MARRAKECH — Nabil Ayouch is Morocco’s best-known filmmaker, having directed international hits such as “Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets” (2000), “Whatever Lola Wants” (2007), “Horses of God” (2012).
Over recent years he has played a key role in developing the nascent Moroccan film industry including the production of a slate of over 40 Moroccan telefilms, for public broadcaster SNRT, which launched a new generation of directing and acting talent.
His 2012 pic, “Horses of God,” about the 2003 Casablanca suicide bombers, was sold to 40 countries by Wild Bunch and officially presented in the U.S. by Jonathan Demme, where it was Morocco’s candidate for the foreign-language Academy Award.
However, in 2015 Ayouch became a bête noire for certain quarters of Moroccan society due to his prostitution drama, “Much Loved,” which was banned one week after the film bowed in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, on account of “serious outrage to the moral values of Moroccan women.” Private court proceedings were also filed against Ayouch.
Ayouch and his main actresses were fervently attacked in the media; the lead actress was assaulted in the street, leading her to move to Paris. Critics of “Much Loved” dubbed him as a foreigner who is undermining national cultural values. Ayouch was born in Paris to a French Jewish mother, of Tunisian descent, and a Moroccan Muslim father, born in Fez, and he has lived in Morocco since the early 1990s.
He is currently completing shooting on his next project “Razzia” which was initially conceived as a sci-fi project about the gulf between the rich and poor.
Ayouch received a $500,000 grant from the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM) for this original version, penned by “Horses”’ scribe Jamal Belmahi, but as a result of the experience from “Much Loved” he decided to radically alter it and focus primarily on the human drama of the main characters.
He therefore turned down the initial grant and re-applied for CCM funding but was unsuccessful, which forced him to finance the film entirely as an international co-production.
The new script is written by Nabil Ayouch and Maryam Touzani and stars Maryam Touzani, Belgium’s Ariel Worthalter, Abdelilah Rachid, Dounia Binebine and Amine Ennaji.
It is produced by Bruno Nahon Paris-based Unité de Production, and is co-produced by iAyouch’s Casablanca-based production house, Ali’N Productions, Les Films du Nouveau Monde, France 3 Cinéma, and Belgium’s Artemis Productions.
It has also received funding from Eurimages, the Wallonia-Brussels Federation’s Film Centre, Belgian tax rebates and SofitvCiné 4, and has been pre-sold to Canal Plus, OCS, RTBF, BeTV and Voo.
Lensed in Casablanca, Ouarzazate and the Atlas mountains, “Razzia” depicts five separate stories, one set in the 1980s in the Atlas mountains and the others in present day Casablanca.
One of the recurring themes in the film is a reference to the 1942 classic “Casablanca,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, which is ironically one of Morocco’s best-known symbols, even though it was shot entirely in Hollwood during WWII.
“In both films, people are fighting against an ideology,” says Ayouch. “They’re fighting against the Nazis in ‘Casablanca’ and in my film they are also trying to resist. The analogy is very clear.”
One of the key themes that links together the five stories is intolerance, ignorance of others and the refusal to accept differences, which Ayouch views as a growing sentiment in Morocco.
“The film is about people in search of freedom, and the right to speak their minds, act freely, and talk about the issues that matter to them. In particular the right of women to achieve this – since I think it’s getting more and more difficult for women to be free in modern Morocco.”
The social issues contained in the earlier versions of the project are still very present, but it is less about the gulf between rich and poor and more about issues of freedom of speech, that affect all tiers of Moroccan society, and the tendency for one section of society to feel contempt for another and become increasingly less tolerant.
“These are dangerous times throughout the world,” says Ayouch. “We have seen this with the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. and the rise of the far right in Hungary, Austria and France. Demagogy is leading in a new way, and there’s a new form of cultural hegemony – we’re seeing similar trends in the Arab world.”
Ayouch conceives the film, in part, as a tribute to the city of “Casablanca,” and explores the links with the no man’s land depicted in Michael Curtiz’s 1942 classic pic.
“My film will be a tribute but also a way of taking back what is ours,” says the director. “Casablanca was shot completely in L.A. and shows nothing of the true city, but even some locals in Casablanca are convinced that their streets hosted the original production.”
The pic includes images from the 1942 film and its soundtrack includes the iconic song, “As Times Go By.” One of the characters is convinced that the Bogart tearjerker was shot in his neighborhood when he was a young man. Alongside the references to “Casablanca,” other cult references that feature in the film include the pop group “Queen” and the late Freddy Mercury who personified the spirit of freedom that Ayouch wants to explore in the film. The soundtrack includes “We are the Champions,” “The Show Must Go On,” and “I Want to Break Free.”
The zones of modern-day Casablanca depicted in the film include the old medina and poor neighborhoods, where two of the characters live, walled condominiums in the “rich ghettoes” and also Casablanca’s famous art deco buildings. Ayouch considers that the city’s art deco architecture is part of the appeal of the 1942 pic and he wanted to bring the real Casablanca into homes around the world.
“Like millions of people, I really love this movie. A few years ago, I met a producer in New York who asked me how come this city was so famous around the world and yet no scene was shot in Morocco. He asked me whether it made me nervous. At the time I said “no.” But over time I realized that it did bother me. Even Moroccan people believe that it was shot here.”
Ayouch suddenly realized that this paradoxical situation was an excellent metaphor for what he views as the split personality of modern Moroccans and decided to create a character who believed that it was shot there. Another key character is a woman in quest for freedom. Society doesn’t let her life the way she wants to, so she moves and starts a new life, far from her husband. Another character, Hakim, is a carpenter living in a poor area, who is looked down upon by his father, dreams of becoming a musician and worships Freddy Mercury.
The present-day characters are all linked to a teacher who worked in a little school in an isolated Berber village, in the Atlas mountains, in 1982.
Ayouch says he was a man full of dreams who wanted to transmit his vision to children, to make them better people, and is able to do so until the authorities stop him, by means of the educational reforms introduced in 1982.
“I believe that there was a crucial change in mindsets in the early 1980s which changed education systems throughout the world and has had a major impact on the world of today,” said Ayouch. He added: “The education system turned its back on the humanities. This happened throughout the Maghreb region. In Morocco disciplines such as sociology and philosophy were taken off the curriculum. We’re now reaping the consequences. We’re building a new kind of human being.”
Ayouch considers that the defeat of the teacher in his film symbolizes the defeat of the entire society and he tries to trace a spiritual link to the other characters. He admits that this focus on the inner world of the characters and the way that society can crush people’s dreams was deeply affected by his experience with “Much Loved.”
“What happened to me after ‘Much Loved’ and to the actresses was a very strong experience. It really left a great impact. I will never forget the words I heard. Things I never thought I would hear. Such bad things. I never thought that this kind of split personality was so strong. That people could confuse fiction with reality and attack a director because he makes a film.”
Ayouch believes that there is a long-term evolution of mindsets which is engendering mistrust, intolerance and hatred.
He said that he admires how directors such as the Coen brothers or David Cronenberg show how oppressive forces can develop very slowly and then suddenly explode into violence.
He hopes to be able to complete “Razzia” in time for Cannes 2017 and thinks that it will be an important opportunity to focus on how mentalities are changing not only in Morocco but throughout the world.
“Mentalities are regressing for a simple reason,” he says. “Freedom of speech. We are moving backwards. What we have seen over the past two-to-three years, not only in Morocco but throughout the world, is a big step backwards.”
“Moroccan cinema has recorded major developments over the last decade, but they will all be worthless unless we defend freedom of speech. Funding for films in Morocco is now more about censorship than the films themselves. We can become one of the strongest film industries in the region, but we can also become very weak. I meet a lot of young directors who are all saying the same.”
Ayouch would also like to see greater solidarity between directors because he says that many complain but remain silent and cites the fact that for “Much Loved” over 80 major directors signed a petition in his support but few Moroccan directors defended him publicly.
Nonetheless, he maintains his own fighting spirit: “The day I feel I will be affected and refrain from speaking about what haunts and inspires me, I will stop. I will quit. I will make my films somewhere else.”
“Razzia” will be completed in early 2017. Ad Vitam will distribute the film in France and Films Distribution will handle international sales.