Cyrus Nowrasteh film The Stoning of Soraya M.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a moving and beautifully told story of injustice against women, nor one that was so difficult to watch that at one point I had a hard time refraining from vomiting along with the other women in the film, through a flood of tears and sobs and pain at the rendering on the screen.  The film, The Stoning of Soraya M., contains a lengthy, protracted, gruesome and difficult to watch scene of the stoning of Soraya—so gruesome that in fact women in the crowd of villagers start to vomit at the violence being done, and our grief and visceral reaction, or at least mine, mirrors theirs at watching one of their own being so slowly and painfully beaten to death with small stones.  For it is part of the law that the stones not be so large that death is instantaneous, nor so small that the accused is not harmed—but they must be the right size to inflict pain and suffering for an eventual death.  So this is a movie that requires fortitude to watch and remember, because it stays with you for days, not just because it is so well made and realistic, nor just because it is an adaptation of a true story of Soraya Manutchehri unjustly accused of adultery and then stoned to death in 1986 whose story was released in a 1994 book the film is adapted from, but because it is a story that hasn’t seen its end since according to Amnesty International and news stories the practice of stoning to death still occurs in the world (  Furthermore, the status of women remains problematic in so many places and ways, everywhere in the world, that this tale of one woman’s unjust treatment by her husband, village and society is very poignant in itself, not to mention the heightened distress caused by the stoning outcome to the story.

Overall the film is exceptionally well-made, with superb photography and mise-en-scene, fantastic musical score by John Debney, realistic costumes, setting and décor, terrific acting that shifts between Farsi with subtitles and English, but I hesitated at first to write about this film–even though it is important–because it is hard to consider it a “foreign” film although the dialogue shifts between Farsi and English, the setting is supposed to be in Iran, the story is Iranian, while really the director/co-writer (Cyrus Nowrasteh, co-writer with wife) and many of the actors are Iranian-American, most of the beginning credits crew is western, one of the leads is American (Caviezel) and the producers are western.  The story and theme are Iran-focused, but not by Iranian based filmmakers.  Of course the story could not be told from Iran and in fact the film is banned in Iran—probably because of the controversial subject matter and that women often show their uncovered heads—though it purportedly shows there underground in pirated dvds.  But several elements of culture are well-represented in the film, so it deserves to be discussed.

There are some excellent blogs and writing about the film, including a film website:

The film was the runner-up for the Audience Award at the Toronto 2008 Film Festival, won the “Justice” award from the Berlin Film Festival’s “Cinema for Peace Awards” and also won The Audience Choice Award at The Los Angeles Film Festival and garnered The Critics Choice Award from The Broadcast Critics Film Association ( The film’s theatrical Release Date was 06/26/2009 and the DVD Release Date was 03/09/2010, and the film is available on the web, and from Netflix streaming and purchase from, etc.

The basic story is that a French-Iranian journalist (the author of the book, Freidoune Sahebjam, played by James Caviezel) comes to the small Iranian village called Kupayeh, the journalist’s car having broken down and he forced to spend the day in the village waiting for its repair.  He is approached by an older woman who confides that the men in the village have done a terrible thing, but she is prevented from telling her story due to the arrival of the village mullah and mayor who say she is just a crazy old woman.  Later, the journalist is lured to Zahra Khanum’s (Shohreh Aghdashloo) house where she is able to tell her story and Sahebjam records it.  Strangely, Zahra speaks fluent English, as does the journalist.  She speaks to the journalist in English, whereas the rest of the story told in flashback is in Farsi with subtitles, or the journalist speaks accented Farsi with the mechanic, mayor, mullah.  Her story, then, is the story of Soraya Manutchehri (Mozhan Marno) from the moment she is propositioned by the village mullah who informs her of her husband’s wish to divorce, to her stoning and secret burial by the river by the village women—a period of a couple of weeks at most.  In fact, the film opens with Zahra chasing a dog away from some bones by the river, washing and then reburying them tenderly.  We don’t know whose bones they are yet.  We only learn at the end of the story that the women have secretly buried Soraya there.

 In the case of Soraya, her accusation of adultery is shown to be bogus, a trumped up charge by her husband Ali (Navid Nagahban) who has already tried to get rid of her so he can marry a 14-year-old girl in the town where he works as a prison guard.  He wants a divorce but not to pay for the maintenance of his wife or two daughters (alimony or dowry)—the wife refuses the divorce only because she doesn’t want herself or her daughters to be abandoned to the same impossible poverty that made her be farmed out as a young girl to a man who did everything but rape her before she was married off.  The village mullah offers to take care of her and her daughters if she will in essence prostitute herself by being his “temporary” wife, sigheh.  Aunt Zahra bursts into the room and roundly berates the retreating mullah, and we then learn from Soraya that Ali beats and mistreats her, but that Soraya can’t divorce him if it means abject poverty because it is his duty as a husband to take care of her and her children.

While Soraya is right in theory, practice is quite different, particularly in societies which give most of the powers to men over women, allowing them to divorce without paying alimony or dowry when it is inconvenient for them.  In Ali’s case, he cannot divorce his wife without her agreement, which differs in other parts of the Muslim world where often women have been divorced without their knowledge much less agreement until the deed was already done—although reforms to laws are making this less and less possible.  But in Islamic Iran, we are to understand that the husband must secure his wife’s permission first or he cannot divorce.  But he can beat, berate and torture her all he wants as his wife and no one can interfere.  Interestingly, Ali wants to divorce and take his sons (his heirs) while he would leave his daughters to his wife, another reflection of the devaluation of women.  At no time does the film address the 14-year-old that Ali wants to marry, which is shockingly young and illegal in many societies!  All we know is that she will agree to the marriage in order to save her father from execution and that Ali is totally smitten.  So smitten that he completely disregards the needs of his wife and daughters and only pays attention to his sons and future wife.  But Soraya has an advocate.

Aunt Zahra is as outspoken and aggressive as Soraya is meek and retiring and kindly.  She constantly comes to defend Soraya and offer advice and guidance, though we don’t see that she really understands Soraya except as she learns more about her inner strength and secrets during the troubles that Ali causes.  When Hashem, the mechanic’s, wife dies, Zahra prepares the body for burial, but Soraya chases away the women who come to steal her goods “because she won’t need them anymore”, including her jewelry, fabric and even sewing machine.  When Soraya sympathetically hands over the dead wife’s sewing machine to Hashem, her husband spies their hands accidentally touching and he begins to hatch his plan to accuse her of adultery.  First, he has the mullah as his accomplice because he knows the mullah had been in prison under the Shah.  He threatens to expose him unless he helps him get rid of his wife.  So the mullah goes along with the idea that since Hashem has a mentally disabled young son and no wife now, that Soraya should take over housekeeping and cooking chores for him.  Zahra says Soraya is available for a salary.  Innocent Soraya sees this as an opportunity to save money and be in better financial condition when she is divorced, which she imagines she will eventually have to break down and grant; Ali sees this is the first step in his plan to accuse Soraya of infidelity and improper behavior with Hashem.  Even when we see Ali cavorting with other women, Soraya never tries to accuse him of anything because she feels she needs his financial support for her family’s well-being.  But since Ali is the bread-winner, and Soraya the dispensable, Ali has no qualms about both playing around and playing the jilted husband.

So first he starts rumours that Soraya is unfaithful, and then with the mullah’s support they go after Hashem, finally breaking him down by threatening the welfare of his son and saying that if Hashem is also convicted then his son would go to a mental institution, or even worse, prison.  Less worried about his own safety, Hashem can’t bear to see anything happen to his son, so he agrees to confess that Soraya has been indecent with him—lying on his bed and saying things to him that “only the husband should hear”.  Somehow, Hashem is deemed innocent of any wrongdoing and only Soraya is convicted for adulterous behavior, by the headmen of the village, including her own father who she says will go along with whatever the other men say.  Because, after all, it was he who farmed her out as a youth to be mistreated as a servant because he wanted the money she would bring in—no matter what happened to her.  The village mayor even goes to Soraya to tell her she is accused, and asks if can she prove her innocence.  She retorts that she should be proven guilty, to which the mayor responds that if the husband is accused, he must be proved guilty but when the wife is accused, she must prove her innocence.  Therefore, the film is highly critiquing the new system of laws and mores under the religious leadership—both by showing the mullah to be of questionable background, by highlighting the inequality of the laws, and also showing that Ali is trying to arrange his marriage to the 14-year-old he’s fallen for by sneakily trying to prevent the girl’s father from being executed which he also does for money from the girl’s father.  Of course Soraya cannot prove her innocence—how does anyone prove innocence?  Especially since the men have harassed Hashem into confessing her guilt too.

The village headmen meet and decree that Soraya must be stoned to death for her insults to the honor of the village and Islam.    In fact, the mullah says that for every stone thrown the men will get their honor back.  Aunt Zahra tries to flee the town with Soraya, but is stopped by armed militia who seem to have come to make sure the decree is carried out for this egregious offence in the new Iran of morality and honor for men.  Soraya seems to constantly accept her fate, whereas Zahra fights against it constantly, even to the end when she defies the mullah and mayor and arranges a meeting with the foreign journalist.  Zahra even puts herself in front of Soraya in the village square and cries out that she should be stoned instead because she is an old woman with no children, but she’s callously thrown out of the way while Soraya is buried up to her waist in a pit so that she cannot move but to bend her torso so slightly.  Interestingly, Soraya is dressed all in white, like her innocence or her shroud, but this will not be an instance of her being clean and pure in the eyes of God and ready to go to heaven, so it is an interesting choice of dress.

The village mayor has prayed that if the verdict be just, he be given the strength to carry it out, but that if it be unjust that he be given a sign by God and given the strength to stop the stoning.  At the time of the verdict, a troupe of performers and clowns arrives in town and seeing a crowd begins to loudly try to attract an audience.  The mayor does not perceive this to be a sign, though to the film’s audience, at least to me, it was symbolic of the ludicrousness of the charge and the verdict’s harshness.  Strangely, the troupe hangs around to watch the stoning like one of their spectacles!

Soraya has the opportunity to speak before the stoning—at which point she does not even try to proclaim her innocence or cry out that it is a plot by her husband to get rid of her; instead she talks about the horrible nature of the verdict and asks the villagers how they could do something like that to one of their own.  Well, apparently she is no longer one of their own any more.  Even after a few stones have been thrown and Soraya survives, gushing blood but alive, one of the village women cries to the mayor that it is a sign that she is innocent and should be spared—but he does not stop the stoning.  Instead it proceeds for approximately 20 minutes of screen time, slowly, protracted, bloody, including scenes of Soraya’s two young sons participating in throwing stones.  Soraya does not try to block the stones; she lets them crash into her head and face, and eventually, as it draws on she begins to sob and lament and struggle in her earthen embrace, before finally, slowly and painfully, expiring.  At one point everyone thinks she’s dead, and her husband comes to check, only to see her glazed eye rolling in her head—he yells out “the bitch is not dead” and a new hail of stones descends to extinguish the last bit of life.  Of course by this time the women in the crowd, those sympathetic to Soraya, have been vomiting and crying at the violence, as have I.  This is not a stoning seen symbolically as in the Moroccan film Badis where a few stones are thrown and it’s over.  This scene perdures agonizingly drawn out, in vicious detail, until the very end.  Two of the performers/clowns who arrived in town earlier come and cover up the bloody pulp with a blanket, while the ensuing scenes show a night of revelry and partying with the performance troupe and the village celebrating their “victory”.  Most of the village women are sympathetic to Soraya, but some of them are self-righteous and glad that she is being punished; after all, she stopped them from taking the property of Hashem’s dead wife.  But Zahra and some of the sympathetic village women secretly take Soraya’s body to the river to bury her because she cannot be buried in the village cemetery—and now Zahra tells her story to the journalist because the world needs to know that an innocent woman was so victimized by her husband, her mullah, her father, her village.

As the story finishes, the reporter goes to get his repaired car but the mayor and mullah try to stop him from leaving the village.  They know he’s taped Zahra’s story, so they take the tapes from his bag and destroy them, even threatening to kill the journalist.  But he hastens to his car, screaming that he’ll go to the authorities, and careens away before they can try anything.  On the way out of town, we see Zahra standing by the side of the road triumphantly waving a cassette tape which she gives to the journalist as he leaves, then stands in the middle of the road to prevent the militia from firing upon the car with their guns as it speeds away.  Zahra yells out loudly that now the whole world will know what they’ve done.  And since the journalist does eventually write a book, and eventually this film is made from it—yes the world does indeed come to know the grisly and sad story of Soraya M. and through her story, we hopefully appreciate the plight of women all over the world who are mistreated because of their husband’s misdeeds, or religious fakery, or community mob mentality.

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Critique of Moroccan film Amours Voilees by Aziz Salmy

It is very difficult to write about this film for me—I have a love/hate relationship with it.  Which is funny, because the film is kind of a love-hate relationship between Batoul and Hamza!  Thus, this is not one of my better reviews.  But, I’ve got to write something!  So, I apologize in advance for being a bit (a lot) negative about the film.

On one hand there have been two very astute authors about the film who have very insightful blogs: and I encourage you to read their work because it is very thoughtful.  On the other hand, even watching the film a second time did not diminish my irritation at the shallow representation of most of the women characters in the film, including the main protagonists Batoul and Hamza. Amours Voilees came out in theaters in 2009 in Morocco, though it was produced in 2007, and is available online at several sites including YouTube.  There was apparently a lot of discussion and uproar about the film because it reveals (and I use the word appropriately here!) a veiled woman–during Ramadan no less–having non-marital sex, in addition to the many scenes of semi-nudity, sexual activity outside of marriage, and other contradictions to average Moroccan social mores.

The story:  Batoul is religiously observant, a doctor from an upper-class family, about 28 years old and unmarried—she had a fiancé but he died long ago—who hangs out with a circle of girlfriends who primp and preen and talk about men and sex constantly, until one day she meets Hamza, an older suave fellow, an interior decorator.  Though initially hesitant to embrace, soon Batoul throws herself into Hamza’s arms and bed and begins a very explicitly filmed (for Morocco) sexual affair.  But the affair is kept secret from her friends and family (voilee!) especially her very religious cousin who keeps on pestering her and her family with his declarations of wanting to marry Batoul.  In fact, once Annas has proposed, Batoul is prompted to talk to Hamza about marriage since they are so “in love”, but Hamza says definitively not, he will not remarry ever.  Batoul gets upset, and as it is soon Ramadan she breaks off their relationship to give him time to think it over.  But the break-up doesn’t last and soon they are having sex again, shopping, and having fun even though it is Ramadan (for those who don’t know, it is a month’s period when during the daylight hours one abstains from drinking/eating/smoking/sex and other things you can look up).  At one point, Batoul goes to a fancy party with Hamza, all dressed up disguised in a red wig—where she meets her brother!  She and Hamza flee in the car, but the brother chases them, gets into an accident and dies.  Then we see Batoul in mourning, veiled and praying, apparently having broken off with Hamza—she refuses to accept his calls–in her guilt and sorrow.  Eventually Hamza just starts a love affair with a new woman, Batoul’s friend Houyem, but when Batoul sees them out together, she can’t take her own jealousy and goes to Hamza’s house and throws herself in his arms.  They have sex and she brings up marriage again, throwing in a bit about “what if the woman is pregnant”, and Hamza says “never”, so she rushes out again, brushing past Houyem who then also breaks up with Hamza.  Apparently friendship is a stronger bond.  Batoul has a psychological and physical breakdown in her car, and we next see her in the hospital where the doctor says that thanks to her friend they could save the baby—she says not to tell anyone but Houyem figures it out right away and goes to pressure Hamza to come to the hospital to see her though he wants to have nothing to do with the baby and still refuses marriage.  Batoul tells Houyem and her girlfriends she’ll raise her baby on her own, refusing to see Hamza, and he walks out of the hospital.  End of film.

Basically, Amours Voilees is the story of Batoul, a well-off doctor who falls in love with an avowed bachelor (he’s been divorced) and their on-again-off-again romance because he refuses to marry, even when she’s pregnant with his child.  Perhaps the more minute details round-out this very simplistic story, but in the end it remains a rather simple story.  Perhaps that’s what bugs me about it—I was hoping for something a little more complex and insightful into women, which I have come to expect from older Moroccan filmmakers like Farida Benlyazid, Mohamed Tazi, Hakim Noury and Jilali Ferhati among others I won’t list off.  A great many films have been made about the subject and status of women, films which render women much more complex and their desires, taboos, goals, doubts, loves and disappointments more well-developed.  Aziz Salmy herein generally reduces love to sexual activity, desire, desire for marriage, and jealousy, where Batoul’s dilemmas are really reduced to “being sexually active” with Hamza, rejecting him when he refuses to marry, hiding under the veil when she’s done something wrong, then throwing herself back into Hamza’s arms, then rejecting him again when he still won’t marry even though she’s pregnant, and deciding to have her child “on her own”—all which she can do because she’s from an upper class family.  We don’t see Batoul “love” but “being sexually active” and jealous; we don’t see her have religious faith, but hide in the veil when her brother is killed because of her sexuality; we don’t see her choose a single-parent path, it is chosen for her when Hamza refuses to marry, although we are supposed to give her some credit for declining to abort the child.  Of course, I have two problems with this child issue; Batoul is a doctor.  Either she got pregnant on purpose to try and force Hamza into marriage, which doesn’t speak highly of her character either, or she’s been careless.  Perhaps if she hadn’t been a doctor this wouldn’t bother me so much.  In either case, it is a flaw in the film, to me, that we are asked to just accept that she is pregnant, an unnecessary plot point really, and to just accept that she decides “out of the blue” to have the baby outside of marriage without there being any real set-up about this character development at all. It bothered me tremendously as being too cavalier and unexplained by Batoul’s character.  Or perhaps we are supposed to believe that because she has sex outside of marriage, even during Ramadan, that she is immune to taboos that affect the rest of society.  Of course, Batoul’s upper-class status makes it easy for her to have freedom of movement so that she can be sexually active, and her class status makes it possible for her to have a child out-of-wedlock whereas other women in Morocco would find themselves in considerable trouble either with their families, the law, or society.  It is an easy way out, story-wise, to have Batoul be wealthy and able to “choose” whereas the reality for most women is not so easy!

Now, I agree with the filmmaker that what he showed in his film is a reality in Morocco—plenty of women have sexual relations outside of marriage, and some of those end in pregnancy and unwed mothers.  Of course, that is why there are a number of NGOs in Morocco that help unwed mothers, both because there is stigma (and law) against being an unwed mother, and because the women need to learn skills to support themselves, as most everyone in the situation is not upper-class.  And yes, plenty of women who wear the veil also have sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage.  Just as it is true that plenty of men are willing to have sexual relations with women whether veiled or not, men divorce women easily or abandon them and their children, and men also refuse to marry the women they make pregnant.  While the film in these instances is “realistic”, this does not erase the shallow treatment within the film that women receive, nor does it make it a good film overall.  Perhaps if one just wants to discuss socio-culturally an element of society, such as male/female relationships outside of marriage, the film can arouse conversation, but the answer for Batoul to raise the child on her own is managed simplistically and avoids the many social barriers that sexually active women and unwed mothers actually face.

I had high hopes for the film when we opened on Batoul praying then going out with her friends to a bar/nightclub.  Perhaps Batoul would be a complex character negotiating difficulties of being both sexually active and religious, something new.  But soon the film seems to focus on her physical self more than her spiritual or even mental self—many gratuitous shots of her nude in the bath, nearly undressed in bed, having sex with Hamza, again nearly undressed in the bath, etc.  On one hand we can say that of course Batoul is a sexual being even if she is religiously observant—yet the film emphasizes her sexuality over her religiosity by far.  We only see Batoul pray in the first scene, and then after her brother is killed when she is remorseful.  For another example, one of Batoul’s friends only begins veiling because she wants to catch a husband.  Neither of these women veil out of conviction and personal desire—it is a means to an end.  We are witness to Batoul’s continuous veiling and praying only when her brother dies, but we don’t really get any insight into this Batoul or her thoughts about religion.  She’s feeling guilty so she turns to religion—to get what?  Does she get solace?  Does she find out more about herself? This could be rich, fertile ground to explore—this conflict between desire/physical attraction and religion; or are they in conflict at all?  The film seems to show that they are unless marriage is the final outcome.  The film doesn’t delve into anything substantial but resides in the superficial.  When Batoul sees her friend with Hamza, jealousy leads her to toss off the veil right quick so she can jump into bed with him again—there’s no struggle, no angst, no self-doubt.  It seems after all Batoul is only a shallow woman being represented, but held up to be our heroine because she is the protagonist of the film and a heroine because she will have a child out-of-wedlock.

Another element of the representation of women that I find hard to digest is Batoul’s circle of friends who are frequently represented “in group”, while only one friend, Houyem, is allowed to stand out.  That is because Houyem purportedly represents “the abandoned woman”—she married, she had kids, she was abandoned by her husband somehow (it is unclear if she is divorced or simply he just left); now she is sexually free but complains to the women who condemn her freedom that she has done all the right things and finds herself abandoned, so what is she supposed to do?  She works in a beauty salon, so at least she is shown to have some trade, but we only orally hear about her dilemma of being an abandoned wife, we aren’t really shown it in any actions in the movie other than her love affair with Hamza when Batoul dumps him.  But most of the women friends are like a chorus that bring up “important questions” having to do with veiling to find a man, having sexual relations outside of marriage, having a child outside of marriage etc.—while the women themselves engage in the thought-provoking actions of fluffing their hair, putting on make-up, and preening in the mirror.  Again and again.  Or perhaps they are entwined in towels in the hammam.  Or they lounge or exercise.  All are very exciting women’s activities.  At least Batoul and one of the friends are doctors—they aren’t just primping and preening.

Then there is Batoul’s cousin, Annas, who is represented as being very religious.  He doesn’t like radio talk shows or modern music; he just listens to the Quran and prays.  He’s also as uni-dimensional as is Batoul, but her opposite.  He’s so in love with Batoul, he dreams of her, he thinks of only her.  But of course Annas would not want a sullied Batoul who is pregnant, and thus his religion is shown to be intolerant.  What about a tolerant Islam?  Can people make mistakes and still find a place in their religion or are they outcasts forever?    This would be another interesting facet for the film to investigate, but like other questions, it is dealt with superficially if at all.  We just see Annas’ face looking stricken from outside the hospital room window, but we don’t get to know what he thinks or feels or how his faith might allow him to see Batoul in a different light—is he capable of forgiving, or is he judgmental?  That is left unexplored.

So, I apologize for mostly criticizing the film.  It just struck a raw nerve that all the women and men in the film were shallow or simplistically motivated by sex.  At least Houyem got the opportunity to put friendship above sex.  The characters were unidimensional, except for Houyem, who is actually a rather marginal player.  Batoul is willful, Hamza a playboy, Annas a stoic Muslim brother, and the main game is how many fleshy shots and “in bed” scenes the filmmaker can get into a film without it being censored in Morocco.  He manages quite a few.

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Iranian film The Hidden Half, directed by Tahmineh Milani

…when I make a movie my aim is to challenge society. Some people don’t like this and disagree but the most important thing is to talk and be able to publicly debate these issues. This will help people to think more deeply about issues that they face.

In The Hidden Half, director Tahmineh Milani performs the above quote—she advocates talking and publicly debating important issues for individuals as well as society so that people can think more deeply about concerns they face.  The Hidden Half of the title references not only the grouping of women in Iranian society, hidden by the chador and custom and law, but also a hidden part of the life of the main character, Fereshteh, who lives for nearly 20 years with a husband who does not know she was a communist activist, and perhaps it is also a reference to the hidden populations who are against an Islamic regime ruling Iran which does not allow all-inclusive representation from all parties of the country.

In this instance, wife Fereshteh must confess her past to her husband, a judge, Mr. Samimi, who is on his way to another town to listen to the plea of a political prisoner condemned to death; she hopes that by confessing her own past, combined with her 17 years of marriage history with Mr. Samimi, he can come to understand the complexities of the past and perhaps hear with a new ear the story of the condemned woman in prison, perhaps to save her from the death penalty through his own edification about the previous era and the people involved.  Fereshteh divulges her history through a journal that she writes and puts in her husband’s suitcase for him to read while in Shiraz, hopefully before he hears the condemned woman’s story.  His reading of the journal occasions the film’s flashback to Fereshteh’s youthful life in Tehran as a student in the post-revolutionary period of the late 1970s early 1980s.  We not only learn that Fereshteh was a Communist activist, but had fallen in love with another man, Roozbeh Javid, an intellectual magazine editor, and through her adventures learned a lot about herself, life, and political reality.  She learns that she is as much concerned about love as she is with activism, that she wants safety and security rather than be martyr for communism, and that in reality her activities as a communist activist will deprive her of her desires, dreams, liberty and perhaps life.

First, Fereshteh was from a poor family in an unnamed village who only by good fortune, hard work and suffering was able to move to Tehran to attend university in hopes of making something of herself and ameliorating her and her family’s situation.  However, her background and personal inclination lead her to subscribe to and join a communist party group, of women, who write newsletters/pamphlets and read revolutionary literature from the likes of Che and others, in hopes to sway the developments of post-Shah Iran when various communist and socialist factions jostled with Islamic factions to take control of the country. An excellent article that focuses on the Tudeh Party but touches on all the leftist movements and their relations in post-Shah Iran can be found at  One trajectory of the film chronicles Fereshteh and her group’s movements as activists, their fear of Islamic fundamentalist reactionaries who pursued and beat them up regularly, and equally dangerous government forces such as the police, which arrested, imprisoned and even condemned certain militants to death.

Fereshteh’s group would meet in a café, to talk over literature they had read, actions they would engage in, publications they would write, their relationship to the leadership, etc.  One day at this meeting, Fereshteh catches the eye of a suave older man expounding on love just as she was talking about the issue of love in revolutionary times—they are attracted to each other but only meet later.  It turns out that the man, Roozbeh Javid, is a magazine editor, very well-known and well off.  Their first real encounter occurs at a commemoration ceremony for a demised Iranian filmmaker, when Roozbeh calls Fereshteh a “little lady” and she retorts something along the lines that she’s not a little lady at all and not swayed by his prestige.  Then she’s devastated that they don’t meet for a long time until one night, passing out flyers, she and colleagues are attacked by a gang of religious fundamentalists who chase after them, want to beat up Fereshteh, until she escapes and hides in the office of the magazine editor. This occasions their second meeting, when they begin to really get to know each other, when we begin to hear more clearly her interest in the revolutionary communist movement, and learn of his interest in her in particular and his “take” on activists in general.  We thus learn, through several dialogues then and over the time of their meetings in the future, that there are several currents of resistance to the Islamic regime and the Shah as well, that one should do more than read communist literature from other countries but perhaps delve into Iranian history for precedents to libratory options.  Roozbeh calls Fereshteh’s poetry “sloganeering” which is what the party needs, but is not real poetry as he defines it.  He invites her to a party, then takes her for drives in his Range Rover, and eventually she runs to him for salvation when her comrades are arrested by police.  He suggests she get a passport and escape to England until things calm down; especially that night as he drives her home police search for her.  He sends her off to her village to get her birth certificate so she can get a passport for England, and though she hesitates to leave, she has second thoughts about how much she is willing to sacrifice for the revolution, and she has fallen in love with Roozbeh.

She expects on her return to be met by Roozbeh but instead meets his assistant who tells her that he is married with a son older than Fereshteh, and that she should think about terminating their relationship.  Fereshteh is not sure she really believes the assistant, but goes the next day to meet the wife, and then subsequently learns from the wife that Fereshteh looks just like Roozbeh’s first love, a revolutionary student from 20-30 years earlier who had disappeared in a riot, which thus led to the marriage between Roozbeh and his current wife, who also says that the plan was far more than for Fereshteh to hide out in England—Roozbeh planned to join her there and never return to Iran.  Fereshteh then feels doubly betrayed—first because she would never willingly have a relationship with a married man, and secondly because perhaps Roozbeh is not really in love with her at all but with the mirage of her similarity to the earlier disappeared young revolutionary woman.  Though she rejects the wife’s offer to put her up in a safe apartment, and goes on to find a job with a handicapped woman who needs a live-in assistant, she does encounter Roozbeh in the street as she is on her way to disappear.  However, she does not give him a chance to explain himself.   She is convinced that she is doing the right thing by disappearing within Iran, without Roozbeh; this lack of communication resonates throughout the movie.

The Islamic government closes the universities in Iran for four years, a true anecdote, the period of time that Fereshteh stays with the handicapped woman, and during which time she meets the woman’s son who has been studying abroad—no one knows anything of Fereshteh’s past except that she was a university student.  Eventually Fereshteh wants to return to the University, but is harassed at every turn by an Islamic militant that has a grudge against her for her former communist activities.  However, aided by the handicapped woman’s son, Mr. Samimi, to return to university at last, Fereshteh gets her degree, then marries the son, never revealing her communist party involvement, her relationship to Roozbeh, her fear of arrest or imprisonment, but in fact being the perfect wife in all respects.  Until, full circle, she learns that Mr. Samimi is going to hear the case of a former militant condemned to death, and she is forced by her own conscience to reveal her past in hopes that it might lead her husband to be lenient towards the imprisoned woman whose past might be so similar to her own.  In fact, it is not just her own conscience awakened on its own, but by her chance encounter with Roozbeh at a funeral at that same time, at which he chastises her for not allowing him ever to have a chance to explain himself, to speak all that he had to say.  In remedy of this, she speaks all she has to say to her husband, and requests that he let the prisoner speak all she has to say, so that true communication can occur between people.

As example, the administrator blog writer of Iranian Cinema at has several very interesting points to make about the film.  The first is “limited self-expression in Iran” in which the writer clarifies:  “Milani believes that one of Iran’s biggest problems is that its people “…are unable to express our true personality…For both men and women, their lives inside their homes where it is private is one way and outside of their homes where they have to observe social regulations it is another way… Our women also have two faces inside their homes: the image of what their spouses or their spouses’ families want them to have, and what is inside them.”  The Hidden Half is Milani’s way of expressing this idea. In the home, Mr. Samimi continually repeats that he wife is so sweet and kind, and nothing like the woman he is about to judge. Yet in Fereshteh’s letter, she repeats that over time, she has gotten to know him so well, yet he knows little about her. She says that she never felt the need to tell him about her past until she heard the way he was speaking about the political prisoner, because the two were in reality so similar.  Milani emphasizes the women must have two faces by showing that Fereshteh never felt it necessary to tell her husband about her past, and that he never thought her as anything other than innocent.

I would add that the film reveals this in several ways.  One is that of course in Iranian cinema even a love relationship cannot be revealed by means other than dialogue, and correct, innocent dialogue at that, as men and women outside the bonds of marriage cannot be shown touching on the screen and no film would pass the censors if it went beyond the strict mores of contemporary political guidelines.  Thus, even Fereshteh’s love affair with Roozbeh is only visible through the fact that they dialogue at all, that she visits his office, rides in his car, attends a party with him, etc.  All are seemingly innocent acts that resonate strongly in the repressed expressive regime of today (or 2001 that is).

Other forms of limited self-expression would be Fereshteh’s fear to reveal herself to her husband for fear that he would divorce her for her past, although she feels she knows him well enough to stave off that fear in favor of advocating for the condemned woman.  Only by expressing her past can she hope that the judge, through his personal experience with her as a good woman rather than a “communist”, open his eyes to the personal plight of the woman prisoner who is a human being above all.  Just as she came to understand in the process of being persecuted for her beliefs that perhaps she had other overriding dimensions within herself, and learning that she judged Roozbeh quickly and harshly without allowing him to speak his multidimensionality, she wants her husband to see the condemned woman as a human being of multi-dimensions.

Though this film is 10 years old now, it still resonates with its message of personal, social and political repression as we currently witness Jafar Panahi, another impressive filmmaker in Iran, arrested and imprisoned in 2010, ostensibly for his work that criticized the regime.  Expression, whether the personal/political as for Fereshteh, the personal and cinematic/political of the filmmaker, since the director of this work was herself arrested and imprisoned for a week when the film was released, and threatened with the death penalty for this film’s discussion of the opposition movement, still are important in the realm of cinema in Iran.

Another theme introduced by the blog is “the right to romantic love” in which the administrator writes:  “In the letter to her husband, Fereshteh admits that she was in love with another man and was not ashamed of it. Furthermore, she asserts that her love with this other man was acceptable, despite the fact that he was so much older than her that his son was older than her. In meetings with her communist organization, Fereshteh often asks what the place of love is in the revolution. While the organization responds that love must be put on hold for the cause, Fereshteh does not agree and continues to pursue Mr. Javid. Fereshteh is very open about her love for Mr. Javid, saying that at one point she wanted to commit suicide for leaving him. She also admits that she did not love her husband right away, but had grown to love him very much over time.

Fereshteh was not ashamed of loving an older man, especially in a society in which young girls are often promised in marriage to much older men because they have status or wealth or other elements that elevate them in the eyes of the girl’s family.  In fact, it would not be unusual for Roozbeh to divorce to marry Fereshteh.  However, her morals prohibit her from having an affair with a married man, which is of course also against religious law in Iran, for which she could be arrested, which the film does not delve into.  So to make it impossible for Roozbeh to divorce and marry her, the plot must involve a “look-alike” from the past so that Fereshteh doubts whether it is really herself Roozbeh’s in love with or someone in his imagination.

Fereshteh not only marries the man who helps her go back to school, she marries a lawyer/judge who is middle-class, safe, and diametrically opposed to what she had believed in before.  It is as if she has done an about-face, turning her back on her communist ideals quite suddenly out of fear, so far as to marry someone who would eventually even be the judge of her peers.  We know little of this new Fereshteh except that her husband considers her a good wife and mother.  Does she work outside the home?  Does she do social work?  Is she in any way involved with her former ideals of a more just society?  Or has she abdicated all relationship with “youthful” ideals in favor of “mature” ideals of stability, security, family?

Finally, the third theme introduced by concerns “Anti-revolutionary thoughts and women’s roles in the revolution” wherein the author posts:  “The Hidden Half also served as a way for Milani to express her political views. In fact, Milani was charged with spreading anti-revolutionary propaganda through entertainment for releasing this film. The main story line is surrounding the revolution in 1979. In the movie, all of Fereshteh and her comrades’ efforts are in support of the communist party and the anti-revolution. Fereshteh’s section of the organization is a completely female sector, and they all are completely dedicated to their cause. All but one of her group members was sentenced to death or jail time. Milani’s use of women to support the revolution shows the positive effect she feels women can have on society. Milani also shows a woman’s right to protest and to support her beliefs with the use of these strong female characters.

In fact, the film shows two important components—anti-Islamic government forces at work at all, which is a rarity, and women in the communist party, which is a real rarity.  She tackles two arenas that haven’t been much addressed at all, much less in contemporary Iranian cinema.  Of course the State has made it illegal or scary to address the communist forces at work in society at the time of the Islamic revolution, even though those forces were as equally powerful as the Islamic forces.  Many people were disappeared, arrested, condemned to death, imprisoned for long periods, etc. for being members or activists in the various communist and socialist parties active during the Shah’s time as well as after the Islamic takeover of government.  The film does well to show that oppression stemmed not just from the government but also from individual “gangs” of government supporters that roamed various neighborhoods to police them.  In fact, as the film shows, universities were hotbeds of strife, which is why there were constant battles there and the universities were eventually closed for years.  Milani reveals quite a lot about the various factions at work simultaneously trying to shape the “new” Iran, not forgetting what Fereshteh calls the bourgeois middle class like the magazine editor she falls for in spite of his class position.  That the editor wishes to escape to England with Fereshteh says as much about many upper-middle class Iranians who feared the Islamic regime as it does about the love relationship between the two individuals.

Even if a film dared to talk about communist sympathies strong in Iran at the time of the revolution, very little discourse concerned women in the party, particularly all-women cells such as that which Fereshteh belonged to.  One weakness perhaps of the film for a die-hard communist might be that Fereshteh, when faced with harassment, possible arrest and imprisonment, suddenly decides she is not that committed and she hides out with a job in a handicapped woman’s house and eventually even marries a man who becomes a judge of people she once had been like.  Unlike her comrades who were willing to be arrested and were committed, she became scared and that eroded her communist ideals—she was willing to give up communist for bourgeois ideals.  But perhaps, given the political situation in Iran, no other Fereshteh could be shown in a film—one could hardly make a film about a communist martyr!  What we must console ourselves with is her strength of character to eventually come out into the open about her past beliefs in hopes of saving another person, after she had spent so much time focused on saving herself.

Still and again, the treatment within the film, although slightly problematic, might be the best one can hope for under the circumstances of a regime that gives approval for a film then arrests the filmmaker anyway and only releases her after international outcry; then 9 years later arrests another prominent filmmaker on the same charges.  Severe censorship makes filmmakers search for alternative means to get their messages on the screen—that there is a film about the communist party activities in late 70’s Iran at all is quite impressive, especially one that focuses on women’s roles in that struggle, even if the main protagonist loses her way for 20 years.

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Analysis of Ahmed Boulane’s The Satanic Angels/Les Anges de Satan is a great source for film photos, but most of the writing about this film is in French and pretty generic, so I won’t list websites for you.

The Satanic Angels/Les Anges de Satan was released in Morocco in 2007, written and directed by Ahmed Boulane, his second feature after Ali, Rabiia et les Autres, and deals with a true historical event in Morocco that occurred in March 2003.  Thus the film was timely made and I think timely to speak about given events in the Middle East and North Africa at the present.

Boulane has taken a real event, the arrest, trial and imprisonment of 14 younger men in Casablanca, Morocco for being Satanists vis-à-vis their heavy metal music and alternative youth lifestyle (tattoos, piercings, black clothes, heavy metal emblems, etc.), and turned it into a story not as much about the young men as about the social reaction to their arrest.  The film does introduce us to the young musicians very superficially, then proceeds to detail their arrest by Casablanca police for suspicion of being Satanists after similar youths had been arrested in Egypt, I believe.  Their heavy metal music was the main indicator of their belonging to a Satanist group, while other “evidence” seemed to be their clothing (an upside down cross on a t-shirt, a t-shirt that said “kiss my ass”, a plastic skull, posters of other heavy metal musicians from abroad, etc.) which were all collected in raids on the homes of the young men.  Once all arrested, the parents mobilized to try to free their children, forming a group with the aid of a journalist who wrote many stories about freedom of expression and the plight of the youth and in the end got beat up terribly for his efforts, and a group of social democrats who believed that they should help intervene in favor of the youth or perhaps others would later be arrested on similarly bogus charges, much like during the “years of lead” suffered in Morocco previously.  Mostly the film concerns the mobilization efforts of the parents and concerned friends, the trial of the youth where they seemed mostly scared and clueless, the movement of 11 of the 14 to a youth detention center while 3 stayed in prison, their eventual release until a verdict was rendered during which some nod was made to a hunger strike because 3 of the group were not released (being older than the rest), a huge protest in Casablanca in favor of the rights of the youths to musical expression, and their eventual freedom by the courts—although the 3 older men were found guilty but released for time served.  The film ends with one of the group leaving Morocco to France, dismayed by the events he’s suffered, while another youth has to contend with parents who want him to change his lifestyle suddenly even though he has been exonerated.  He cries out that they were rebels in their youth, too, and now that they’ve been victorious they want him to change?  Well he won’t.

The film was well made on a low budget, with excellent directing, acting, mise-en-scene on limited means, and as usual my concern with the film lies less in the intrinsic elements of filmmaking and more with the social and cultural concerns rendered on the screen, with a nod to some character development problems that, to me, marred the effectiveness of the story.  The filmmaker was not accorded permissions to film in many necessary locations, and according to trivia “Because of the inflammatory content, the film was refused shooting permits for almost all of its locations, including a Moroccan courtroom which had to be reconstructed in a church in Casablanca at the very last minute.”  Apparently the authorities thought that the film script didn’t put the legal process or government in a very good light.  Even when authorization was given to shoot in a local prison, it was rescinded within one day and other “similar” locations had to be found to substitute for the prison scenes.  However, apparently the police were cooperative and lent firearms for the shooting, and even technical assistance.  The film cannot be critiqued on those areas, as mentioned above, but my one problem was the lack of real identification with any of the individuals involved, a lack of sense of personal investment in the outcome of the judgments, except that the judgment had social repercussions more than just personal.  More focus is placed on the parents, activists, and friends than on the actual arrested 14–which means our identification should lie with those who are actually given voice in the film.

As the film audience, we’re not really close to the musicians who are effected—in fact the closest we get is in a café scene and a scene with two foreign visiting girls in their practice space turned party space, where one and all joke and jive—but we really don’t know what the young men (in this case all males were targeted) believe in besides playing music and pursuing alternative subculture in an exterior fashion.  The young men themselves are not given voice in this film, which is more about the process of society rallying to their cause and the injustice of their arrest which prevails—as Boulane says in an interview  “L’entente n’a pas été cordiale avec toutes les victimes du procès des quatorze, voire avec certains de leurs proches et amis. Je les comprends mais, moi, je fais mon film, selon ma vision et mon adaptation de leur histoire”, explique encore le réalisateur, qui a cristallisé pendant tout le tournage la colère, bien compréhensible, des vraies victimes du procès.   (  Apparently, the film was not made with the support of the 14 young men arrested, which may explain the minimal attention paid to their personal motives, thoughts, reactions and repercussions of their experiences.

As Boulane also implies, this is his film, written and directed by him, of his reconstruction of events, not a documentary about the 14, and not a historical re-enactment, but a liberal interpretation of events in order to render for posterity a moment in Morocco’s history, a moment that, in my view, should not be forgotten for several reasons.  First, it concerned freedom:  freedom of speech, human rights, and democracy which were burgeoning in Morocco at that time with the new King just taking the throne in 1999 and espousing reforms and modifications to social order.  Second, it concerned a moment when social mobilization of diverse groups actually effected change to political maneuverings—it was the press, demonstrations, activist groups, and other political activities that had real influence on the outcome of the trials of the young 14 musicians.

Under King Hassan II, there was very little freedom of speech in Morocco, and many were arrested for speaking out about various needed social reforms, journalists were arrested and newspapers were seized for voicing opinions contrary to the king’s status quo.  Thus, when Mohammed VI took power after his father’s death in 1999, one of his strategies to make Morocco a more favored nation with the EU, and to qualm some of the opposition voices in the country was to liberalize freedom of speech, open up some new areas of rights, reform slightly the family law, and other acts that seemed jeopardized by the arrest of the 14 on specious claims of their satanic involvement.  The social mobilization around the arrest of the 14 youths could not have happened as peacefully if not for the liberalized social space opened up by Mohammed VI, yet there were continued fears that such liberalized space could be taken away at any moment.  Even under Mohammed VI newspapers are seized and journalists arrested—it is not as if total freedom has been granted—there are still limits to what can be said and done.

What is also interesting is that a youth subculture was targeted that was a little too western, heavy metal music not being an offshoot of Moroccan or African musical traditions which might be said about other genres such as rai or gnawa fusion or jazz that were also very popular subcultural movements with youth.  Yet youth in Morocco are very clued in to movements, such as musical movements, elsewhere in the world and like youth everywhere, wish to express themselves and be part of larger communities both in the type of music played, the accoutrements that go along with the music such as modes of dress and hair and posters, etc.   Youth want to try things differently from past generations, though of course heavy metal has been around for a long while in the west, but not in countries like Morocco, Egypt, Iran….  Yet the youth don’t see the music as being estranged from Islam—they are Muslim whether they play rock or metal or gnawa or traditional musical genres.  In the movie a youth is asked what his religion is, and he not only claims Muslim but recites the opening verse of the Koran to prove it.  At issue for the youth is not their religion, but their youthful subculture; at issue for conservative Islamists, such as one depicted rather uniformly in the film, is their youthful subculture that is “against” Islam and morals.  When targeting youthful morals, the fear goes, where would the State stop?  Would all forms of youth subculture be outlawed that perceived to antagonize conservative Islamists?  What about devout Muslims across the Middle East and North Africa who play heavy metal or rock or hip hop—is the outward manifestation of music an appropriate signifier of an inward religious faith?  Where does one draw the line?  That is the importance of this film, for drawing attention to the fact that lines must not be drawn on such outward manifestations or we risk losing freedom of speech, freedom of dress, freedom of movement and affiliation.  Freedom of playing music.  These freedoms are under attack across the Middle East and North Africa, which probably has something to do with the recent protests from Morocco to Egypt to Bahrain.

Finally, to target a youth group for practices of Satanism is ludicrous in a country where traditional magical practices still pervade—even though overt forms of magic are illegal.  This speaks of the introduction of conservative Islam in government, where many traditional practices are being made anti-Islamic, such as traditional women’s tattoos.  I remember one 80-year-old woman complaining even in the early 2000s that she wished she could have her tattoos removed because she heard on the radio that it was anti Islamic.

The film ends with a message about the May 2003 Islamic extremist group attacks in Morocco on a hotel, a bar, a synagogue, and other locales where a number of people were killed—12 suicide bombers and 33 victims.  Thus, it puts a more political spin on the film rather than just being about a group of musicians and being about freedoms in general in a State that is constantly defining what freedoms are allowed.  Les Anges de Satan is a worthwhile film to see for reminding us what collective action can accomplish against State repressions on such innocent activities as playing heavy metal music and participating in youth subculture that has little overtly political aims.  At this point in time with collective action occurring across the board, one should revisit any such films that remind us that there is a potentially positive outcome when the people manifest their collective power—a collective power made up of individual commitment.

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Analysis/Review of “Biutiful” directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Inarritu)

There are so many reviews for this film, because it is in official competition in Cannes and up for a best foreign Academy Award and best actor Oscar, that I can’t really direct you to any in particular reviews this time that stand out, but of course here I’m going to talk differently a little bit about the film Biutiful, less about Javier Bardem as a fantastic actor, which he is, no doubt about that, and more about the incredible cultural elements diffused throughout this feature by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Inarritu).  In fact, I was a bit surprised by the number of negative reviews of the film, which I found exceptionally well made with only one instance of a “yep, I could see that coming a mile off” moment in the plot.  Overall, it was stylishly and beautifully photographed, excellently acted by all the cast, many who were not professionals, and very touching in story-line.

Bardem plays Uxbal, the main protagonist of this film who is surrounded by a host of other protagonists without whom the story could not be the intertwined headlong fateful fall that it soon becomes.  He is first a father, having sole custody of his 10 year old daughter and younger son, struggling to bring them up, get them to school on time, have good food on the table, have after-school care, all the normal worries of a parent in the modern world.  But more, because Uxbal doesn’t have your average employment—he’s living on the margins of society, trying to bring up his kids in relative poverty, doing his best to juggle his multiple responsibilities to bring in money and to care for his children.  Soon, to add dis-ease to the equation, Uxbal is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, given at most a couple of months to live.

He worries about leaving his children without a reliable parent, as their mother is both bipolar and irresponsible, not someone he can comfortably turn them over to, and his brother is an equally irresponsible selfish fellow who couldn’t raise them, and there is no other family.  Worse, he had been fatherless himself since his father died while his mother was pregnant, something that bothered him his entire life, which he does not want to perpetuate upon his own children—and his own mother had died while he was quite young, leaving him no real family to grow within.  What fate will his children meet when he dies?  It is inspiring to see a film in which a male figure actually wholeheartedly takes on fatherly duties and loves his children—too often we only see representations of men who abandon their children carelessly.  Uxbal is hyper-responsible in parenting, though at times he loses his temper with his son who is, like many a child, an irrepressible button-pusher.

Uxbal’s work and role entails functioning as a go-between among several sources—a Chinese man who imports illegal Chinese laborers who either work illegally at construction sites, or manufacture knock-off handbags and CDs/DVDs that illegal African immigrants sell on sidewalks in the posher areas of town; Uxbal is responsible for paying off the cops to look the other way while the Africans ply their wares on the streets illegally; he also is responsible for trying to convince the Africans that they are condoned to sell illegally in only certain districts, whereas they continue to taunt fate by selling downtown, and add drug selling as a sideline; Uxbal also acts as a go-between for the recently departed (dead) who communicate through him to their families—although sometimes the families don’t want to hear what he has to say to them; when one of his African contacts is deported Uxbal takes it upon himself to make sure his wife and baby are not left homeless and penniless when evicted from their tenement rooms; and in a large sense Uxbal acts as go-between for his own ex-wife and children, trying to reconcile with his wife and then trying to soften the story of her insanity and addictions when the children ask where she’s disappeared to when the reconciliation busts apart.  All these roles take a toll on Uxbal, especially since he is not a miracle worker, but a regular man struggling to do right in a path of wrong.  Of course his job is wrong and illegal, but it exists in reality, someone has to or will do it, and he tries to be “good”, such as worrying about the laborers’ welfares and well-beings, even going so far as to spend money to buy them heaters for the basement in which they are locked en masse every night.  Of course, nothing goes right for the man.

The Chinese labor importer, Hai, doesn’t want to pay the police; the Africans don’t want to sell only in the permitted area; the police want to make an example of the Africans and crack down on them and deport quite a few even though they’ve been paid off to look the other way; the heaters Uxbal buys for the basement are faulty and of course asphyxiate all the laborers trapped there over night; Uxbal’s rapprochement with his wife goes terribly wrong and he ends up moving back to his apartment, this time also inhabited by Ige, the wife of one of the deported sellers.  In fact, it seems nothing Uxbal tries to do can work out.  Mostly, he struggles on, fueled by the need to save some cash to take care of his children when he dies.  That overwhelming need keeps him going day after day, even when he’s reduced to wearing adult diapers because he can’t control urinating on himself.  In fact, this lack of control over his bodily functions is synonymous with his lack of control over events in his life.

Most interesting in the film is the margins of society described here.  This is not Barcelona of tourism and photo essays, this is the seedy side streets, the dingy apartments and warehouses, the claustrophobic tiny spaces in which individuals struggle to carve a niche for themselves.  Chinese immigrants suffer trying to gain a foothold in a new society, and are exploited by the Chinese who brought them to Spain who hold the attitude that no matter how badly they are treated it is better than being in China.  The workers exist crammed into a barren cement basement to sleep, locked in over night lest they escape, awoken at 6:30 am to start work either in the sweatshop upstairs or in construction where they don’t really know what they are doing.  Uxbal’s wife is a lost soul, wandering between her addictions to drugs and alcohol and her bipolar rants and on the other hand her desperate need to reclaim her husband and children and make the family work again—but she can’t help herself from doing wrong as well.  When Uxbal is out working, she leaves the kids alone as she goes out to party, she beats her son for going to the fridge with wet feet which she fears will electrocute him, then catches him smoking and sets his bed on fire and throws it into the street, and even leaves him alone in the apartment while she takes her daughter away for a birthday celebration overnight because he’s wet the bed.  She just can’t be a responsible parent no matter how much she loves her husband or children.  So Uxbal leaves her after trying the reconciliation, hoping she’d recovered, but finding in the end that she’s like everyone else around him, spiraling out of control downward.

Hai, the Chinese labor lord, is also shown to be reluctant to pay off the police in a timely manner, also reluctant to pay Uxbal the money owed for his services, and then listens to his boyfriend who takes a hard line on the treatment of the laborers and Uxbal.  When the Chinese laborers all die of asphyxiation, Hai turns over to his boyfriend the handling of the bodies—which are taken out to sea and dumped, which spells disaster as the bodies all wash ashore and of course Hai’s operation is raided and his family arrested—somehow he escapes but either he murders his boyfriend or the boyfriend commits suicide—it is unclear.  He warns Uxbal to tidy up all loose ends.  For Uxbal, tidying up the loose ends really entails making peace with the dead as he feels completely responsible for their deaths, buying cheap heaters so he can pocket more of the money on his own.  He can’t really reconcile with the dead Chinese, but he can reconcile with his own demise.

Uxbal helps Ige by giving her his apartment when her husband is deported and she’s evicted, but he winds up going back to the apartment himself with the kids, which he then shares with her and her baby, depending on her more and more as he falls more ill. In the end, he’s completely dependent on Ige, in a sense forcing her to become surrogate mother to his children because their biological mother is in a treatment center and unavailable, and he’s dying.  At first she starts by cooking, then taking the kids to school, then she’s medicating Uxbal, cleaning him, and finally he gives her all his cash and says she’s got to take care of the children—the money is enough to pay the rent for years and pay for other expenses too.  Ige is put in a difficult situation because she really wants to return to Senegal to her husband, and in fact packs her belongings and goes off to the train station.  Later, however, she returns, and Uxbal, passing on his mother’s diamond wedding ring to his daughter, can let go and die.  Everything has unraveled by now: the Chinese laborers are dead, the Africans are deported, the police crack down on the labor importer and even the police who were paid off are no longer complicit.  The wife is gone to a rehab center.  In essence, there’s really no other option for Uxbal than to let go and traverse to the other world that he knows is waiting, death not being an end but a transition.

This is another interesting component of the film—the family.  Uxbal didn’t grow up in a “traditional” family, and in a sense considers his charges—the Chinese and Africans—to be part of his extended “non-traditional” family, which is why he takes on responsibility of Ige when her husband is deported.  And why he depends on Ige when dying.  He must leave his children with someone—she’s it by force of circumstance.  And she accepts it because she also cannot have a traditional family in Spain, with her husband deported and unable to make ends meet on her own with a small child to care for.  There is no reason that circumstances can’t create a family when the biological family bonds are rent asunder.  And the children slowly but surely accept Ige as surrogate parent, as she slowly but surely accepts her new role as their mother.

Another interesting facet of this film is that it treats marginalized characters, which in this era of economic turmoil and globalization, means quite a lot of people.  Too many films only deal with the wealthy or middle class, and eschew the poor, the marginal, those struggling to make ends meet any way they can.  This entire film is about the marginal, the underclass, the foundation of societies all over the world, people with real problems that meet real bad endings all the time.  Perhaps because I’ve been poor, with little recourse, and known quite a lot of very poor people, this film really resonated with me and made every character’s story poignant, not just Uxbal’s, though he was the central unifying agent of the story about a plethora of struggling individuals, whether fiscally, emotionally, mentally, or socially.  Of course, Uxbal dies, unlike many unfortunates, with money saved to care for his children, even if it is in an unorthodox family—whereas not so many individuals are so lucky or crafty as he.  However, the film is well worth watching, just take your handkerchief.

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Giddh, The Vultures, 1984 South Indian Movie Directed by T.S. Ranga, Review and Analysis

This older South Indian movie, Giddh, written and directed by T.S. Ranga, is available from Netflix or online downloading, with a nice small blog article at  Set in Karnataka, the movie features Hannumakka (Smita Patil) as a devadasi or devotee or initiate of the goddess Yellamma, the village goddess, who everyone worships and fears, while Om Puri plays Bachiya, a sort of pimp or jack-of-all-trades who stays close to Hannumakka and her sister who has one daughter, Lakshmi.  The story is both about the villager’s trials with poverty and the efforts of Hannumakka and Bachiya and the village teacher to save Lakshmi from either a direct life of prostitution or an indirect life of prostitution if she is also initiated as a devadasi to Yellamma (see for an extensive coverage of the link between serving the goddess Yellamma and serving as a prostitute in a village).  Several conflicts intertwine.

First, as the village is excessively poor and the land without water, villagers are anxious not to anger Yellamma and make their luck even worse.  So it would be good, they debate, if they initiated Lakshmi to the goddess, as suggested by their feudal landlord–but it is expensive, so they would need the financial support of the same rich landlord of the village who, as we see below, has ulterior motives for making this suggestion.  Further, Hannumakka’s sister has also promised Lakshmi to a local rich man who has paid to have first access to her virginity, whereas the original rich local lord, Desai (Achyut Potdar) also has his eyes on her and tries several ways to get his own hands on her first—he indicates to the girl’s father that she should be initiated as a devadasi to Yellamma, because the family is so poor, then when that tactic fails he tries to outbid the other rich man in actual cash payment to the girl’s mother–finally he simply attempts to abduct the girl outright.  Another problem in the village is the local young man who rounds up the girls and takes them to Mumbai where he converts them into prostitutes in order to provide some small sums of money to their families in the village.  Even this young man has his sights set on Lakshmi as a promising young prostitute.

Against all these odds, Hannumakka is outspoken in front of the villagers, in her family, towards Desai, and even towards the other rich lord who wants Lakshmi.  She is very cognizant that the rich lord has proposed that Lakshmi be initiated so that he can take her virginity, and that he is using the villagers’ superstitions or god worship to render them fearful so as to get his own agenda met.  But no matter how persuasively Hannumakka argues, no one listens to her.  So far Lakshmi has been spared because she hasn’t reached puberty yet, but when she does, Hannumakka and Bachiya concoct a plan to make her escape the village and take a bus to Mumbai to her uncle there who will raise and educate her properly and safely.  However, when they try this once, they miss the bus and find themselves trapped by Desai who tries to forcibly detain the girl at his compound, but Hannumakka starts a fire as a distraction and she and Bachiya grab Lakshmi and take her home.  They are finally able to escape with Lakshmi to the road and put her aboard the bus to Mumbai, but unfortunately the young village pimp gets aboard at another village, recognizes Lakshmi, and the film ends with her trustingly snuggling against him to nap through the long journey.  The film ends on this ambivalent tone both to juxtapose action and fate, and to leave an open ending as to whether the uncle will indeed save Lakshmi or she’ll wind up a prostitute after all.

There are several elements that I enjoyed most about this movie.  One is the absolute realism of the mise-en-scene and directing.  This is not the average Bollywood film with fake sets and singing and dancing, although there is a song interlude when Hannumakka and another devotee sing about/to Yellamma.  However, it is more of a folk song rather than a big performance.  Otherwise, the village is realistic.  People are dirty, they look hungry and tired and without water.  They wear no shoes, their houses are authentically poor and ramshackle, the men waste their few resources getting drunk at the local watering hole.  Whether the director used real villagers or actors for supporting parts is uncertain, as I’ve not found anything written about the film, but it was spectacular to see Om Puri, a renowned actor, running barefoot through the village and countryside dust.  Even the opening credits of the film show actual photos of prostitutes to set the scene for the conflict of the movie—trying to save one village girl from this fate.  Further, the subject of the film is realistic—Karnataka made it illegal to make girls into devadasis in the mid-1980s, the time when this film was directed—all of India did so in the late 1980s.  Yet the practice continues, as does the phenomenon of young girls being taken from villages to large cities to become prostitutes, or turned into prostitutes within the villages themselves.  What the film tries to underscore is the absolute poverty that makes this alternative seem an acceptable option for women, yet a poverty juxtaposed to absolute wealth such as the landlord whose riches will give him deflowering privileges of the devadasis.  The landlord earns his wealth upon the backs of the villagers, and his privileges come at the expense of the villagers’ mores and superstitions.

One scene I enjoyed is when a contractor was about to give money to a man, and his wife snatches it up and proclaims that since he would just drink it up anyway, she’d better take the money.  The film does show quite a lot of drinking alcohol, even though or because of the poverty abounding.  The rich as well as the poor seem to constantly consume the liquor that seems to be primarily the solace for men, but even Hannumakka at one point turns to drink when she despairs of saving Lakshmi and bemoans her fate that she has been rendered a prostitute rather than a proper wife, which she wanted to be when young.  That is why she is so determined to save at least one girl from her own fate—she knows the price to pay.  One reason she turns to drink is that she was so proud of being able to marry off one of the village girls, but one night the girl returns alone to the village, having run off from her married home because she can’t stand married life and would prefer the life of the local prostitute!  This sends Hannumakka over the edge and makes her doubly intent on saving Lakshmi.    I recall that Indian women took up the issue of men’s drinking quite stridently during the 1990s, stopping liquor delivery trucks and destroying the contents, because liquor was such a devastating influence on villages suffering already from poverty, drought, and social problems.

The film includes several instances in which the wealthy of the area can abuse their power over “regular” villagers.  For example, the village teacher wants to oppose the rich landlord’s desire for Lakshmi, so the landlord has the teacher transferred to a distant and smaller village.  The landlord can have Hannumakka arrested for starting a fire on his property, while the villagers cannot protest against the landlord’s goons trying to kidnap Lakshmi from her own home in the middle of the night.  The landlord can order his goons to beat Bachiya near to death for not helping him get Lakshmi, but Bachiya cannot retaliate at all.   The rich comprise one component of the vultures of the title, which also include the pimps that take off young girls to the cities to become prostitutes, and the police that can be bought off by the wealthy.

There is not a lot of action or drama per se in this film; the drama stems from your identification or not with Hannumakka and Bachiya’s goal of saving Lakshmi against all odds, against family, against tradition, against the local wealthy, against the local pimp, even against her own childish unawareness of the odds at stake.  If we can identify with Hannumakka, the rebel, the aware, the sad, the sick, and if we as viewers are cognizant and aware of the difficulties faced by most prostitutes and devadasis, then the film’s drama indeed propels us through the near two hours of the film, yet the film closure or lack thereof leaves us dismayed at the potential for yet another intervention of fate to ruin an innocent girl’s life.

It is important that the film does not offer marriage as a panacea remedy.  Women’s lives can be as difficult in marriage as in prostitution; in fact, the village prostitute seems to be the healthy, happy, beauty in a film filled with struggle and sadness.  She’s not carrying rocks on her head building a road, or clearing a field bent over all day long, scraping for food, or having a disproving husband constantly nag and torture her.  She’s free, she has money, she’s sympathetic.  She’s plump while others struggle to find something to eat.  She’s not embarrassed by her role either.  Thus there’s a contradiction in Hannumakka as a devadasi and prostitute who resents her fate, and the happy prostitute who makes the most of her position.

What really seems at stake is that it is young girls who are being targeted—girls who like Lakshmi don’t really understand what is in store for them whether they are married off or sold into prostitution or initiated into a devadasi.  It is one thing for adult or more mature women to decide their own fate, yet another for adults to make fates for the innocent who have no right to choose.  Hannumakka and Bachiya try to send Lakshmi to Mumbai to grow up, to be educated, to have the option to make a choice rather than to be chosen for, especially when Hannumakka has to face the reality that marriage is not always the salvation she sentimentally dreamed it would be.

While Giddh deals with the variety of issues surrounding prostitution and village life that leads to it as well as devadasis, the film is not a simple condemnation, as noted above.  Both sides or approaches are presented.  Hannumakka is not happy as a devadasi, but another woman is perfectly content to serve the goddess and perform the ancillary duties.  The village prostitute is perfectly happy with her role, whereas Hannumakka and Bachiya try desperately to save the young girls from similar fates.  Of course, we are not shown the bleak sides of prostitution in the big cities, the harshness of the realities for the girls taken off to Mumbai, we are left to imagine, as we are left to imagine the ending of the film.



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Analysis/Review of Kharboucha, Moroccan Film, Hamid Zoughi director

Kharboucha (Kharboucha ou Ma Ydoum Hal–Kharboucha ou rien n’est eternal—Kharboucha or nothing is eternal), Hamid Zoughi’s directorial debut in 2007 with a release date in late 2008 at a festival in Tangier in Morocco, comprises one of very few exceptionally well-produced Moroccan historical dramas.  The film may be viewed in 8 parts with French subtitles on YouTube, but also can be downloaded from a number of bit-torrent sites according to a general Google search.  A couple of quite truncated pieces of French writing on the subject are found at and and while so far no writing in English seems available.

This analysis/review is actually quite short as Zoughi’s film is rather easily synopsized though it has many tangents (plot elements) that make the story interesting, so you’ll actually have to watch the film to get the full flavor of Kharboucha.

The character of Hadda/Kharboucha is played by Houda Sedki, while Khadija Merkoum actually sings Kharboucha’s songs which are then synced by the actress, although Sedki has a trained singing voice—ayta music is quite different from the western classical tradition Sedki trained in.  The film was funded by the Centre Cinematographique Marocain and the television channel 2M in Morocco at 3.8 million dirhams, but there is no information about popularity or audience figures.

Kharboucha is actually the name of a historical figure from the early-mid 20th century, a singer in the aita (ayta) tradition from the region of Safi (southeast Morocco), whose fame rests as much on her renowned voice as on the politically rebellious content of her songs.  Her real name Hadda, Kharboucha originated from the tribe of Oulad Zaid who were attacked and her family slaughtered by a rather evil and quite powerful Caid of the nearby tribe/locality—thus her songs against this Caid and his dictatorial rule and a call for uprising.  As a singer, Kharboucha is called a Chikha (cheikha) in Moroccan dialect, which has a number of subtextual meanings—one is that she might be a “loose” woman morally, and another is that she is a singer with a small ensemble of accompanying musicians on traditional instruments.  Usually chikhat sing/perform during this time period (and currently) either in individual houses where they are invited to entertain for parties, or at souks (traveling or occasional outdoor markets), at weddings and other important social events like moussems (religious pilgrimages), and equally for male and female audiences separately.  The fact of cheikhats’ social mobility and personal agency when other women are specifically not socially mobile nor have personal agency lends to their reputation as being less moral or less bound by social mores and prohibitions than other women, whether in the past as in the film Kharboucha, or in the present time in which cheikhat’s continue to perform throughout Morocco.  The change in the present time is that one can find cheikhat’s also singing and dancing in bars/lounges in addition to the venues noted above, while some have become incredibly famous with albums, etc.

Kharboucha’s story, and thus the story of the film, is that first she is punished for being in love and consorting with the Caid’s/tribal hash seller, then when her village is pillaged and her family slain in a raid by the Caid who wants to replace all his livestock killed by an epidemic with the livestock of the neighboring tribe—she sings out publicly against the Caid’s cruelty and injustice and merits some more beating and imprisonment.  However, the Caid’s son is in love with her, and says he will destroy his father if she will trust in him—however, this son’s plot is overthrown by the wily Caid and Kharboucha imprisoned again; Kharboucha escapes from prison and is sheltered by various other tribal leaders until one treacherously turns her in to gain favor with the Caid and she ends up back in prison hung by her feet for days on end.  The Caid won’t kill her and turn her into a martyr and strengthen her songs’ power, but decides instead to marry her.  On the wedding night, Kharboucha tries to poison him, and when that doesn’t work she breaks into seditious song yet again.  While the Caid ushers her off to be walled-in alive, we hear the other tribal leaders in attendance at the wedding repeat Kharboucha’s song, much to the Caid’s chagrin, while Kharboucha’s tribe has secretly prepared to attack the Caid to regain their honor, to save Kharboucha, and to get back their livestock and goods.  However, at the time Kharboucha is being walled-in alive, her lover who leads the attack is shot and killed as well.  Thus, the film ends without us knowing the outcome of the raid against the Caid, unless we know our Moroccan tribal history!  What we do know is that Kharboucha and her lover are both martyred, and that her songs have lived on until today in the Aita (ayta) tradition.

One of the most wonderful components of the film, aside from the excellent singing given voice numerous times throughout the story, is the quality of the historical rendering of costumes, customs, décor and settings.  Set between El Jadida and Safi, both in the countryside and in the Kasbah of Settat, almost all of the costumes, setting and décor seem very authentic and only the long beards of the Jewish merchants were noticeably fake.  Apparently many of the crew worked for very low or no wages on the film since so much of its budget had to be spent on authentic décor and costumes.  From inclusion of black slaves, Jewish merchants, musical troupes, and various “tradesmen” in the film, all the personages one would expect to find were present, including hunting dogs (sloughi’s) and falcons, wonderfully outfitted horses, a lavish Caid and family, and poor villagers/tribes-persons.  Because the film focused on Kharboucha, very little attention was paid in the script to elaborating on other personae such as the Jewish merchants or the slaves, except that they were present, which smacks of authenticity of the story world.

There are several important cultural components to write about this film.  French colonialism was spreading into the countryside and in an effort to quell the tribal disturbances, the French enlisted sympathizers like the Caid and made them quite powerful in their regions, power which could be abused.  At the time, there was central power in the makhzen, or the sultan’s family, with much tribal unrest in much of the countryside that did not want/could not pay taxes to the sultan and thus were considered in rebellion (siba) against the throne.  The Caid’s role was to quell the siba areas, collect the taxes, and otherwise he could pretty much rule however he wanted as long as the sultan and French colonizer interests were being maintained.  At the time, again, there was collusion between the colonizers and the throne/the sultan.  But this is another longer story of shifting alliances that can’t be developed sufficiently here except to say that the film presages a rebellion against the Caid synonymous with rebellion against the French that culminates in the late 40s.  What is important is that the throne and the French presence are only indirectly felt in the film—through the Caid’s power to collect taxes from his subjects, his power to attack neighbors with only a thin reprimand from the throne, and the Caid’s power to use his own army as he saw fit.  Thus the Caid attacks the Oulad Zaid to steal their sheep and other livestock to replace that lost in his tribe due to a strange epidemic—which he blames on the farmers using Spanish wheat rather than Moroccan—which would be another long story about the time of famine in Morocco where a lot of tribes and villages were forced to utilize foreign wheat.  The early 40s were years of famine throughout Morocco where rationing of essential goods occurred, along with the distribution of goods by the French that would have been overseen by the Caid, probably in favor of his own tribe’s welfare.  The film alludes to many things historically significant but does not delve into them at all, but expects its audience to have the background to make further sense of the references.  This would be a weakness of the film for non-Moroccans perhaps—the lack of real contextuality in which to place the events which seem to exist between Kharboucha and the Caid but are really relative to the situation throughout the country as a whole.

In the time of the story, women had no rights whatsoever, and in fact in face of the Caid’s proclamations almost no one in the story was safe from being tossed in prison for any slight infringement, or even being killed.  We hear from the Caid’s wife that she was married to him as a young girl, a very usual practice of the place and time, and she even gives Kharboucha the poison to kill the Caid whenever the time is right—Kharboucha puts it in the milk traditionally shared by the bride and groom to cement the marriage in public, but it apparently doesn’t work.  However, compared to other Moroccan films, this film does not particularly address women’s issues per se, as it focuses principally on one character and her struggle which does not necessarily extend to all women.  But some components of the treatment of women are included, such as the Caid’s wife’s young marriage.  Further, particularly when the issue is village life, women’s advances were far behind those that might be apparent in urban life at the same time.  If the film, according to the director, is set in the 1940s, at the height of French colonialism, urban women might have more freedom of movement in the urban setting, although ostensibly still they would be controlled by the decisions of the husband/father regarding their mobility and agency.  I believe that it is during this period that the sultan of Morocco allowed his daughters to appear in western clothing, without veil, and to attend schooling, and many other advances for women that would not have been felt in village or tribal life whatsoever.  Kharboucha as a cheikha, however, has quite a bit more freedom of movement and agency; she even chooses her own lover, which is not ordinary in the village or tribal setting where usually the father chooses the husband and the daughter simply obeys.  But the film doesn’t represent her doing anything more than holding hands and listening to music with this lover—which is apparently enough to get her beaten and jailed for a time.  Much like the power of the voice in Les Silences du Palais by Moufida Tlatli, in this film Kharboucha’s voice is her power and she calls in song for resistance to the Caid, and thus in essence for resistance to oppression in whatever form.  This could signify oppression against women, French oppression within Morocco, the makhzen’s oppression of the rural areas through taxation, and a host of other oppressions only alluded to marginally.

One other aspect raised tangentially in the film is the relation between “white” Moroccans and Moroccans “of color”.  In one scene a man declares his devotion to his wife who is dark skinned, and the Caid’s son makes a snide remark about her color.  While others are “white”, she is “brown” and marked as other, as supposedly inferior at the time and place, given the history of sub-Saharan slavery and different treatment of people of color in Morocco.  While many former slaves and individuals of color became powerful in government due to their relationship to seats of power, such as Caids and the sultans and royal families, for a long time there was a perceived difference such that a “white” would not necessarily marry a “brown” or “black” individual unless that individual had achieved some status and power.  The situation has changed in modern times, with much intermixing/intermarriage of former slaves, people of color, and “white” Moroccans, but in the era/context of the story it would have been unusual for this man to have taken a wife of color, though not unusual for families to have slaves of color, as the Caid has a very black man-servant.  Morocco did not abolish slavery until the mid-20th century, although many slaves were not of color necessarily, though quite a few did come from sub-Saharan Africa.  This issue is not often raised in films, being still a taboo subject in Morocco where issues of racism are very difficultly addressed publicly.  The same goes for the presence of Jewish merchants in the film, which exist but nothing much is really developed about them or their real interrelationships within the tribal culture.

Overall, Hamid Zoughi has constructed a feature film with many subtexts but one main thrust which is the Caid’s abuse of his power over others, especially Kharboucha, and her resistance through song and strength of will.  I believe the film could have been stronger if some of the subtexts had been brought to the fore, but the film is what it is, and for persons interested in seeing a historical Morocco, the film decors and costumes are almost impeccable, though again you might laugh at a couple of the fake beards!   The music is awesome, with some of Kharboucha’s original songs, and some developed specifically for the film, but within the ayta traditional style.

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Analysis/Review of L’enfant endormi / The Sleeping Child by Yasmine Kassari

Set in the north-east of Morocco in the Atlas Mountains, Kassari’s film takes us into a small douar or village where the scenario is almost entirely populated by women, as the young men have left for clandestine labor in Europe.

For those of you who read French or use internet translation, there’s an excellent site for the film at   There is also a DVD region 2 available through Amazon.  The film synopsis is very skimpy on the website, thus, I will develop it a bit more fully here, then talk about the film style, and the somewhat ethnographic cultural elements that Kassari includes in her film.

The film opens on the marriage ceremony of Zeinab, assisted by her close friend Halima, followed the next morning by the departure of Zeinab’s new husband and other young men, towards clandestine labor in Europe, for an indeterminate time.  Zeinab is left to live with her mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law and their compound becomes singularly feminine as there is no male present.  In fact, we might call the men in the film absent-present because they are always on everyone’s mind, the women persistently running out to the passing truck on the little dirt road, to see if there is news.  Aside from the news brought by the truck, without telephones, the only communications can occur through the rare collective videotapes sent by the village men—at which time all the village women gather to share in the news, or by letter, which the illiterate women cannot read and need someone else to read to them.  The only letter Zeinab gets comes after she leaves the village for the local town to have a photo taken with a neighbor child and the grandmother—the mother-in-law having died while tending the sheep in the field—the photo is returned with only the admonition that she should never leave the house again without her husband’s permission.  These asides seem to be high points of the film, again, because the women constantly worry about the men’s return. In fact, said return is the reason for the title of the film, The Sleeping Child, as Zeinab soon after her marriage finds that she is pregnant but does not want to have the child while her husband is away, so she consults a fqih, or white magician, who gives her an amulet to keep the child from growing further—to put the child to sleep until the amulet is destroyed and the child can resume its growth toward maturity.  Only when she receives the returned photo with the cold admonition on it, does Zeinab destroy the amulet so that the child may grow, as she no longer waits impatiently for her husband’s return.

In between the introduction and the closure, just noted, occurs rather quotidian, almost ethnographic in detail, chores and routines.  I would not say the film is entirely ethnographic, because many, many details are absent of course, but the film does focus almost entirely on the routine tasks performed by the women, and shows us the repetitive nature of most days in the small village life.  Tending sheep and goats, milking the goat, cleaning wool and grain, cooking, serving meals, visiting with friends, sending children to school, fetching wood, fetching water, all the menial tasks that fill up village life are present on the screen so that the viewer is immersed in the seemingly mundane events of Zeinab’s life.  Events out of the ordinary do happen, such as the mother-in-law’s death, or Halima’s being beaten for consorting with a neighboring young man, but these are like bubbles in a constantly flowing stream—perhaps the stream in the village that we see photographed time and time again throughout the film.

The mise-en-scene of this film is quite lovely—long takes that are sometimes necessary for us to take in a scene’s minute details but also which mimic at times the real-time of mundane activities; a mixture of long shots which capture the vast beauty of the countryside and the vast emptiness of the landscape dotted with the small village compounds and close-ups that reveal unspoken emotions; very natural-looking lighting such as bright outdoor scenes, fire-lit indoor scenes; and of course costumes are extremely realistic and natural, as are props appropriate for village life and somewhat abject poverty (thus the need to emigrate abroad to work!).  For the most part the actors speak in Moroccan Arabic, but at times a couple of elders speak in Berber, since this is most likely a Berber village.  Again, the pacing of this film is quite slow, like many African films, both because not much at all happens that is exciting on the exterior, but also because of the long shots and long takes and absolutely quotidian nature of the film’s content.

Let’s talk about some of the cultural content.  The dominant theme of the film is that women are left alone to manage the home, the livestock, the crops, and the village affairs while men emigrate.  While Kassari has treated the subject of men’s emigration in a previous documentary film, here she focuses on the women left behind, which is true in countless towns and villages across Morocco as there are so many men seeking to or having emigrated for a chance at a better life and to send money home to their families.  This may not be emigration abroad, but even emigration from the rural to the city, such as Casablanca, as is treated in Mohamed Asli’s In Casablanca Angels Don’t Fly.  In this case, the emigration is abroad, so it is much more difficult for the men to return home for important events such as the birth of a child.  While Zeinab doesn’t want to give birth without her husband’s presence, he most likely would not leave Europe to return home for a birth, though he might for a male’s circumcision, etc.  Recognizing this at last, when she receives the critical note on the returned photo, Zeinab decides to go ahead and let the child be born even though her husband won’t be present.

Women not allowed much freedom without male authorization, like Zeinab’s being able to get a photo taken–even though she is responsible for everything related to the house and maintaining life there, she can’t go to the town on her own.  Halima gets beaten up by male relatives when she is found out to be consorting with a neighbor young man, because women are not free to either “date” (it doesn’t happen in villages) or divorce for someone else they may love instead of their husband.  In fact, there may not be much of a relationship between husband and wife except what’s based on duty—to have children, raise a family, take care of the elders, take care of the village responsibilities, etc.  Halima represents the woman who is married to an unresponsive husband, and who turns to someone else but gets beaten for transgressing normative boundaries.  She should just persist and bear it.  Just as Zeinab should bear her husband telling her from thousands of miles away that she needs his permission to go to the town or to do anything different.  Even though the women gain agency from their power to manage every day life in the home and village without male presence, they agency is limited by tradition that gives men dominance over their actions (Halima) and movements (Zeinab).  While the film is not absolutely critiquing these traditions, their contradictory nature is highlighted and the audience is left, like with much of ethnographic filmmaking, to determine their stance towards reading those phenomena.

White magic.  The fqih’s waiting room is filled with women all wanting some help—whether it be with illness, or love, or as in Zeinab’s case, to make her child “sleep” for a while in her womb.  This is linked to the distance villagers are placed from medical help and town, so that in lieu of seeking medical advice sometimes people are forced to see the fqih for help because there are no doctors.  In other instances, such as Zeinab’s, no doctor would be appropriate because what she needs is magic.  We first, actually, see the fqih, at the wedding, when he gives Zeinab a fertility spell on her wedding night—she crosses a threshold a number of times and then bathes in water in which a spell has been soaked.  It apparently works.  Thus, she seeks a spell to retard the child’s development—which also apparently works because we don’t see her pregnancy develop as the months go by and her husband doesn’t return.

Rural poverty is not the same as urban poverty, since for example Zeinab’s family has sheep and goats, land for growing grain and vegetables, water from the river, olive trees for oil, and the occasional chicken when one is a bad egg layer.  But the options are minimal—there is no nearby town to visit for goods, only one distant neighbor has a battery operated television, no music except what one makes oneself, and entertainment comes from visiting with neighbors and each other in the family, and the men are forced to emigrate for hard cash earnings.  Even at the wedding there is a lack of sugar for the tea!  While at times the women are seen to play, such as Zeinab and Halima splashing in the stream near the village, or howling at the moon and laughing, or the older women are seen resting and contemplating, mostly we see the women working, walking back and forth from compound to compound, or doing daily chores that repeat over and over as the days go by and they wait for their men to return.

Fluid responsibilities caring for youth and the elderly.  We see often in the film that Zeinab will care for Halima’s baby and a young girl—which I am not sure is Halima’s child or her sister, and Zeinab takes care of the blind grandmother who of course is not farmed out to a rest home as they don’t exist in Morocco.  The elderly are lovingly, one hopes but of course not always, taken care of by the extended family.  At times Halima comes over to take care of the grandmother when Zeinab has something to do, as well.  Near the end of the film when Halima leaves the village, Zeinab is left to raise the young girl.  Thus there is some fluidity about who raises and takes care of whom in the villages, which are often “extended” family anyway.  This is important because liens between families are shaped by more than just marriage, but also by extended kinship and friendship.

Overall, for a unique view of life in a rural village, basically two female-headed households, Kassari’s film offers an almost ethnographic view of marriage issues, friendship between Zeinab and Halima, and family relationships.  There are no “outside” plot elements that give rise to conflict; everything stems from the internal world of the women or the village life and traditions.  The film is somewhat delicate, intricate, like a web of relationships and activities that interweave to design a whole story that invites you in and leaves you wondering about the fate and future of Zeinab and her world.

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Noureddine Lakhmari’s Moroccan film CasaNegra Analysis/Review

I’m doing something a little different in this week’s blog.  I’m having a guest blogger who is letting me take extracts from his excellent paper “A Feminist Reading of the Moroccan Film Casanegra”, Younnes Abeddour from Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah University’s Cultural Studies Master’s Programme in Fes, Morocco.  Thus, the first part of the blog will be devoted to a brief synopsis of the film Casanegra, the second part to Younnes’ writing, and the third part of the blog will contain my final comments.  This is an experiment, and I hope it works for everyone!

Casanegra is a Moroccan feature film released in 2008, written and directed by Nour Eddine Lakhmari which I was only able to see in 20 parts on YouTube, so the screening experience was not optimal, but at least the film is available with subtitles to interested persons!  Of course one can also download the film from numerous, and I mean numerous, sites.  The film-noir rendering of the life of two main protagonists, Adil and Karim, takes us on an underworld adventure through the underbelly of the main city in Morocco, Casablanca, which in this film is pejoratively renamed Casanegra (the black city), in reference to the lack of opportunity or hope for many of its denizens (represented by Adil and Karim), particularly youth of today.  So as not to “spill the beans” too much about the film, let’s say that Adil and Karim are petty crooks trying to make a little money with petty crime but it leads to Adil’s frustration because he wishes to escape Morocco and go to his uncle abroad where life will offer him more opportunity—which he sees is impossible for him in Morocco.  Karim falls in love from afar with a wealthy woman antique shop owner, but eventually recognizes that he cannot have a real relationship with her due to his poor status.  This eventually pushes both young men to engage in a “deal” with Zrirek, a hard-core criminal, that will earn them the money to realize their dreams—Adil to leave Morocco and Karim to be able to court the wealthier woman and get out of petty crimes, he hopes.  Adil is gung-ho, while Karim is more hesitant, because he realizes that getting in league with Zrirek could be a long-term problem rather than a short-term solution.  But he’s already tried getting a “real” job cleaning fish all day for a wealthy man who profits from paying only 50 dirhams a day to his workers, which is a pittance.  His father, now rather decrepit and unable to talk or take care of himself, had done this job for decades to support his family—and look where it got him!  So Karim finally agrees to work with Zrirek, which makes Adil happy because whereas Adil has the enthusiasm, Karim is the “heavy”, the fighter, the one who gets things done.  Zrirek has all the self confidence of the bully who always gets his way through violence, but has a special job which he wants the young men to pull off, but first they have to “prove” themselves by a smaller job—getting some money owed Zrirek by a gay cross-dresser and in the process, Adil secretly comes across a huge bundle of money which he conceals from even Karim—seeing it as his “get out of Morocco” money.  However, having a little money in their pockets for the moment, Adil goes home where he finds his mother beat half-to-death yet again by an abusive step-father, and instead of using his money on himself he gives it to her to escape to her village and family to get away from the man who might just kill her one of these days.  Karim, in the meantime, having previously met the antique shop owner and ingratiated himself to her, spies her going into a nightclub where he follows, dances with her and ends up having a fling.  But the next day, she finds out that he’s nothing but a street hustler, and she in essence flees from him.  Both have lost their temporary solution to their dreams, so again they turn to Zrirek.  Having proven themselves, the time comes for the big job, drugging a racehorse to fix a race, which they totally botch due to bickering like brothers until the horse escapes and the whole project is ruined.  The end of the film, as the beginning, finds them running as the police pursue.

So I’ve not wanted to go into too many details so as to not ruin the experience of the film for those who’ve not seen it, which I imagine is most people, so I encourage you to take a look.  The film is well crafted, with a mix between pathos, humor, violence, and romance.  And the film says a lot about Moroccan society, at least a certain segment of social ills and realities, which I and Youness discuss below.  Whereas Youness discusses the women in the film, I will later discuss issues of poverty, crime, alcohol, sexual differences and emigration.


Casanegra is a Moroccan film directed by Nour Eddine Lakhmari, it has represented Morocco widely in many festivals and obtained many Awards. The movie is seen as a “success” though it has been greatly criticized for the uncomfortable “street” language used in it. Others, however, agreed that this is the Moroccan reality, the daily language that we usually hear in the streets, so nothing new.

The film is given an ironical title: Casanegra which literally means the black house; it gives a pejorative image of Casablanca, the real name of the city which literally means the white house. It is an alternative cinema, for the center of the film are marginalized characters. Much space is devoted to the people who are put in the periphery, which empowers them and gives them an opportunity to express themselves and tell their untold, stories. We see Casablanca city through their eyes and hard circumstances, what probably makes it a black place. Interestingly, most of the scenes are shot in the dark, at night, a technique used by the director to reflect the characters’ interior anxieties.

Casanegra reflects reality, the Moroccan reality with all its contradictions. It deals with different social issues such as: poverty, social hierarchy, prostitution, homosexuality, drugs and violence. The dramatic story revolves around two ordinary young men who are put in the margin of the society. Adil suffers from his violent stepfather, who always beats his mother. This pushes Adil to stick to his dream, manifested in a postcard, and eventually plans to leave his “Casanegra”. Karim is a little more optimistic; he is more concerned with his family and falls in love with a woman, but later he suffers from love deception. Nevertheless, what unifies Adil and Karim is their attempts to do the impossible through all the means to better their social life.

Nabila (I will use the name she is given on the movie’s profile: Nabila, though she was only once referred to as Nabila by her friend) represents a modernized icon in the Moroccan society. The criteria of her modernized character are: speaking French, driving a car, wearing western clothes, going to the night club, smoking, and the fact that she is a divorced woman. To what extent does her modern and liberated life empower (or disempowers) her as a woman? And has she succeeded in creating a Third Space between tradition and modernity, Morocco and the West?

The woman in the store is westernized; there is almost nothing about her that reveals her Moroccan identity. Perhaps, this is the reason why she remained unnamed throughout the two hours movie. She has a confused Moroccan identity with a Western one; she is a ‘neither-nor’ character. This inbetweeness creates a kind of ambivalence in her personality; she is torn between two different worlds. She lives a librated western life in a Muslim country, attempting to live the West in the East, (that is, if we regard Morocco as an Eastern country, geographically speaking.) The West is mainly a modern secular world and Morocco is a Muslim society. She is flowing back and forth between two different worlds trying to create a Third Space. The woman working in the store is a westernized character par excellence, but since she lives in Morocco, so somehow she managed to live a Third Space.

Some Moroccan women take the journey of modernization, and eventually, start to criticize and be ashamed of their own culture and identity. They observe their society from dual positions: being superior looking down upon their own culture from Western lenses and being in an inferior position vis-à-vis the West.  Returning to Nabila, her mimic of the West is manifested in the use of the French language and her Western clothes. Adil was making fun at his friend Karim asking him to “teach some Arabic” to her; because she uses mostly French, the language of the West. Actually, pretending to look modernized (in certain cases even superior) is the reason why some people prefer to speak French, or at least code mix French and Arabic.

Interestingly, the woman in the store is usually looked at from the outside speaking to her clients. Her voice is not heard. She is the subject of the man’s gaze and surveillance. Karim is attracted to her beauty; he sees her only as a body, as a woman who should submit to him and to his desire. He does not care about the social “hierarchy” between them although his friend, Adil, keeps advising him not to have a relationship with this woman, but he ignores him.

Nevertheless, Nabila seems to represent the bright side of Casablanca. She is an optimistic character. We never hear her saying Casanegra. Unlike Adil who is always screaming Casanegra which he has been using throughout the movie. This could be explained that she is living a happy luxurious life, away from the “dirt” of Casanegra whereas Karim and Adil’s life is full of unhappy events that cause them to see Casablanca through their hard circumstances. Basically, the choice of such linguistic forms reflects their psychological interior anxiety. And it could be seen as a disempowerment for them, a failure to face life so they escape in drugs and drinking alcohol for instance.

Karim at night goes with Adil to a corner in a very high building in the center of Casablanca, Adil screams “Casanegra”. Afterwards, Karim goes with Nabila to the same corner in the very high building, she was climbing even higher, wearing very tight clothes showing freedom, and she screams Casablanca with a very loud voice, trying to make herself heard; or as if she is trying to change the “black” reality of Casablanca. She calls for change, a change that “everyone is afraid of” according to Mernissi; probably because it is a change that seeks to decentre those who are already in the centre.

As stated before, Nabila goes to the night club with her friends. What is worth mentioning is the song she is dancing on with Karim in the night club; an optimistic song by Oum, a Moroccan westernized singer who sings in English. The song is entitled Hamdoulah (Thanks God in Arabic). The refrain goes as follows:   “hamdoulah, for blessing my face, blessing my soul, giving me a piece of mind …When I’m feeling down, when I smile giving me strength, this is my dancing”. The song reflects the mood of the Moroccan woman living freedom.

The woman or chikha working in [Zrirek’s] night club is also portrayed as a, somehow, librated character, yet in a Moroccan traditional way in comparison to the Nabila. Chikha or chikhat (plural) are the kind of women who sing and dance in night clubs, some even smoke and drink alcohol, the case in the movie. But generally they have a bad reputation within the Moroccan society, therefore they are not respected. They are the type of women who are only for temporal fun, extremely objectified.

The language and taboo words the chikha in Casanegra uses as well as her actions (smoking and drinking alcohol) reveal her carelessness of what people think of her as a woman, a Moroccan woman. She has thrown values and social norms aside ignoring the extremely cultural power of hchouma [shame]. This latter seems to be a block of the freedom of Moroccan women. So by rejecting it they are free, at least from their perspective. She is defending chikhat when Adil criticizes them, so she seems proud of herself and profession. She is defined in the movie in relation to her profession.

She is a tough woman and very responsible as Zrirek says that “without her the night club wouldn’t keep going.” This might be motivated by having interest in the club for she will be the wife of the owner, Zrirek.  Thus, is she really liberated? Or enslaved by man?

Ironically, the name of the night club where she works is: au Tout va bien (where everything is okay). It implies that outside is “Casanegra” and inside, the night club, everything is okay. Everyone escapes inside and forgets about the troubles of “Casanegra” by drinking, smoking, dancing and having fun.

In au tout va bien night club, a chikha is singing “kill me kill me, and close the door on me, till al Harizi (the man) comes and opens the door for me” (my translation), this indicates that even some Moroccan popular songs give power to men. They show how women are so dependent on men, and importantly the woman who is singing it, as if she is unconsciously disempowering herself.

Let’s not forget that the chikha remains throughout the movie inside her limited sphere, the night club; we never see her outside. So, is she herself escaping a bitter reality outside? Is she hiding inside the walls of “au tout va bien” and giving the illusion that she is all right?  Would she be careless and not affected by hchouma when having a direct encounter with the society outside?

The actor who presented the chikha character is highly criticized; because women are usually expected to speak a good selective language and to behave in a certain way. The Moroccan audience seems shocked to see such behaviors on the Moroccan Cinema screen. The movie Casanegra is mostly watched individually; it is not a family movie. There is a great use of taboo words. The director explained this unexpected use of “street language” that it is the language of the ‘real’ Morocco, the language that we are confronted with in our daily life. He states that “we watch western movie which are full of worse insults and behaviors, still we like them and we don’t complain.” (In an interview with him in Mubachara ma’akum on 2m). The question that imposes itself here is, knowing that the scenarist and director of the movie is a Moroccan man who has lived in Norway for 20 years: Is the movie Casanegra itself a mimic of the west? In a Moroccan program where he was interviewed about Casanegra, he said that he was “disturbed by the postcards that represent Morocco in a folkloric way;” therefore, he wanted to show the ‘real’ Morocco, from his own perspective. Then, to what extent has he succeeded in representing the ‘real’ Morocco in the film?

In the movie, the mother of Adil is represented as a weak woman, victimized and silenced, we rarely hear her voice. Her first husband died, Adil’s father, and she got married again. Perhaps because she couldn’t resist living alone as a widow in the Moroccan society, so she got married seeking protection of man. This reminds me of a pertinent Moroccan proverb which states that “the shadow of a man is better than the shadow of a wall”, but is not the shadow of a wall better than the shadowing shadow of a man! Some men are in the family just the ‘present-absent’ subjects.

She is leading a miserable life with her second husband who mistreats her and uses her. She is a working woman; he beats her and takes the money she earns in order to buy alcohol. He treats her as a piece of furniture. He is much trivialized as a character; he cares about his little TV more than anything else; he threatens Adil to “cut him into pieces if he touches his TV.”

The woman, on the other hand, is very much victimized; portrayed as helpless. All she can do is cry. Her screaming seems not to be an act of rebellion but an act of defeat; when she couldn’t stand her husband beating her son, Adil. She is generally silent and when the violence causes silence, (one) must be mistaken. So who is to be blame here? The woman who submits to her husband and hopeless before him or the man who resorts to his physical strength to silence and domesticate the woman?

Adil is ready to do anything to defend his mother. While her husband is beating her, Adil defends his mother and hit his step-father with a chair on the head, which causes the fall of the authoritative aggressive man. However, and unexpectedly, the woman is yelling at her son who was trying to help her from the hands of her savage man. Naively, she is reminding her son not to “forget this man is my husband” and asking him to go away. As if it is her husband’s right to beat her, something expected and taken for granted. Probably, this is the reason why his violence is not resisted and fought against.

Adil encourages his mother to resist, and to go to declare all what her husband does to her in the police station. However, she is too vulnerable and frightened to suit her husband, though she admits that “she couldn’t resist (him) more.” Adil suggests that she goes to Taounat (A small town near Fez city) to his grandmother, and he finally could convince her. He provides her with all the money he has earned (or stolen). But she remains hesitative and anxious not to be called a “maskhouta” (Moroccan Arabic which means a naughty woman) in her village; for this is the second husband she escapes from. Actually her first husband died, as if it is her fault and she is the one to blame. She is afraid of the return, returning ‘home’. Her family will not understand her suffering and will only criticize and blame her for leaving her husband behind. Why is it a shame for a woman, but never for the man, to get divorce in the Moroccan society?

She is afraid to escape or get divorce from her husband. It is very likely that the audience would have been complaining or wondering why did she have to stay with him and stand all his dehumanizing? The wife usually sacrifices her life for the sake of her children, but this woman has no children with this husband. Is it because of a financial need of man? But she is the one who provides him with money, not the other way around; or perhaps an emotional attachment? The fear from the society and all their surface judgments could be another reason why she had to endure. When she has left, her husband asks Adil about her, and Adil replied him saying that “he brought shame to men.”

Society and the social norms have always preached that women’s space is limited in the domestic sphere: the house, it goes even further: kitchen. Besides, woman is expected to be dependent on man, simply because it is the man who is the lord of the house and the means of providence of the whole family. So everyone is under his mercy. In [Karim’s family], however, the standardized traditional spaces are somehow reversed, though the woman remains in the house – kitchen throughout the movie. Yet, it is the woman who is the lady of the house; her husband is very sick and the elder son, Karim, is not capable enough to take the family’s responsibility.

According to the Moroccan standards at least, she is an ideal Moroccan woman. She portrays a good image of a mother as well as a wife. Her husband is so sick, almost disable, and she has three children, among them Karim her elder son. She succeeds in doing her ‘duty’ as a woman in raising a good family.

Usually she gives advice to her son Karim and has authority over him in the kitchen where her voice can “be heard more easily (…) because under the patriarchal division of labor this is the space in which she [as a woman] has the greatest authority.” (Blunt, Alison. Writing Women and Space: colonial and postcolonial geographies. P: 2. 1994.) She encourages her son to get the job by el-Hajj [cleaning fish] to help supporting the family.

A woman taking responsibility in the family is not an easy task. Yet it is common in some Moroccan families. We often hear in the Moroccan society statements like: “a woman with no man is worth nothing.” But in Casanegra we see that the woman is almost everything and the other way around “a man with no woman is worth nothing.”

Karim is aware of the importance of educating girls. He brings an English dictionary to his sister because she needs it for school. Although he was made fun of when was seen with a book in his hands, he didn’t care. He did the impossible to bring the book to his sister. Importantly, it is a dictionary; a book which she would use to explain some complicated terms and concepts. Dictionary is the symbol of knowledge and learning, not any regular book. Likewise, he cares for the education of his little brother; he asks him whether he has gone to school that day. Karim is helping his sister and brother to learn and study, the thing that he seems to have been deprived of and missed.

The mother of Karim has a strong personality, unlike the mother of Adil who is completely submissive. She cares for her family. She cares for the reputation of her family. She does not have a narrow vision. She gives advice to her son. She questions the money that her son gives her; she does not accept whatever is given to her though there is a financial need in the family. Karim kissed her head showing respect; she is like a saint. She is rarely seen in the movie, yet she occupies an extremely important role.

She is not simply a passive woman in her kitchen cooking.  She interacts and takes part in her family; she asks about her children and cares about their education, she makes decisions. When she is talking about her son’s friends, Adil, she addresses Karim saying “and you call (Adil) a friend”, this shows that she is not ignorant. She examines the friends of her children. She doesn’t believe the lies of Karim. She has a strong opinion. As a caring mother, she confirms the quote that “while men are concerned with an ‘ethic of justice’, women are more centered on an ‘ethics of care’.” (Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. P. 288)  This is not the traditionally known “male-headed” family where there is “mastery” and “superiority”. But I would rather say a “female-headed” family.

As a conclusion of the second part; both women are unnamed. They are different women. One is submissive to her husband and not able to challenge him. The other is capable to take care of the whole family and take part in decision-making and lead a challenging life.

In the conclusion of my analysis of the Casanegra and the representation of women, I conclude that we cannot generalize and universalize Moroccan women experiences and differences. There are different categories of women: Nabila who is leading a Western life and independent from men, Chikha who ignores the society and its power, the good mother and wife who serves her family, and the woman who is re-married.

The women in the film are somehow empowered, Nabila has the power to control the fate of the man, while chikha intrudes the male space. The mother of Karim is not a passive woman who obeys men, but she controls the family. And the mother of Adil, who might look a victim, the fact that she left her husband behind reveals her power. The prostitute, who is defending the homosexual, is very important as well; she sees it as her duty to help the ‘man’.  Although the movie has no feminist agenda, but it suggests reconsidering and revising the idea of the passive woman, the woman who is imprisoned in her house, or veil and is disempowered by men.


Of course it comes as no surprise that in a huge city such as Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco, there is a majority population living in poverty.  While the film does not take us into bidonvilles where the poverty is greatest, we are exposed to an average poverty where families live in apartments, Adil’s step-father even has a car, Karim has his own room in their apartment, and the families just try to get-by but aren’t out begging or anything drastic.  This is the majority poverty.  The reality of Morocco in the late 1990s when I did research for my book What Moroccan Cinema? A Historical and Critical Study 1956-2006 was that youth unemployment was over 40% while total employment was approximately 30%, and this was pre-recession years!  Perhaps fathers have worked to raise families, but the growing children don’t want those same jobs or can’t even find regular work.  While there are jobs for those less educated (not university), working as a clerk, or in a café as a server, or working in a shop or selling goods on the street, or other less than minimum wage employment, many youth do not see these activities as either remunerative (they aren’t) or worthy of their time (they aren’t) and thus eschew such work if they can.  Such work is hard, time consuming, and as in the case of Karim taking a day’s work cleaning fish in the factory where his father used to work, he would earn just 50 dirhams a day, a pittance.  He can earn more selling cigarettes detail, that means having young kids on the street selling cigarettes one by one instead of whole packs—many people can afford to just buy a single cigarette or two at a time.  There is a whole generation of youth who have gone through the school system but don’t find jobs available, not to mention the plethora of university-educated youth who also don’t find employment and who have held strikes and sit-ins repeatedly over time to demonstrate to the government their displeasure at being the educated unemployed.  Of course most jobs don’t have “worker’s compensation” or “unemployment compensation” or any other social services attached.  This is still a society where many just struggle to get by, except as is shown that there are indeed the wealthy criminal sector and the wealthy “we don’t know how” sector, such as the antique shop owner.  There is a huge discrepancy between the ultra-wealthy and the average poor, and while there is a middle class in Morocco it is not very large in comparison to the middle class in developed countries, as Morocco would still be considered a “developing” country.  Zrirek drives a new Mercedes and owns a nightclub, whereas the antique shop owner can afford to go for a night out with girlfriends to an expensive bar/dance club with other wealthy patrons.  The antique shop owner rejects Karim in the film just because he is not also wealthy, which shows the filmmaker’s perception that there is no “mixing” between the classes except for the criminal wealthy.

And yes, there is crime, a lot of crime, in developing countries, and especially in large cities such as Casablanca and in this particular film.  While the film does not take us particularly into the world of hashish or drugs per se, they are shown to exist—there’s a lot of smoking going on and the gay cross-dresser has cocaine, along with much alcohol drinking, though drinking is only a crime during Ramadan. Adil’s crimes are to steal pocketbooks and bank cards or more overt criminal acts, while Karim is more covert, to have kids sell cigarettes detail on the streets, which the government is trying to also make illegal but it is a practice that has gone on for decades so it is hard to control.  Other criminal acts shown are prostitution on the street, both male gay and female, in one short scene, just to remind us it exists in this film, though in Morocco in general it is a very large problem, at least female prostitution.  Interestingly, these prostitutes are the typical “on the street” type, but in Zrirek’s nightclub, where one would expect to have numerous female prostitutes visible, there were none—which to me destroyed the “reality” of the nightclub scenes.  Youness mentions the bar woman, and there’s a singer as well, who would represent prostitutes in the bar scene, or loose women, but normally there would be numerous women servicing the clientele!  Zrirek seems to be a “money-lender’ among other things, several scenes show him trying to get his money violently from those who “owe” him.  There is gambling, as we would surmise by the necessity to “fix” the horse race.  Very few films tackle sexual differences, and this film does so only obliquely again, by having one of Zrirek’s customers be a cross-dressing gay man, who is of course reviled by Adil and Karim, as well as by showing one gay male street prostitute.  I can’t say these additions really add anything to the film, except to show the diversity of the “underworld” of Casablanca.  So, in addition to being criticized for using vulgar street language, the film was also criticized for showing the seedy underbelly of Casablanca, which of course is what in part made it hugely popular among audiences!

Another area of particular interest in the film is Adil’s dream of emigrating abroad to escape the lack of opportunities in Morocco.  While in Adil’s case he is trying to earn big bucks to pay for fake visas and papers to emigrate, yearly we hear of hundreds of Moroccans who brave the Straits of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Sea in small boats trying to get to the European continent where even menial undocumented labor is seen as more remunerative and worthwhile than staying in Morocco.  Sadly, every year we also learn of many who die in the attempt at the boat crossings.  It is interesting that the filmmaker, Lakhmari, has Adil focus on the fake papers, rather than an undocumented voyage.  It is much more costly, and Karim warns Adil that it is most likely a scam, but Adil is undeterred and willing to do any seedy job offered by Zrirek in hopes of earning the money.  He not only dreams of emigrating, but of marrying a foreign woman, which we see in a drug induced hallucination one night.  One alternate method of escaping Morocco popular among youth both male and female is to marry a foreigner, which such a scene alludes to but does not delve into directly.

In conclusion, as both Youness and I have sought to show, Casanegra does focus on the darker side of life in Casablanca, from lost dreams and hopes, to lost opportunities.  While several of the women’s representations are strong, one shows that perhaps intervention of a man is necessary to help them break from abuse by another man.  Yet, in the darkness of the story, there are hopes, as Adil’s mother does escape, perhaps Karim’s sister and brother will have more opportunities through education, and Adil and Karim are not yet caught by the police, they are in the process of escaping as the film ends.  Perhaps there is hope, perhaps not.  Lakhmari leaves us wondering.

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Some cultural elements in the film Captain Abu Raed by Amin Matalqa

With a number of great synopses out on the internet about Captain Abu Raed, as usual I want to focus less on that and more on some specific cultural elements embedded in the film.  However, since you might not want to stop reading and get to the internet to read a synopsis, here’s a brief one for you.

Abu Raed (meaning, the father of Raed) is an elderly janitor at Amman’s airport, but one day is mistaken by a neighborhood kid, Tareq, from their poor area to be an airline captain—Abu Raed had found a captain’s cap in the trash bin and worn it home.  Tareq rounds up the other neighborhood kids and they pester Captain Abu Raed to tell them about his adventures as a pilot.  After protesting that he wasn’t a pilot at all, Abu Raed succumbs one day and starts to tell them some adventures—really what he’s gleaned from reading books and being in the airport.  Abu Raed becomes solicitous of the boys, especially when he one day discovers Tareq out of school selling biscuits on the street.  He thinks he’s helping Tareq by buying all the biscuits himself, but instead Tareq’s father just gives him more to sell and eventually takes him out of school permanently in order to run a small kiosk.  Over time another neighborhood boy, Murad, who eschews the story sessions, makes it his duty to ensure that the kids know Abu Raed is nothing but a janitor, which he does by stealing money from his abusive father and taking Tareq and others to the airport to see Abu Raed cleaning floors.  The kids turn away from Abu Raed in disappointment.  But Abu Raed does not turn against the kids.  Instead, he actually gives Murad his captain’s hat and says, “It’s ok”.  Instead of regaling the kids with stories and encouraging them to attend school, Abu Raed realizes he has meddled with Tareq’s life and caused more damage than good, but that he can meddle in Murad’s life for something worthwhile at least.  In the last scene, Abu Raed solicits Nour’s help (Nour is a female pilot Abu Raed has grown close to throughout the film) to get Murad and his mother and brother out of the house, so he can confront the abusive father, who we are led to believe attacks Abu Raed with a club behind the closed doors of the home.  The movie ends with Murad as an adult, standing with his captain’s uniform, gazing out at the planes at the Amman airport.

It was interesting to note that while other films, such as The Secret of the Grain recently reviewed here, are lauded and noted for their slow development and lengthy detail in scenes, some similar development in this film are called “slow as molasses” by one internet reviewer ( )—not necessarily as a compliment to the unfolding of the film.  Again, I, as in other analyses, call attention to the differences in story time between certain films from Africa and the Middle East or other non-Western cultures, and those from Western traditions; while the Western films most often elide time, focus mostly upon scenes of action or sensation or plot development, sometimes films from other traditions (including Native American films for instance) emphasize the quotidian, the hum-drum, the action-less moments that indeed fill lives and time.  This film fits into a medium category, as there are indeed instances of ellipses and emphases on plot development, but they coexist with lengthy moments of non-character development but daily ritual of life, for example when over and over again we are shown Abu Raed getting off the bus and trudging up the stairs of the neighborhood into his home, or scenes of him regaling the kids with stories though we aren’t allowed to particularly hear them, or Nour traversing the airport after a flight, etcetera.  These scenes don’t just teach us about Abu Raed or others, they teach us about time passing, about daily repetition in life, about life passing.  And life passing is important, both for Nour who frets about being in her 30s and unmarried, for Abu Raed facing aging and loneliness without wife or son in his old age, for the kids whose future is being shaped day by day by their parents, Abu Raed, and society.

One element that is touching in this film is that Abu Raed is alone except for his mates at the airport, but once he reaches home he has only his deceased wife to keep him company.  He is a lonely old man, one reason that the kids can appeal to him to regale them with stories—they are the child he once had but who died at a tender age, as he reveals one afternoon to Nour.  Abu Raed is not just a widower who loved his wife, which I hate to say but is a rarity in a Middle Eastern film—a man who loves his wife, that is—but a man burdened by losing the son that was a miracle in the first place.  Abu Raed tells Nour that he and his wife were told they could never have children, until they discovered the wife pregnant, and were overjoyed.  The untimely death of the son, then, is a double disaster.  In the Middle East, one’s son carries on the family name, the bloodline.  The son is expected to care for the parents in their old age.  Abu Raed has no one.  No family line, no one to care for him, no one that he can care for himself.  That is, until he meets Nour and the children, who open new opportunities for him to experience life again.  Telling stories to the children replaces telling stories to his own deceased son, participating in rearing the children or encouraging them to seek new options replaces what he might have done to his own child.  The children then become surrogates in a sense.

Abu Raed, wanting to be fatherly, thinks he can help Tareq, who’s taken out of school to sell biscuits, but when he goes to the family to intervene, he’s told by Tareq’s father:  “You came to my house to tell me how to raise my own children?!” and of course Abu Raed’s answer is “No”.  What he can do is buy the biscuits on his meager salary, but that backfires and Tareq eventually has to quit school, a real loss because he is very smart, to run the family kiosk.  There’s no “social services” that can tell the father to keep his son in school if the father wants the son to work, although there are laws about mandatory school attendance; however, all throughout North Africa and the Middle East it is nigh impossible to actually enforce the laws.  Child labor is a major issue, especially labor in fields that are damaging to the health of the children.  Tareq is lucky that he only has to sell, rather than paint cars, collect garbage, work in a factory, or do other tasks to help support his family.

The lack of social services is also evident when Abu Raed wants to help Murad’s family—the father is an abusive alcoholic who beats his sons and wife regularly for any reason often throughout the film.  At one point, after Abu Raed has given Murad the captain’s cap, Murad goes into an airline agency to ask about whether one has to go to college to get a job there.  He’s brushed off by the agent, but leaves having swiped a little toy airplane.  As punishment, his father burns Murad’s hand in order to scar him, as he himself had been scarred as a youth caught stealing by his own father.  Once he discovers the burn, Abu Raed goes to the police to report it, but the police only half-heartedly interrogate the father—even revealing that it was Abu Raed who reported him—so that the abusive father can continue his abuse without check, which he does.  Finding the father drunk on the street one night, Abu Raed goes so far as to lift above his head a huge stone, but can’t bring himself to kill the man.  Needing a solution, Abu Raed turns to Nour for suggestions, and we next see them arriving at Murad’s house packing up the wife and two sons into Nour’s car to take them away.  The fact that there are no solutions, no options for battered women or children, in most of the MENA region, is highlighted.   While many NGOs try to fill the void of government services to help in this regard, many times either women do not know about the services, or are too afraid they will be found and killed by their husband to take advantage of them.  Abu Raed only succeeds in saving this one family because he has a rich friend, Nour, who can take them in and help them.   We saw in Farida Benlyazid’s Door to the Sky that she opened a zawiya for abused women but often there is little option for abused women or children in Murad’s circumstances.  In fact, Abu Raed ostensibly pays with his own life in order for the family to escape, though it is not exactly made clear what he hopes to achieve by sacrificing himself.  That the father should repent?  Instead, he takes to Abu Raed with a club and shouting in rage.  Of course it might not be very cinematic to have the family resort to an NGO, especially as the problem of abuse is pretty rampant.

Another interesting element of the film is Nour’s unwillingness to marry the bozos her father drags forward, yet she worries about being in her mid-30s and unmarried.  She would like to marry, she tells Abu Raed, but in her own time and way.  His response to her is to not cave in to social mores but to be free.  Easily said to a woman who has the wherewithal to be a pilot, a rich woman with a luxurious lifestyle and freedom to travel.  The film does well to show a successful woman in Jordan, but it rather glosses over the real pressures that woman have to marry or be considered spinsters and unmarriagable.  Or the fact that often women have to struggle with their parents over who they can and when they will marry.  Child marriages, arranged marriages, father-decided marriages still occur in which the female has little say in who the groom will be or when the marriage will occur.  This wouldn’t happen to Nour because she is wealthy and her father a pushover, but for someone less wealthy and lucky, what happens if they don’t marry or don’t want to marry who is chosen for them?  What are the real options for women?  Can un-wealthy women in Jordan be pilots and determine their own fate?  In fact, we get the view from Murad that even poor boys such as he have little faith that he could become a pilot because poverty closes many doors.  That he is a pilot at the end of the film—because he’s taken in by Nour ostensibly—would not have happened for him if he’d been left alone by Abu Raed?

Many commentators about the film make much of Abu Raed’s ability to speak a few words of English and French, and that he reads books, which I almost find insulting, as though a Middle Eastern man/woman would not read or speak other languages?  How ethnocentric.  Many people in the Middle East or North Africa speak several languages out of necessity—their local dialect, the Arabic of news and books, and foreign languages—especially if they work in tourism and especially if they have an interest in the world, as Abu Raed does.  And of course Nour would speak English as an upper class and educated woman who travels the globe.  The film does well to reiterate the class differences we find in the Middle East—not all inhabitants are poor nor rich, just as they aren’t terrorists or fundamentalists in their religion.  In fact one area the film totally eschews is religion!  The film could almost be set anywhere as there is no obligatory scene of prayer to indicate that this is a Muslim society.  We know it is Jordan through scenery and dialogue.

The final element I would like to discuss concerns an elided element of the film, at least for foreign viewers, which is the Palestinian refugee issue in Jordan, the setting of the film.  This is especially significant as many reviewers highlight how Matalqa used children, orphans actually, from Palestinian refugee camps, as his actors.  While it is not obligatory to mention the Palestinians, or perhaps there is dialogue in dialect that reveals one or the other character to be Palestinian but we foreign viewers won’t catch that, it is interesting that this large component of the population and the origin of the child actors is elided.  Just wonder why.

All in all, the film Captain Abu Raed is quite endearing, from the lovely acting of the children who speak with their eyes as much as their tongues, to the performance of Abu Raed (Nadim Sawalha) who slowly grows in our hearts as a gentle and caring man (too rare these days in films?), to the unexpected sacrifice at the end of the film to save Murad’s family.  Bravo, Amin Matalqa, and hopefully we’ll see more of Jordan in films in the future, what with the newly opened Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts in Aqaba!

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