEMED fes­ti­val in Mont­pel­li­er, where Ayouch’s ninth film, Razz­ia, was the open­ing night selec­tion among the fes­ti­val’s 100 films from coun­tries around the Mediterranean.

Razz­ia opens in Moroc­co on 21 Feb­ru­ary, 14 March in France, and 25 April in Bel­gium, while Ama­zon has pur­chased the rights to dis­trib­ute the film in the US, Cana­da, the UK, India and Australia.

Despite the fact that Razz­ia shows fierce­ly inde­pen­dent women in con­trast with gov­ern­ment offi­cials who are zealots for a more con­ser­v­a­tive soci­ety, Moroc­co has sub­mit­ted the film to Los Ange­les as its offi­cial selec­tion for both the Oscars and the Gold­en Globes.

And this is not the first time Nabil Ayouch’s work has rep­re­sent­ed Moroc­co. His debut fea­ture, Mek­tub, was sub­mit­ted to the Acad­e­my for Oscar con­sid­er­a­tion in 1997, as was his 2012 movie, Hors­es of God

For 20 years, the gov­ern­ment of Moroc­co has con­tin­ued to bet on the tal­ent of Nabil Ayouch, despite the fact that they may dis­agree with his methods.

“I make films with total sin­cer­i­ty, I say what I think, I don’t pull my punch­es. Either you accept what I have to say or you don’t,” Ayouch avows.

Co-writ­ten with star Maryam Touzani, Razz­ia is an ensem­ble nar­ra­tive, not unlike Paul Hag­gis’ Crash (2004), set in Moroc­co in the ear­ly 1980s and in 2015. At the out­set, Abdal­lah, an ide­al­is­tic young edu­ca­tor, trav­els by bus along a dusty road to a remote, pre­dom­i­nant­ly Amazigh (Berber) vil­lage in the Atlas moun­tains, where he begins teach­ing chil­dren about the out­side world in their own language.

Mean­while, in present-day Casablan­ca, Sal­i­ma (Touzani), a young woman look­ing for her future, nego­ti­ates her place with her part­ner, osten­si­bly opt­ing for an abor­tion when the rela­tion­ship feels lop­sided in the man’s favor.

There is also Hakim who, though he has a col­lege edu­ca­tion, wants noth­ing more than to be a pop singer. His idol is the late Fred­die Mer­cury of Queen, and his anthem is “We Are the Champions.”

And then there’s Joe, a Moroc­can Jew­ish restau­rant own­er in Casablan­ca, who, 20 years lat­er in the sto­ry, employs Ilyas, one of the Mus­lim-Berber boys from the ear­ly 1980s who had been taught by Abdallah.

 

Al-Hoceima, Moroc­co, in the Rif, May 18, 2017: Over the months, women and chil­dren took to the streets to peace­ful­ly protest along­side men after the Octo­ber 2016 death of street fish ven­dor Mouhcine Fikri, acci­den­tal­ly crushed in a dump­ster (cour­tesy Therese di Campo/AFP). FP

Real­i­ties of Morocco

Since the reign of King Mohammed VI began in 1999, Moroc­co has proven itself among the most sta­ble and for­ward-mov­ing coun­tries of North Africa, and yet press free­doms remain restrict­ed, the econ­o­my has failed to inte­grate thou­sands of young col­lege grad­u­ates, and unrest roils in both the south and the north.

In the West­ern Sahara, once under Span­ish rule, Sahraw­is con­tin­ue to fight for inde­pen­dence from Moroc­co, rep­re­sent­ed by the mil­i­tant Polis­ario Front. In the north, mean­while, in the Rif, a tra­di­tion­al­ly Amazigh region, fre­quent protests have been ongo­ing since Octo­ber 2016, when police ordered a garbage truck dri­ver to pun­ish Mouhcine Fikri, a 31-year-old fish­mon­ger who jumped into the truck after police tossed his goods, and was crushed to death. Thou­sands of pro­test­ers have demon­strat­ed in Rabat, Casablan­ca and beyond.

Razz­ia’s poet­ic yet harsh look at life in Moroc­co notwith­stand­ing, the land­scape con­tin­ues to evolve. In 2011, the Moroc­can con­sti­tu­tion was amend­ed to lend more sup­port to the Amazigh and Jew­ish pop­u­la­tions. In Essaouira and Fez, his­toric Jew­ish med­i­nas are being revived, and syn­a­gogues are being refur­bished. It’s become com­mon­place now to find street signs in Ara­bic, Amazigh and French. Last year, the Ara­biza­tion edu­ca­tion laws were changed when French was rein­stat­ed as the main lan­guage of instruc­tion in pri­ma­ry edu­ca­tion, re-open­ing Moroc­co fur­ther to the world. And the 2016 Mar­rakesh Dec­la­ra­tion reaf­firmed the rights of Morocco’s reli­gious minorities.

And yet, many younger Moroc­cans dream of leav­ing the land they both love and hate. Their hogra, or feel­ing of being crushed by the sys­tem, remains pal­pa­ble. One PhD stu­dent in his late 20s, Habib D, explained: “All the Moroc­can youth feel in one way or anoth­er oppressed. They’re wait­ing for the right moment to act. Lots of young peo­ple are unem­ployed and pover­ty is only quick­ly esca­lat­ing. Func­tionar­ies com­plain all the time and they can’t go on strike any­more. For for­eign­ers things look nor­mal. Many peo­ple have been arrest­ed in rela­tion to the protests in the Rif… I spent two days in a police sta­tion last July on the way to the Unit­ed States. The police arrest­ed me and hand­cuffed me at the air­port. They said I was try­ing to take peo­ple to the States as ille­gal immi­grants. The con­di­tions in the cell in the police sta­tion were incon­ceiv­ably inhu­man. I was so scared, and I am in fact trau­ma­tized. Only my clos­est friends know.”

Habib will soon com­plete his PhD. and he hopes to find a way to move abroad. “I don’t think I’ll stay here,” he said. “I just can’t change things because of the deeply root­ed cor­rup­tion. I feel I need to find a way out and set­tle somewhere.”

With its inter­wo­ven nar­ra­tive, con­struct­ed around the over­whelm­ing desire for free­dom, Razz­ia fea­tures mul­ti­ple sets of char­ac­ters who ques­tion every­thing, includ­ing and espe­cial­ly a patri­ar­chal Moroc­can soci­ety where cor­rup­tion and lack of oppor­tu­ni­ty remain endemic.

The film casts a crit­i­cal eye at the for­eign-raised Ara­bic teach­ers sent to Moroc­co in the ear­ly 1980s, from Syr­ia, Egypt and Sau­di Ara­bia, who embod­ied a more obscu­ran­tist, less tol­er­ant prac­tice of Islam, and who brought a stul­ti­fy­ing edu­ca­tion­al style into the schools, at a time when Moroc­co was strug­gling to mod­ern­ize its soci­ety, and increase inter­na­tion­al tourism.

Razz­ia also pays homage to Moroc­co’s organ­ic diver­si­ty, por­tray­ing mem­o­rable char­ac­ters who are Amazigh or Jew­ish — two com­mu­ni­ties indige­nous to Moroc­co which pre-date Islam.

 

Hus­band-and wife-team Ayouch and Touzani (pho­to cour­tesy Eric Catarina/CINEMED).

Strong women

Dur­ing the inter­view in Mont­pel­li­er, Ayouch ven­tured that Razz­ia was the direct descen­dant of his last fea­ture, Much Loved (2015), a sto­ry about four rebel­lious pros­ti­tutes in Mar­rakech. The film is still banned in Moroc­co and brought him death threats after it was screened at Cannes.

Touzani, mean­while, declares that she is much like her char­ac­ter, Sal­i­ma. “I have the same fears, and the same desire to be free,” she says.

A native of Tang­i­er and a Lon­don-trained jour­nal­ist who began mak­ing short films in Moroc­co in 2011, before com­plet­ing Razz­ia’s screen­play with Ayouch two years ago, Touzani says there are many women in Moroc­co who strug­gle for liberation.

“And this thirst for free­dom among women is grow­ing. It’s very impor­tant for women to take back their bod­ies and not be imposed upon… In Razz­ia, each woman is dif­fer­ent but rep­re­sents a force on her own,” Touzani adds.

“Men haven’t giv­en women rights — women have fought for them.”

Ayouch and Touzani sug­gest that Ilyas’ wid­owed Amazigh moth­er, Yto, as well as Sal­i­ma, along with a rebel­lious teenage high-school girl, and a young pros­ti­tute in the film, are all “incar­na­tions of strug­gle and resistance.”

“Women in Alge­ria, Tunisia and Moroc­co are resist­ing and strug­gling every­day for their rights,” says Ayouch.

 

A com­plex identity

It’s as if, with each new film, Nabil Ayouch strug­gles to re-envi­sion the world, while mar­ry­ing the mul­ti­ple parts of his own com­plex iden­ti­ty. The son of a French Tunisian Jew­ish moth­er and a Moroc­can Mus­lim father from Casablan­ca, Ayouch is a dual national.

He grew up in the rough-and-tum­ble Paris sub­urb of Sar­celles, an immi­grant enclave that inspired France’s grit­ty cult hit, La Haine. An enclave of rent-con­trolled high ris­es, with at least half a dozen church­es, five syn­a­gogues and three mosques, Sar­celles might have turned its native son into a voy­ou (thug), Ayouch sug­gests, had it not been for the local cul­tur­al cen­ter that opened in his youth, the Forum des Cho­lettes (closed in 1999 after asbestos was revealed in 80 per­cent of the building).

He cred­its his dis­cov­ery of inter­na­tion­al cin­e­ma dur­ing after-school pro­grams at the cul­tur­al cen­ter as the seed of his film­mak­ing career.

“I’m proud of my roots,” Ayouch mused. “I have a mixed iden­ti­ty, between French, Jew­ish, Tunisian, Moroc­can and Mus­lim. That’s why I fight for indi­vid­ual freedom.”

Nabil has lived much of the past 20 years in Casablan­ca, where as a child and ado­les­cent he spent his sum­mers away from Sar­celles. Clear­ly the city inspires him, and when you watch Razz­ia you’ll note sev­er­al ref­er­ences to the Hol­ly­wood clas­sic, Casablan­ca, which inform the sto­ry in unique ways.

Maryam Touzani and Nabil Ayouch are not only the co-cre­ators of Razz­ia, they are mar­ried and recent­ly had their first child.

With Razz­ia being released into the world, you might say they now have two children.

One won­ders what the future has in store for the cre­ative cou­ple. Ayouch is among the few North Africans to have been induct­ed into the Acad­e­my of Motion Pic­ture Arts and Sci­ences. He has an Amer­i­can agent who sends him screen­plays to read, but none have yet inspired him to pick up and move to the oth­er side of the ocean.

“I would go work in Hol­ly­wood if I found a script I cared about,” he says. “But for now I have oth­er sto­ries to tell.”

Maryam Touzani mean­while, expects to direct her first fea­ture film in 2018, in which she will look at the lives and strug­gles of Moroc­co’s sin­gle mothers.

 

Tough Love for Moroc­co” first appeared in The New Arab as “Razz­ia: Nabil Ayouch’s crit­i­cal mul­ti-thread­ed homage to Moroc­co’s cul­tur­al tapestry.”

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