In the wake of the early January terrorist attacks in Paris, renewed attention is currently being placed on Arab filmmakers who try to explore the roots of religious-inspired terrorism.
His most recent film, “Horses of God”, challenged religious fundamentalism. He depicted the lives of four kids from the slums who became suicide bombers in the 2003 Casablanca terrorist attack that left 45 dead. The pic was co-financed by France’s Pierre Ange Le Pogam and Wild Bunch, unspooled in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2012 and was Morocco’s official entry for the 86th Academy Awards and the country’s first-ever Golden Globes entry.
Ayouch’s initial reaction to Variety after the Charlie Hebdo slaughter was categorical: “It’s a sad day. I’m still very shocked. This attack will reinforce my determination to move forward by denouncing in my films the craziness of those who believe that they can act and kill in the name of a religion. As a film director, my only duty is to express what I think with no censorship of any kind, like I did in ‘Horses of God.’ Freedom of speech is not negotiable.”
Given the tense climate prevailing in France, 45-year-old Paris-born Ayouch can be expected to be a focus of major media interest in 2015 – since the Louvre Museum has given him “carte blanche” to organize a 3-day event in mid-2015, including screening of his films and exhibition of his photographs, complemented by debates with a journalist from Le Monde newspaper.
Since his early films, such as “Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets,” Ayouch has specialized in realistic dramas that focus on the desperate plight of underprivileged Moroccans.
He has directed some of Morocco’s biggest international successes over recent years – including “Whatever Lola Wants” (2007) and “My Land” (2011) — and is viewed as the godfather of the new generation of Moroccan filmmakers, having produced more than 50 feature films with new talent.
Jonathan Demme fell in love with “Horses of God” when it screened in the 2012 Marrakech film festival and was the pic’s official presenter in the U.S.. The relevance of the pic is even more poignant following the Paris attacks.
After its initial public screening in New York in May, “Horses” had a wider release in the U.S. in September 2014, distributed by Kino Lorber, followed by a DVD release and screenings on Netflix.
Ayouch attended the debut theatrical screening in New York with Demme.
“Since ‘Horses’ shows the reality that led a group of young boys to become involved in a terrorist attacks, I was expecting more controversy,” explains Ayouch. “But both the audience and the media seemed to understand the perspective that I was trying to get across – of humanizing rather than demonizing the problem.”
“I gave my point of view about extremism, with certain nuances, and explained my view as a director from the Arab world.”
At the time, one of the main reactions to the film was to draw parallels with the 2013 Boston marathon bombings and the problems that can be created when people feel marginalized.
Following on from “Horses” — which profiles a group of young men growing up in poverty – Ayouch’s current project is about four marginalized women prostitutes living in Marrakech.
Once again the helmer is interested in exploring the social situations that lead people to take desperate actions.
The film is a Franco-Moroccan coproduction, involving New District, a new Moroccan new company based in Casablanca, Ayouch’s production company, Ali n’ productions, and French production houses, Barney productions and Les Films du Nouveau Monde (which also repped “Horses” and “My Land”).
“I decided to keep the budget low in order to safeguard my freedom of expression,” explains Ayouch.
Although prostitution is a widespread phenomenon in Morocco, it’s also a social taboo. Ayouch presented the project twice to the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM) but was turned down on both occasions and so he decided to proceed alone.
He began researching the topic 18 months ago, initially interviewing prostitutes in Marrakech and ended up interviewing more than 100 prostitutes in Casablanca, Rabat and Tangier, talking about their personal backgrounds and what led them onto the streets.
“I want to go beneath the surface and show the real lives of these women, who are treated extremely badly. Many people come to Marrakech for sex – from the Gulf countries, from Europe. They treat these women extremely badly. They have a kind of superiority complex — just because they have money they think they can buy everything.”
The film will demonstrate the relationship between prostitutes and their families and society in general, including the way that certain families push children into prostitution.
As in his previous pic, “Horses,” misery and poverty play a big part, as well as personal accidents of fate. But instead of leading to external violence, via bombings, the female prostitutes suffer the inner violence associated with their plight.
“In both cases, the main characters are marginalized. I’ve always been attracted by this theme. It’s very close to me – trying to depict the army that lives in the shadows. People who have lots of things to say and express. We normally don’t want to hear them – even if what they have to say is very important.”
Ayouch traces this interest to his own upbringing in a suburb in Paris. When he moved to Morocco. he was shocked to see that certain parts of the population are considered to be inferior human beings.
“The situation isn’t as extreme as in India. But there are many social strata in Morocco that are looked down upon, even though they play a very important part in Moroccan society and we should listen to them. In this case we’re talking about a lot of girls. It’s not just a few hundred or thousand. It’s important to hear what they have to say.”
Principal photography began in late October and wrapped in mid-December. There was a medium-size crew, with technicians from Morocco, France , Belgium and Tunisia. Each scene is shot using between two to three Sony PMW-F55 CineAlta 4K cameras.
Ayouch has chosen a very realistic shooting style, which he describes as “fictions du réel”. The cast is a mixture of professional and non-professional actors and much of the dialogue is improvised.
“At present we’re seeing a new kind of filmmaking from the U.S. and Europe, that makes us believe that we’re in the middle of reality. People don’t normally expect to see this style of filmmaking from the Arab world,” he says.
The helmer hasn’t yet talked with Jonathan Demme about the project, but intends to do so, since he considers that “Horses of God” was the beginning of a long-term relationship and views “Expired” as a natural progression of the themes addressed in “Horses”.
In parallel with his film projects, Ayouch is also preparing his first exhibition as a photographer, that will be inaugurated next February in Studio 38 in Casablanca. The subject of the photographs is also marginalized segments of Moroccan society, who were filmed during the month-long Ramadan religious holiday, in the poorest parts of Casablanca. All the photographs were taken in the interval between 15 minutes before, and 15 minutes after, the end of each daily fast.
In October, Ayouch opened a cultural center in Sidi Moumen, the district of the suicide bombers involved in the 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca, where he spent two years preparing “Horses of God”.
“This cultural Center is an old dream for me,” explains Ayouch. “It gives those young people other means of expression, via the arts, that constitute an alternative to violence. It’s big, ambitious and there’s already hundreds of young girls and boys learning there.”
Ayouch has also recently received a $500,000 grant from the CCM for his next feature film project, “Razzia,” penned by “Horses”’ scribe Jamal Belmahi.
“Razzia” is very different from “Expired”. It’s a sci-fi pic about how the Arab world will look fifty years from now.
Ayouch is working with architects, and combining matte paintings and 3D special effects to make the city featured in the plot look like a mixture of traditional and high-tech buildings.
The plot focuses on a tiny, privileged elite living in high-security enclaves cut off from the poor masses – with one main character from each background.
Ayouch believes that with the overthrow of dictatorship regimes, the main focus in the Arab world will now be the struggle between rich and poor. Overall, he considers that since he moved to Morocco from Paris almost 20 years ago, he has been living in a fast-changing society that has a great deal to say to other countries.
“The geo-political situation of Morocco is so rich, especially given that the rest of the world is talking about Arab countries. The Arab world is moving fast and I feel very excited to be part of that. We should be the first ones to express our point of view on the key issues we face. We shouldn’t be scared or afraid. We should be daring. That’s a sign of our maturity.”