‘The Unknown Saint’ Director Alaa Eddine Aljem on Pushing Arab Boundaries With Comedy

Young Moroccan writer-director Alaa Eddine Aljem chose to tackle a sensitive subject in his first feature, absurdist comedy “The Unknown Saint,” which is basically about “the relationship between faith and money,” he says. He spoke to Variety about using sophisticated humor to push boundaries in the Arab world and reflected on the journey of his debut, which after launching from the Cannes Critics’ Week is now premiering for his home crowd at the Marrekech Film Festival. Excerpts.

What drew you to making a movie about a robber who buries his loot in a spot that becomes a holy shrine while he is in jail? 

I was traveling around the country doing some scouting, and I saw this small mausoleum with “Unknown” written on it. When I asked, I was told it was the grave of an unknown saint. He was this legendary figure and a whole village was built around it and everyone there lived off it. I found this a bit absurd, but I also thought it said something quite deep about the need to believe in something; to have a collective faith. This is key to understanding what brings us all together, especially in Moroccan society.

And that is what makes the subject taboo right?

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Yes. In Morocco you cannot talk about the relationship between faith and money. You cannot talk about the shrines. We have a lot of shrines, but officially the country doesn’t have any. Though everybody knows that there is a huge business built around all the shrines and mausoleums and saints we have. So I had two choices. The first was to make a movie that was quite straightforward and would tackle this topic full on. That would have meant people would not be talking about the movie’s cinematic aspect. And also that it would not get seen in Morocco. It would be one of those movies from the Arab world that somehow just targets a foreign audience.

So you went the comedy route instead.

The other approach was to treat this subject lightly…I thought comedy was a good vehicle for this kind of sensitive subject and that’s why I chose this mixture of drama and comedy. It’s also something I feel close to. I’m a huge fan of Buster Keaton movies and Aki Kaurismaki, and all the Scandinavian humor. And I don’t think we [as film directors] do enough humour in the Arab world. Our movies tend to be mostly social dramas, though my generation is experimenting with new genres.

Was this a difficult project to get financed?

When I started working on the script everybody in the industry was telling me: don’t do this! Because it’s hard to identify what genre it belongs to and Arab cinema is not known for comedies that can travel. But I kept working on it. What helped me the most to get it financed is that it got selected for the Locarno Open Doors platform, based on the treatment. And we won an award there for the script. Then we got into La Fabrique des Cinémas du Monde in Cannes; then the Sundance Screenwriters’ lab; and then the Venice Production Bridge. All this helped the project to be identified within the industry…Then our sales agent [The Match Factory] came along on the basis of the script. I knew they were the right sales agent because they had Aki Kaurismaki and Fatih Akin’s movies, which I am a huge fan of. I thought: if they do Kaurismaki, then they can understand my humor.


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