You started out as an actor and have now moved behind the camera with three short films and this feature film. Where does your desire to make film come from?
The desire to make films… The filmmakers who gave me this desire were fairly versatile. You don’t chose your heroes by chance – filmmakers I like also do theatre, draw, direct operas… they do hundreds of things. But the vital requisite in directing a film or play is to create a universe. I also like acting! I like changing hats and still stay in film!
You have given yourself a role in this film – the friend who comes to share some news. What was your intention in this?
When I directed plays, I always had the desire to give myself a role but I refrained from doing so. It was the same thing with my short films. In my next feature film, I have given myself a big role… and on Mille Mois, I wanted to do a trial run, to see if I was comfortable and to make sure that moving backwards and forwards in front of and behind the camera didn’t have a detrimental effect on the film. And also, it’s a role that my producer pushed me to take. The actress who plays the role of Amina – the mother – is my wife in real life and he thought that something might come out of our complicity because we’ve been together for over 10 years.
You use a lot of fixed shots, which gives the impression of a kind of deliberate construction. What did you want to achieve by this?
I really enjoy using very minimalist, fixed shots in which the bodies that enter the space have been choreographed considerably. To my mind, there is nothing more magical in cinema than a well-constructed entry or exit from a shot. I try to tell my story as well. I like working on the « off-camera » – what doesn’t happen in the centre of the shot but rather on its periphery, in the margins. I sometimes like to not follow the person and let them leave so that the spectator has to guess where they’re going. I think that in the film I try to find a certain balance between two registers. So, there is this one, and there is the one in which the camera tries to move from this distant, impotent gaze to a gaze that is implicated in the scene that takes charge of the story and its emotions, which always uses moving shots. I was heavily influenced by a type of film in which it is accepted that the camera is present, like in Welles’ and Coppola’s films. I don’t believe in the camera being invisible. It’s like in literature when the author’s effort to mould the language can be felt.
The camera is also the place attributed to the spectator.
Yes. I like to play with the spectator, at the level of form. The film begins with people waiting and we only find out much later what they’re waiting for. It’ll take a quarter of an hour to find out what the chair’s used for. I also like to keep the spectator involved and not hand them everything on a platter immediately. I prefer to give them a path that seems to be beaten but that they’ll have to leave later on; or start with a path where you can hardly understand anything and that gets explained later. The spectator has to be engaged constantly, has to be active. An object like a pair of binoculars circulates, explaining contacts we don’t see on the screen. These stories overflow from the narrative – I like a type of film where there are several layers, since you can rediscover a film when you see it again, with what you didn’t see in the first viewing. Television has done a lot to flatten the film image. A single image provides a single piece of information. And that brings us back to the Chinese proverb that says that a single image is worth a thousand words. Otherwise, it loses its power.
You were a co-writer for André Téchiné’s Loin. Once again, the drug trafficking story is only there to provide tension, although it does symbolise the reality of the North-South relationship. Your film has a backdrop of the years of terrorism in Morocco during the 1980s. You don’t talk about it as history but rather as a permanent backdrop that enables you to discuss History, with a capital H.
It true. I’m attacking History through the intimate rather than directly. Even though it is set in a period of major social conflict, there are no images of demonstrations, strikes or riots in the film. It was a long time ago and what’s important is the shockwave, the impact it had on people.
There is another very strong theme in the film: religion. The sacred night, the night of the Laylatu-el-Qadr, of destiny, is very intense. We’re given the feeling that you respect religion. Why did you choose that moment for everything to crumble?
It’s a way of saying that humans are weak and that that’s what makes them so beautiful. It’s supposed to be a night of pureness, in which Satan is banned from the earth but temptation is strong. From a dramatic point of view, it was important that it happen that night. By setting the film during the Ramadan I was able to situate it in a time and social space dedicated to ritual that occurs naturally – I didn’t have to impose a religious character or anything to obtain this dimension and show how the protagonists live out their relationship with it.
Two characters representing marginality or madness reappearing: the guy who builds his own mosque and a « love-crazed » guy who has absolutely no luck but who hangs in there. This gives an impression of your wanting to take a stance.
I like marginal characters a lot. They had a big impact on my childhood – the drunkards, or even the Chikhat, the group of musicians who were almost acrobats who played very folk-like music. I have these kinds of characters in my short films too. I really enjoy putting them on film.
We’re given the impression that they hold a kind of truth and offer a different understanding of what is happening around them.
Yes. The crazy guy who builds his own mosque is in some way the guy who pays for all the others. It’s as if he dies for them in a way. They all do something wrong and he commits the ultimate crime. Other characters also try to redeem themselves, like Amina, who distributes all her money to the poor, in an almost Christ-like scene. The poor totally rob her to make sure it’s not pure charity.
There is humour in it but tragedy takes a hold and we leave the film somewhat shaken up, with the thought that they were hard years in Morocco. We sense just how political the film is. And we’re torn between Fellini’s Amarcord and your desire to highlight the traces left of this period.
Exactly! There are characters that were part of my childhood. Like the guy who turns off the TV, and the TV is also a tool for manipulating the people. He appropriates its power to manipulate. The film’s about the gaze, about what we see and don’t see. Mehdi thinks he sees the town, he thinks he sees his father through the sweet wrapper… The issue is knowing what we’re allowed to see and what we’re not. And I ask myself this question about film – what should I show? Much of what takes place happens off-screen. Violence isn’t shown but we see how they live with its consequences. It’s a constant issue for me with respect to using film as an instrument.
Your cinema is similar to that of Daoud Aouad Syad and Abderrahmane Sissako. Theirs’ is a cinema of the gaze, in which the spectator is solicited considerably. How well is this accepted in Morocco?
Compared with the rest of Africa, Morocco is very fortunate. It has a film centre that finances 8 to 10 films a year to the value of 1.5 or 2 Million francs [228,400-304,500 euros]. The 2M television station, headed by Nourredine Saïl, is heavily involved in producing films. However, this is still not enough because a true Moroccan cinematography can only be born if it has real producers. Agora films, which produced my film, are on the right track since they are real producers. This means the director doesn’t have to do the work them self. In the current context, where the auteurs only work on co-productions, such as Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao Sien, Wong kar Waï, etc., this is imperative to make demanding, pertinent films that don’t take the easy way out.
Filmmakers don’t seem to have a collective line of thought. They simply seem to have certain affinities. There’s no Moroccan school for the moment, but that may change.
Being nominated at Cannes is nice for a first film!
Yes. It was a wonderful gift. My favourite filmmaker – Orson Wells – was nominated for Othello, which was filmed in Morocco 50 years ago. So I was really happy.
And I expect that it’ll be good for your reputation in Morocco too.
True. Narjiss Nejjar and I are part of a new generation of filmmakers boldly making their existence known at Cannes. It would be great if it made people more interested in Moroccan film.
Here, in Cannes, you don’t get much representation from the Cinémas du Sud stand – because you haven’t received any Fonds Sud funding?
Yes. We received an advance on the box office takings from the CNC [French national film council], which is more important and can’t be accumulated with other grants. But I try to avoid being considered a filmmaker from the South as much as I can. I would like us to be considered filmmakers who have a certain view of the world. We shouldn’t fly that particular flag too high. When you see films by some filmmakers, you wonder what their nationality is and that’s what the universality of film is all about. I hope that our films will eventually get to that point. Orson Wells was American but he lives first and foremost in the world of film. This also raises the issue of the destiny of the individual in our society, where individuals are very much part of a collective, part of the tribe! Our societies will very likely only improve if we start to recognise the individual and the rights of the individual.
Morocco has been in the news lately with some terrible events, such as the four terrorist attacks in Casablanca. Do you think that film could help to improve things?
That reminds of a beautiful quote by Wim Winders, which says that by improving images we can help the world to move forward. My film doesn’t have anything to do with the current situation. It doesn’t speak out against a negative fundamentalism that has to be eradicated. It seeks a greater understanding of religion that I would like to be timeless.
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