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Nassim Abassi Preps Historical Drama About Morocco’s First Woman Ruler, Sayyida al Hurra (EXCLUSIVE)

Helmer has two pics screening at Marrakech

Nassim Abassi
Courtesy of Nassim Abassi

Nassim Abassi has two films screening at Marrakech, on Dec. 6 –  “Majid” and “My Uncle” – both of which star Abderrahim Tounsi (aka “Abderraouf”), who will receive a career tribute on the same day. The movies are the main Moroccan films screening at the event.

In an exclusive interview with Variety, Abassi disclosed details of his next project, a Portuguese-Spanish-Moroccan production, which he aims to shoot in English. The feature will be a historical drama based on the novel “Hadil Assaida Al Horra” (translation: “Pigeon Call of Al Hurra”) by actor/writer Bachir Damoun, whose first novel “Pillow Secrets” was adapted into a film by Jillali Ferhati, in which he starred.

The project is based on the life of the first Moroccan female ruler, Sayyida al Hurra (whose name means “the free woman”), who was forced to flee Granada in 1492 after the Spanish reconquest of Andalusia and became the 16th century queen of Tétouan.

She was known as a “pirate queen” because of her alliance to Turkish corsair Barbarossa. She waged war and diplomacy with the Spanish and Portuguese until she was finally overthrown by her son-in-law in 1542.

Abassi has been nurturing the project about the ruler for several years, since he thinks it will challenge stereotypes of Arab women. He even named his daughter after her. The helmer plans to present the project to the Moroccan Cinema Center in early 2017, but believes that he will need to structure it as an international co-production in order to achieve the necessary production values that he envisages.

He is particularly interested in the role of women in Moroccan society – which also lies at the core of “My Uncle” – and believes that a film about the country’s first woman ruler has tremendous potential for change both in Morocco, the Arab world and internationally, which is why he plans to shoot in English.

Nassim Abassi lived for 16 years in the U.K., where he attended film school at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design/University for Creative Arts’ (UCA and his first two features were lensed in English).

“I’m increasingly thinking about directing and producing my Moroccan films in English,” he explains. “Like the Italians did in the 1970s with Spaghetti Westerns and as Luc Besson is doing in France.”

He cites the example of Moustapha Akkad’s 1976 epic historical drama, “The Message” about the prophet Muhammad, which was shot in Morocco and Libya, with an English-language version starring Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas, and an Arabic version with an Arab cast.

In recent months Abassi has focused on completing “My Uncle” for its world premiere at Marrakech.

“My Uncle” is based on a Moroccan Chaplin-style character, created by actor Abderrahim Tounsi, who was hugely popular in the 1970s and the early 1980s but subsequently slid into comparative oblivion. Tounsi is the uncle of a young struggling actress in Morocco (Alia Erkab) and the film offers a behind-the-scenes view of her attempts to break into the Moroccan film industry, and aims to show some of its darker sides.

Abassi believes that it is very difficult for anyone trying to work in cinema in Morocco, or indeed in the arts in general, and anyone who chooses a career in these fields often faces social and family criticism, which is what he wanted to explore in his film.

“Abderraouf is a symbol of what happens to very many Moroccan actors,” suggests Abassi. “Even extremely well-known actors can be relegated to the sidelines. Life for actors is very tough. It’s very difficult to get work. There’s no real industry, only government-funded films, which means that directors and actors can often only work once every two years, at best. There’s no social security support. It’s difficult to get by. I talk about this in my film.”

The Moroccan actress Alia Erkab plays the niece, in her first lead role – which is partly inspired by her own experiences.

“Life is particularly difficult for actresses in Morocco, against the backdrop of the position of women in Moroccan society,” says Abassi. “There are socially-conditioned perceptions of how women should live, and many see the acting profession as being too liberal.”

This perception is portrayed in the film by the parents of the actress’ fiancé, a normal middle-class couple. They ask her to give up her career in order to marry their son, because they say actresses have a bad reputation and are associated with drink, depraved living and loose morals.

“I decided to build the film around a female lead because she symbolizes many struggles taking place not only in Morocco but throughout the modern world. There are many issues facing Moroccan actresses – such as sexual harassment – that also arise in the U.S. and Europe.”

Abassi is expectant about the pic’s world premiere at Marrakech but is also nervous about the potential press and public reaction. He says that he has shown it to one of the country’s leading producers, who commented that it’s so true to life that it may make him some enemies.

However, notwithstanding the pic’s biting social criticism, Abassi believes that it will attract a wide audience because of its humor, partly rooted in the real-life character of Abderrahim Tounsi, who has inspired a new generation of comedians in Morocco.

“The main female character faces problems with her fiancé and family, but this is all shown in a funny manner. It will make people laugh and think at the same time. I think the audience will be inspired by her dream.”

The 16th Marrakech International Film Festival runs Dec. 2-10. “Majid” and “My Uncle” will screen out of competition.