Two years after his much-heralded prostitute drama “Much Loved” was banned in his home country, Moroccan auteur Nabil Ayouch returns to Toronto with his most ambitious film to date, a kaleidoscopic portrait of five lives touched by a single tumultuous event on the streets of Casablanca.
World premiering in the festival’s Platform section, “Razzia” is a tale of the lost loves, forbidden desires, and fragile dreams of a country grappling with its modern identity. Spanning more than 30 years, it’s a stirring attempt to capture all the hopes and contradictions of Morocco today.
Acknowledging that his fifth feature “probably offers a wider photograph than my previous films,” Ayouch calls “Razzia” a response to the growing strains of intolerance echoing around the world, from the medina of Casablanca to the parliaments of Europe to the halls of American government.
“It is [set in] Morocco, but ‘Razzia’ goes well beyond that,” he says. Even countries which have long believed in “civil rights and essential freedoms, such as the United States, are taking a giant step backwards and falling into autocracy,” he adds.
“Razzia” is in part an homage to “Casablanca,” which the director calls “a film about resistance.” Though the Nazism of the 1940s has been replaced by modern ideologies, Ayouch says “we remain at the heart of a resistance against totalitarianism.”
Bringing that resistance to the big screen was a challenge. Ayouch had to finance “Razzia” without the help of the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM), which had offered a $500,000 grant for an earlier version of the script, but rejected his second application for funding. While the CCM has been widely credited for bolstering an industry that has grown in both domestic earnings and international stature, the helmer told Variety last year that “funding for films in Morocco is now more about censorship than the films themselves.”
Two years after the ban of “Much Loved,” Ayouch continues to be puzzled by the “hysterical reactions” to the film. “I refuse to enter into this logic, trying to explain the inexplicable,” he says, noting how certain quarters of Moroccan society prefer to “avoid a real public debate on sensitive subjects.”
“I want to continue to exist, in my own way, by making my films without worrying about society’s gaze,” he adds. “I want to continue protecting my dreams, my share of naiveté and wonder, every time I start a movie.”
The chilling effect of the ban on “Much Loved,” however, has had wider repercussions for Moroccan filmmakers. While a wave of films such as Mohammed Ahed Bensouda’s “Behind Closed Doors,” Noureddine Lakhmari’s “Casanegra,” and Narjiss Nejjar’s “Cry No More” have reflected a willingness by local helmers in recent years to tackle provocative issues, conservative hawks have been making a growing push for “clean art” in Moroccan film and television.
Ayouch has seen the climate change for young filmmakers, many of whom “are afraid to express themselves, because they think they have everything to lose.”
The director, however, remains unbowed at a time of growing unrest and uncertainty.
“I am not a warrior, but I know that some fights deserve to be waged,” he says. “Artists must be on the front line in this fight, in Morocco and everywhere else.”