Analysis of Ahmed Boulane’s The Satanic Angels/Les Anges de Satan

http://lesangesdesatan.blogspot.com 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 imdb.com 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.   (http://www.telquel-online.com/264/arts3_264.shtml)  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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About sandrellita

I'm a film studies professor, fiber artist, potter and jeweler but my first love is cinema, thus this blog on cinema and culture.
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3 Responses to Analysis of Ahmed Boulane’s The Satanic Angels/Les Anges de Satan

  1. Bryan Bardine says:

    Sandrellita,
    Thanks for the review. I just came across this movie today and I’d like to incorporate it into my first-year writing course at the University of Dayton–Heavy Metal Music: It’s History and Culture. I’ve been reading the book Heavy Metal Islam by Mark Levine and the film is mentioned. I think it would be a great addition to my course. I tried to find a copy on amazon and netflix but neither carries it. I was wondering where you got your copy–could you let me know, as I’d like to view the movie to make sure it would fit with my class. Thanks,

    Bryan Bardine
    Associate Professor of English
    University of Dayton

    • sandrellita says:

      I sent you an email to the email address WordPress had. But I’ll reply here too to make sure you get something. I got the film from the internet, either at DuMaroc.org or YouTube I don’t remember–most Moroccan films are just not available anywhere else or with English subtitles. Try contacting the Centre Cinematographique Marocaine in Morocco to see if they can get you a copy for the course–but it might not have English subtitles either. I tried cc’ing Ahmed Boulane on your email but it was rejected so I can’t offer you a way to contact him either. Sorry sorry sorry! Good luck! Sandra

  2. ayour says:

    thank you hor these fruitful information

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