Nabil Ayouch Preps Social Drama ‘Razzia’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Helmer discusses the challenges currently facing Arab filmmakers

Nabil Ayouch, director, 'Much Loved'
Copyright Amir Rouani

46-year old Nabil Ayouch is Morocco’s best-known helmer – due to his incisive social dramas that highlight the plight of characters from impoverished backgrounds who resort to desperate actions.

His 2012 pic, “Horses of God,” about the 2003 Casablanca suicide bombers, was sold to 40 countries and officially presented in the U.S. by Jonathan Demme, where it was Morocco’s candidate for the Foreign-Language Academy Award and the Golden Globes.

Given the rising tide of terrorist attacks throughout the world, attributed in part to under-privileged environments, Ayouch’s “Horses,” is increasingly cited as a poignant insight into the underlying causes of terrorism.

“’Horses’ was a premonition of what happened in Paris, not just the situation in Morocco,” said Ayouch.

For his most recent film, “Much Loved,” Ayouch decided to switch his gaze to a more subtle form of violence provoked by poverty – in a tale about four prostitutes working in Marrakech, based on 18 months of research that originally began as documentary project but evolved into what he calls a “fiction du reel.”

“I saw that I had a perspective on the women,” Ayouch commented. “It made me feel something and it made me want to write something – about the beauty I see inside them and how it’s hard to see this beauty. And how they’re invisible.”

Ayouch was aware that the subject matter was particularly problematic. After the project was twice rejected for subsidy funding by the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM), he decided to co-produce the production, on a tight budget.

As with Ayouch’s previous films, “Loved” circulated in A-list festivals, including a world premiere in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes from which it segued to Toronto’s Contemporary World Cinema section.

“Much Loved” also played at the Festival d’Angoulême in France in August, where Ayouch won best director and Loubna Abidar took best actress. Abidar also won best actress at the Festival du Film Francophone in Namur in September, and at Spain’s Gijon Festival in November.

In mid-November, the pic had its first screening in the Arab world, at the Carthage Int’l Film Fest, where it won jury prize.

Ayouch reveals that the pic will also be competing for a Golden Globe, proposed by the publicist. However at home “Loved” was banned in May by Morocco’s Ministry of Communication for “serious outrage to the moral values of Moroccan women”: private court proceedings were also filed against Ayouch on these grounds. Bowed but not broken by this experience, Ayouch is planning his forthcoming projects, starting with social drama “Razzia,” while exploring alternative distribution possibilities for “Loved,” including a VOD release.

The revelation of certain red lines of censorship in Morocco has been a formative experience for him, and also highlights the challenges facing Arab filmmakers in an increasingly tense international environment.

In the controversy raised by “Loved,” Ayouch was particularly surprised by the attempt to portray him as an external agent rather than a full Moroccan citizen. Critics focused on his French upbringing – as a Paris-born Franco-Moroccan. He was even dubbed by some commentators as the “Moroccan Charlie Hebdo,” providing an essentially European and condescending view of Moroccan culture.

In the wake of the ban, Ayouch received backing through a petition signed by over 80 leading European producers and directors; however for his critics this only intensified the idea that his film was an unwelcome encroachment on Moroccan culture.

Ayouch had hoped for more support from his fellow filmmakers in Morocco and also from the CCM, but the film divided public opinion. One of the main defenders of the film was fellow helmer, Noureddine Lakhmari.

Ayouch took heart from the fact that the controversy showed that there are multiple views on these issues in Morocco.

“I was very pleased to see that many people in Morocco defended the film and me as a director. People criticized the ban in the media and in the art world and citizens associations defended the film.”

However he says that what saddened him wasn’t so much the fact that it was banned, but the way that it was banned. “What happened was the result of a tension that we observe in Moroccan society and more widely in the Arab world involving two different projects for society.”

Ayouch believes that the struggle for individual rights and freedom of speech in the Arab world must include art and culture.

“At Cannes, I was very optimistic. Nothing made me believe that it would be banned. With my previous films like ‘Ali Zaoua’ or ‘Horses of God’ the same questions were posed, but the films were still screened in Morocco.

I actually thought ‘Horses’ was much more sensitive than ‘Much Loved.’”

Nonetheless, Ayouch still believes that it’s possible to pursue a fearless approach to making films about Moroccan society and attributes the ban to the fact that sex is a much bigger taboo than terrorism in Arab societies, and that the problem arose because instead of showing the women as mere victims, it highlighted their inner strength.

“Instead of showing poor young women who are being beaten all the time. I portrayed my main characters as warriors. That’s also why it was banned. But that’s precisely what I wanted to show.”

Ayouch says that he was shocked by the testimonies provided by the women that he interviewed over the 18 month preparation period, which haunted him afterwards.

Ironically, it was perhaps precisely the power of his visceral filmmaking – intensely conveying both the client’s probing male gaze and the young women’s defiant vitality – that led to the ban. Sex scenes have featured in previous Moroccan films, but never so intensely.

Nonetheless Ayouch believes that it’s important to capture the reality of the situation and that instead of banning films on the subject, action should be taken.

“This topic is hidden under a veil,” he says. “The reality is much more disturbing.”

Ayouch believes that the attempts to ban films will ultimately prove ineffective because of the Internet, including the expansion of VOD platforms through the Arab world. He is currently exploring this avenue for distribution of his film.

“It’s time to look for new ways to show our movies,” he says.

The helmer believes that it’s never been more important to have powerful voices coming from the Arab world, especially in the wake of terrible events such as the November Paris attacks.

“I was terribly affected by what happened in Paris,” he says. “I never thought that the war would be so total. So blind.”

Ayouch believes that one of the answers to the phenomenon of terrorism, is the creation of cultural centers in deprived areas, partly inspired by the Maisons de Jeunesse which he himself frequented while growing up in the suburbs of Paris and where he says he learned how to tap dance, sing, act, saw his first concert and his first Eisenstein and Chaplin films.

In 2014, he helped set up a cultural center in Sidi Moumen, the district of the 2003 Casablanca bombers – and is involved in the opening of two new cultural centers in 2016 – one in Fez, the other in Essaouira.

“We’re facing an emergency,” he says. “Creation of cultural centers, or making films, may be just a drop in the ocean. But we have to do something. Some people are completely desperate, locked in despair, without hope. Just look at the refugee crisis. People are looking for something that doesn’t even exist. It’s extremely sad and involves such profound human injustices.”

Ayouch’s desire to focus on the plight of despairing minorities fuels his next project, “Razzia,” which was initially conceived as a futuristic film but has changed considerably.

The underlying premise remains the same – of the division of society into two blocs, rich and poor – but he has now made it much more contemporary.

Ayouch received a $500,000 grant from the CCM for the original sci-fi version of the project, penned by “Horses”’ scribe Jamal Belmahi, but given that he has changed the project considerably he’s decided to re-apply.

He says that the experience generated by the controversy around “Much Loved” intensified his desire to make a contemporary tale. “It revealed a new way to tell the story,” he says.

He also thinks that this will be a vital testing ground: “With the new draft this will be a real test of whether there is still a place for me in Morocco to treat some subjects with some freedom of expression.”

Ayouch still intends to use some special effects and envisages adopting a new visual approach, through heightened realism, rather than “fiction du reel”. He cites inspirations such as the TV series “Fargo”, and David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” in terms of portraying hate and violence in society without being violent.

“Exploring a new aesthetic doesn’t mean that the film will be less realistic,” he says. “In ‘Razzia,’ I want to be less visceral, more intellectual – exploring latent violence.”

Despite the difficult months experienced in 2015, Ayouch remains optimistic.

“I’m still hopeful for this country and for the youth of this country and the changes that we can bring as artists, as film directors. We’re on the front line.”