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 http://www.lenfantendormi.be/. 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.