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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The Secret of the Grain (Le Grain et le Mulet)

The Secret of the Grain, English film release title, which also was released variously as Le Grain et le Mulet and Couscous, is Ahmed Kechiche’s third feature film, which has been reviewed variously by Roger Ebert ( ) and A.O. Scott ( ), among others, very thoroughly online.  My point in this essay is to address some of the issues given short shrift in the reviews, or ignored in totality—issues related to culture.

Basically, the film tells the story of Slimane Beiji, who has worked for 35 years, on and off the books, in the shipyards repairing ships and boats, but in his old age has either become redundant, slow, or as his son-in-law complains, not immigrant enough—i.e. not cheap enough labor any longer now that they are in essence “French” rather than true immigrants.  However, throughout the film we never are allowed to forget that Slimane and his family are immigrants, and are treated as such by general social elements.  Forced into retirement against his will, Slimane is suddenly struck by the idea of renovating a tattered old ship he’s demolishing into a couscous restaurant selling the fabulous fish couscous his ex-wife is famed for, and for which Tunisia is known.  The first part of the film introduces us to Slimane’s character traits, and his extended family, which is very significant for the second part of the film, which renders efforts to get the restaurant renovated, permitted, docked, and operational—all of which require the help of this extended family.  Blocked at every turn, Slimane decides to host a huge party aboard the ship, the third part of the film, renovated without the requested bank loan, using his own severance pay, in order to show all the bigwigs of the town that he is indeed capable—with the help of said family and friends—of producing and running the restaurant and thus does deserve their theretofore withheld licenses, permits, and help.  Of course the party starts off well, but soon introduces some last minute conflicts when the famed dish can’t be served because the main ingredient, the couscous (the grain), is missing because one son has escaped the party—to avoid detection by one of his mistresses—by driving off in the family car containing the pot of couscous.  While everyone else in the family stands around wringing their hands, arguing with each other, and plying the guests with drink because they can’t think of any other option, Slimane takes off on his motorbike to find the missing couscous and son.  While he’s gone, several important events happen.  His motorbike is stolen while he is in his son’s house listening to his daughter-in-law rant about what a miserable philandering husband the son is, which everyone knows and condones; Slimane then spends a lengthy time running pitifully after some juveniles joy-riding on his bike and taunting him to “come on, catch us, old man”.   While he is gone and the guests are getting angry at the party, Rym, the daughter of Slimane’s “mistress” and like Slimane’s own daughter, suddenly appears and dazzles everyone with a lengthy belly-dance, while her mother secretly goes home and prepares a huge pot of couscous to replace the missing grain so that the guests can eat and the party be saved.  However, we are left in limbo as to what the outcome of the party, the restaurant plan, or even the various families might be when Slimane can run after the boys on the bike no more, grasps his chest, and slumps prostrate onto the street.

As is my trend, I’m interested in looking at the cultural elements, not necessarily the film aesthetics, except where those aesthetics might have to do with culture.  In the instance of this film, I do believe that Kechiche’s manner of langorously filming events, letting them unfold in real time over a lengthy time, is a cultural manifestation of African and North African films when they are not overly influenced by western traditions of time ellipsing cuts and eliminating the quotidian in favor of the “active” character elements.  Kechiche variously lingers in several scenes, one in which we are active participants with numerous family and guests around a lunch table eating the ex-wife’s famous fish couscous (the mulet of the title=mullet).  The camera is close in on everyone’s face, as the room is small with numerous people seated around a table, and the scene is quite long and nothing hugely important happens—we listen to people talk about dieting, the delicious couscous, whether a husband has learned any Arabic from his wife or taught the children, general table discussion and joking and laughing.  This scene goes on for ages it seems, but we do come to know a bit about the people who are going to appear later in the film, even if they are in ancillary roles, they are important to Slimane and thus important to the film.  Further, lunch time with couscous and friends, especially on a Friday, is important to linger over, a time to collaborate and collect and be with others, not a meal to rush through either in real life or in screen time.  Such loving detailed renditions of moments that may seem mundane real life populate the film.  Another instance of this occurs when Rym belly dances for the boat guests—the scene goes on for several dances, cutting from lengthy shots on Rym’s gyrating belly to the guests in thrall and becoming excited by the spectacle.  Partly the dance extends for such a long while to emphasize the wait that the guests undergo, and partly the filmmaker attests to Rym’s desire to do whatever it takes to make Slimane’s project successful—which we see throughout the film, and partly the filmmaker thrusts into our faces something which is truly spectacle that the voyeur wants to see but is rarely given such length of time to ingest—the near nude writhing body of a lithesome young woman.  While this may be a personal trait of the filmmaker, I also believe it is a trait of African and Middle Eastern filmmaking in general, as said above, in which life’s quotidian nature is worthy of screen time, as it is not in the west, or if it is, it is seen as a somewhat special type of film, such as “My Dinner with Andre”, etc.

Addressing cultural elements otherwise, it is important to delve into the various ways in which the immigrant status is treated in the film.  First, we are exposed to Slimane’s disagreement with his severance package due to having had to work “off the books” for quite a number of years, so that his severance pay is quite lower than anticipated and the French employer unwilling to take Slimane’s—or any other immigrant’s—situation into account, since he wants to make money off the immigrant’s dilemma.  In fact, as mentioned above, Slimane’s son-in-law even rancors that the shipyards want to get rid of “the French” (which now includes former immigrants) to hire cheaper new immigrants.  At the bank to take out a loan for the restaurant renovation and at various public offices seeking permits, Slimane’s immigrant status is constantly an issue even when obliquely.  These become even clearer during the dinner conversation at the party Slimane hosts—his invitees all gossip that he won’t get his loan, that he wants a docking location for the boat in a sought after location but won’t be allowed to have it if other non-immigrant boats apply, and in general the public officials on one hand are willing to partake of the party and free liquor and food but are simultaneously unwilling to be lenient towards Slimane after all.  In fact, Kechiche paints a rather dismal picture of the attitude that “real” French have towards “immigrant” French.  They appreciate the couscous and belly dancing, and ogle Rym as she undulates on stage to quell their irritation at being kept waiting for dinner.  While they have little time for her when she’s dressed up in a suit applying for a loan and permits, they are bewitched by her dance in true orientalist fashion.

Another cultural element that is fascinating is when the musicians from L’Hotel Orient (The Oriental Hotel) sit around gossiping about Slimane, his ex-wife, his girlfriend (the owner of the hotel where they, the musicians and Slimane, all live), his project, and other subjects, Kechiche once again follows the gossip in minute detail even though it is not that informative as to the narrative flow of the story.  However, once again we are introduced to these characters who come to his rescue—support him by playing all night at the boat party for a free meal of couscous, and support him morally for “going for it”, pursuing a dream rather than just retiring and being “kept” by his girlfriend.  Men in the Middle East and North Africa do tend to hang out, drinking coffee and tea and smoking, and gossiping endlessly; this apparently does not change when they change location to France.  While the women may gossip and have the domain of the home and the kitchen, or even the domicile of the hotel, the men still remain highly evident in the public domain of the café, the outside world.

Though Slimane is estranged from his ex-wife to a certain extent, and is behind on his alimony payments due to a slow-down of work at the docks, she is still willing to support him by making couscous for 100 guests at the party, she still receives fresh fish from him often, she still makes a plate of Friday couscous for him to eat in his hotel room.  There are close family ties even through the divorce, as Slimane’s sons visit him in his hotel room, help him renovate the boat, help at the dinner, and even counsel him on what to do now that he’s retired.  In fact, it is their counsel, when Slimane shares his couscous lunch with Rym one Friday, that leads eventually to the idea to do a restaurant.  The two boys suggest Slimane even move back to Tunisia, where the wife would let him have their house—although he’s been in France for over 35 years at least—which prompts Rym to harangue at Slimane that the boys have nothing of his own best interest at heart, they don’t respect him anymore, and that they expect him to just fade away.  We simultaneously learn of Rym’s closeness to Slimane, that she is like a daughter to him, that she loves him too, and that she still has strong respect for him and disrespect for his sons.  In Middle Eastern and North African culture, a man should have the respect of his sons.

The last element I’d like to talk about is the various familial relationships.  It is not unusual that Middle East and North African families face divorce or, rarely, multiple wives.  In this film we face several interesting familial components dealing with wives.  Slimane’s relationship with all his children is strong, though we see that his retirement is weakening temporarily the respect that his son’s have for him—regained once he launches the boat project.  But we also see one son a philanderer who receives phone calls from his girlfriends at his mother’s and sister’s house—they are accused of being complicit in his cheating on his wife with young baby.  In fact, the sister cajoles the angry wife to calm down, come to lunch, forget the son’s late arrival home—she tries to protect the brother to his wife while then she confronts him in the hallway that his behavior is known to all and is disgusting.  Yet son’s—especially elder sons—being coddled and spoiled, no one is really going to confront the son about his behavior.  Finally, when Slimane is searching for the missing son and couscous on the night of the party, the hysterical wife lambasts him at length for his complicity in his son’s playboy activities.  Slimane can do nothing but leave the house because it is true.  Then we have the case that Slimane lives in the hotel his girlfriend owns.  What is unusual in Slimane’s case is that he does not marry his girlfriend, for reasons never quite made clear, though he has obviously committed years to the relationship and considers Rym (her daughter) like his own daughter, and she considers him a father.  Conflict arises in the movie because the girlfriend feels shamed that Slimane would turn to his ex-wife to make the fish couscous for the restaurant, though as the gossiping old men mentioned above make well known, the girlfriend’s couscous is inedible!  Still, she feels betrayed and this breaks down their relationship, and requires quite a bit of convincing from Rym before she will deign to attend the big party on the boat.  Yet in the end, it is she who quietly leaves the boat to go home and make a huge pot of grain to replace the missing grain, to “save the day” so to speak, and in essence “save the face” of not only Slimane but his whole extended family.  Further, while Slimane’s ex-wife, daughters, and friends all rally to pull off the couscous making, party handling, music making, etc., it is Rym who in essence sacrifices her status as outsider, guest, to perform the sensual and erotic belly dance to assuage the restless and angry guests.  Though she had been an integral component of getting the boat ready, from concept to completion, she felt rendered marginal at the party because she was not “family”, yet her dancing puts her squarely in that realm at the opportune moment, as does the couscous making by the girlfriend.  They can’t be marginalized any longer, but the film does not let us know anything about a rapprochement between families, an outcome to the party, an outcome for Slimane, because it just ends with Slimane slumped on the distant sidewalk while the girlfriend maneuvers the huge pot of couscous up the ship’s steps.  We know the party is saved, but what else?

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Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards

In addition to David Lipfert’s 2002 wonderful December 6th analysis of Blackboards at, I call attention to an interview with the filmmaker  at  Also see the website for a lot of information:

In this analysis, I will first present some of my own ideas about the film Blackboards, then follow with information gleaned from researching the film on the internet, which is quite interesting.

While a lot has been written about Blackboards by film reviewers (see a couple referenced above), a few surprising elements of culture have really received light shrift and I’d rather write about those elements than reiterate the main points of the film.  Most attention focuses upon the teachers carrying the blackboards, which of course is the main thrust of the film.  However, the arcs of the story–which the teachers encounter/interact with–are the real interest factors of the film.

In general, however, the film concerns young Kurdish men who traverse the Kurdish countryside with huge blackboards on their backs looking for villages and pupils who will host them for a meager pittance or even just food.  One even laments that he should have listened to his father who told him to become a shepherd rather than a school teacher!  Two teachers soon become the focus of the film.  One, Reboir, heads up the mountain where he encounters a group of boys, mules; the other, Said, heads down to the villages, where he encounters a group of about 100 men, a woman and her boy, wandering lost in the countryside.  The countryside is rock, rugged, arid, desolate, dusty, uninviting, isolating—characteristics we soon believe can be attributable to the people encountered as well.  They have no time for the teachers.  Villagers slam their windows and doors.  The boys tell the teacher to get lost.  The wanderers just ignore Said’s constant pleas for something to eat or drink.  Everyone is dusty, tired, worn out.

Most commentators mention the mules, young boys carrying heavy loads of contraband goods across the Iraq/Iran border, without calling attention to why these boys eschew education for this activity instead.  In one scene, the teacher Reboir tells the boys they can learn to read and write, and thus read stories and newspapers and learn what is going on in the world.  But the boys do know what is going on that has an influence on them—war and strife that leaves them with no remunerative activity but to be mules and endanger their lives on a daily basis to make money for shopkeepers and dealers elsewhere, while the border patrols seem insensitive to killing off children smugglers.  Further, one boy says he already knows stories—and proceeds to recount a story of his own, hunting a rabbit and ensuing strife with a neighbor, a story that actually has relevance for the lives of these kids and their lives of deprivation and struggle, but the teacher says he means “other” stories, as if those other irrelevant stories would be attractive to the pupils.  As the film meanders with another teacher (Said) through rough-hewn villages, stony and primitive, we can understand that these boys don’t have a lot of options in their daily village/regional lives.  First, they live in a contentious zone—a border zone, a Kurdish area to boot, a zone that seems to have little but sheep and goats and stones.  There is no school and there is no real opportunity to utilize an education received.  Even when the teacher Reboir tells the boys he can teach them math to do sums so they won’t be cheated by the bosses for whom they smuggle—the boys just look at him.  Is there an alternative to being cheated?  Not really.  Unless they leave their area, which raises a whole other issue of being Kurdish in Iran in general, which the film doesn’t particularly address, only elliptically.  Kurdish repression in Iran (and Iraq or Turkey for that matter) is a whole topic that I can’t particularly address fully, but to say that ethnic and religious and political identity has been repressed, human rights violated, activists arrested and killed, and areas deprived of development due to ethnicity, etc.

Other commentators emphasize the group of men and one woman with her son who encounter the teacher Said, who comes to be known as “Blackboard”.  He has traversed village after village and is desperate, for something to eat, something to drink, for a pupil, anything!  What he finds are trudging old and middle aged men who seem aimless, until they reveal they have become lost and are looking to return to Iraq to their village they had fled from because it had been gassed by the Iraqis during the Iran/Iraq war  (you can learn more about this at   Blackboard says he can lead them, but for what in exchange?  After declaring they have nothing, nothing—not even a scrap of bread–finally they relent and agree on a bag of walnuts.

But Blackboard also learns that one of the old men is dying because he can’t urinate, and can’t die in peace unless he can marry off his (widowed?) daughter to someone.  Blackboard volunteers, though we don’t really know why.  Perhaps, after all, she is homeless and so is he.  What else is he looking for?  That remains unsaid!  They are married after the ma’allem gets Said to put up his blackboard as dowry, to confirm that he will take care of the woman and not leave her hungry, and then after pestering Halaleh who is distracted taking care of her son, she finally agrees to the match.  Voila, it is done, they are married.  Why does she accept?  We don’t know because the woman is left an enigma.  Is it because she is unsure whether her father will die?  But why not marry within her tribe?  Why marry a complete stranger who has only a blackboard—or is it that the blackboard is enough?  It is uncertain whether for sure the marriage is even consummated, but we do see Said create a makeshift blockade with the blackboard for privacy for himself and his new wife, but mostly we see him “educating” her on how to write “I love you” which she refuses to pronounce, and for which he wants to give her a low grade, like she’s one of his students.  During their trek, there is little to no communication between the two, except for Said constantly “educating” her and her unwillingness to respond except to cower under the blackboard when they approach a border and are shot at by guards.  In the escape, her baby son leaves the group and goes running off in search of a rabbit he’s seen on the hillside, she follows, and Said too complains that she’s left him.  Finally she speaks!  In essence, the subtitle reads, “My heart is a train that passes many stations, but stops at only one–my son!”  It is no surprise, then, that when the group finally reaches the village area, Said wants to stay in Irani Kurdistan while Halaleh wants to go back to Iraqi Kurdistan to her village, so they are summarily divorced, Said loses his blackboard, and drifts off into the mists.

So, what does this tell us about the situation of women in this region?  Country?  Having seen numerous Iranian films where women are shown deprived of their rights, this film at least gives Halaleh two very unusual rights—to decide if she wants to marry Said, then to decide if she wants to stay with him or not.  Usually marriages are arranged by the parent and divorce decided by the man.  However, that she is rendered so speechless throughout the film might be due to how little agency Iranian women in general are thought to have—though that is certainly changing—or might be due to the trauma of being from a village totally decimated by gas/chemical warfare by its own government—or perhaps both!  It is left to the viewer to understand or decide.

To be sure, this is an outsider’s view.  The teachers are outsiders looking to find a place to fit in—searching to be accepted by the mules, the villages, or the random wife.  Even the filmmaker admits she doesn’t speak/understand Kurdish and relied on translators for making the film—but that doesn’t diminish the other side of outsidedness.  Kurds in general are considered outsiders, some wanting to form their own country—others satisfied with the identities of the countries they live in, but still somewhat treated as outsiders.  Both the boys (Iranians) and the wanderers (Iraqis) are considered outsiders by the border guards who fire upon them.  Even the border guards are outsiders because we don’t even know which side they are protecting—are they Irani or Iraqi?  Finally, we are the outsiders looking into the film to learn something new about humanity.

Blackboards is Samira Makhmalbaf’s second film, co-written with her father, the famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Official Competition section of the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.

According to an interview downloaded from:

Halabcheh is a city in Iraq, situated close to the Iranian border. The Iraqi government used chemical bombardment to repress the Iraqi Kurds.  The movie “The Blackboard” was shot near Halabcheh, on the Iran-Iraq border. The landmines planted in that area during war have never been removed and one of our problems during production was to know where we can walk and where there are no landmines. We regularly received information from the local villagers on the safe lands to walk on.

○ Is this movie also the story of the different generations of Iranians?

Yes, We see three generations in this movie. One is the young generation which is fertile and productive, but the older generations have done little for them and they have to do dangerous things every day to make ends meet. They like to learn, but that is not one of their choices. The second generation is the middle one: the teachers. They try to teach and benefit the two other generation from their knowledge and experience, but do not succeed. The third generation is the one with no patience to hear what the second generation has to say. It is too late for them to change. They walk their own path. Bitter recollections hurt their common memory and they walk their own path. The older generation is more patriotic than the two younger ones. They have reached the end of their lives, and just like a flock of fish in the Pacific Ocean heading to their birthplace when they reach the end of their lives, these old men leave Iran and go to Iraq to die where they were born.

○ The old Iraqi men leave Iran and go to Iraq, to die where they were born. When did they come to Iran?

They took refuge in Iran during the eight-year-old Iran-Iraq war, to escape the chemical bombardments.

○ Where do the teenagers come from, and where do they go?

Every morning, they cross the Iranian border and illegally enter Iraq, and smuggle something back in to Iran on the same day. To earn in of to make it through the day, they play with their lives everyday.

Apart from the woman who is a talented young actress doing both movies and plays, and the young teacher who is one of the directors of the new generation of Iranian cinema, the rest are ordinary villagers from the area.

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In Custody

Released in 1993/94 by Merchant/Ivory Production team, this film shot on location in India (Mirpur and Bhopal) by Merchant, features Shashi Kapoor and Om Puri as the main protagonists who struggle with dreams and passions for poetry in a modernizing world more focused on money, gadgets and indulgences.  Deven (Om Puri) teaches Hindi at a college though his heart lies in writing Urdu poetry no one will publish and, he thinks, no one will read in the era in which formal Urdu is losing its significance in India—an old historic language giving way to a modern Hindi/Urdu mix.  Urdu poetry has a long tradition that Deven wishes he could be a part of, but that tradition is dying.

However, an old classmate tracks Deven down to help with preparing a struggling Urdu journal issue on poetry, at which point Deven insists on including poems by the famous and still living poet Nur Shahjehanebadi (Shashi Kapoor).  The publisher convinces Deven to instead do an interview—on his meager salary he makes the journey to Bhopal to find Nur an irascible elephantine man who would rather put off the interview to instead play host to a gaggle of men who flatter the poet, spout his poetry, and stuff themselves silly with his food and drink until even the poet, at one point, collapses in his own vomit.  Deven is silent, even angry, at what he witnesses—not only the degradation of an idol, but the dashing of a fabulous dream of interviewing and “saving” that idol from obscurity.  Nur, though depressed by his encroaching obscurity, cannot break out of his routine to allow himself to be saved.  Deven, however, does not give up but rather jumps at the chance when Nur soon writes him to come back–Nur says he can no longer write, but can only recite and invites Deven to come record his poetry.

During this return journey, Deven comes to face new hurdles, not just the poet’s lack of interest, but the poet’s second-wife’s desire to be seen as powerful and creative as the husband, the poet’s first-wife’s desire to profit from the husband’s fame financially, the need to get funding to do the recording—which is so meager that he is reduced to an old reel-to-reel recorder he doesn’t know how to use so is stuck with an inept “recordist” to pay, the sudden need to pay for the poet to record in a room outside of his house (in a brothel) to escape the second wife’s interference, and the sudden need to feed and ply with drink the poet’s followers.  Deven has always had to be a simple man, forced to teach Hindi to support his wife and child in somewhat poor conditions, and is overwhelmed by all these unforeseen extravagant expenses just to get a recording out of the poet.  But he perseveres because of his love of the language and of the poetry, seemingly in spite of the true nature of the source of that poetry.  Deven holds onto his dream of sustaining Urdu poetry and his admired poet in spite of all technological or modernizing setbacks, all illuminations that his dream is a crumbling façade of a man, all greed and grasping to profit from what Deven holds up as irreproachable high art.

The simple interview instead turns into quite a production and comedy of errors pitting tradition against modernity when Deven is forced to tape record the poet but finds the microphone unplugged, the tape recorder turned off, or the tape all unwound and entangled by the incompetent but modern “technical” school graduate foisted upon him to help wrangle the new technology that Deven finds incomprehensible.  But the interview is not the only instance of tradition competing with modernity—the poet’s wife demands to be taken seriously as a female poetess in the contemporary era, but is refused because she is too similar to her husband’s poetry and, still, she is a woman; one of the college administrators has inherited a huge palace, which he yearns to unload, and finally does, to someone who will tear it down to put up apartment blocks and free him of the burden of maintaining tradition; in tradition a poet would have followers who would support him and his artistry, while in modernity Nur is surrounded by followers who recite his poetry and hang-on in order to be fed sumptuously and plied with drink by the poet who fears being lost in obscurity.  Deven is our window into these conflicts of tradition and modernity—in fact his desire to record the poet exacerbates many of them.

The interview a disaster, partially due to the uncooperativeness of the poet or his followers, partly due to technical hazards, Deven ends up with an unusable recording and a somewhat crushed spirit.  His hero has let him down.  Urdu poetry has let him down.  He doesn’t have a fabulous recording, nor does he have a wonderful interview of a hallowed poet.  He has only shattered dreams of other shattered lives.  However, at the end of Nur’s life, when even Deven has given up hope of successfully being able to communicate with the illustrious poet, Nur sends Deven a volume of his last poems to keep “in custody”.  The film ends with Deven during the poet’s elaborate funeral carrying a bound volume of the loose poems Nur sent him.

What are the other cultural elements we see in this film?  Deven is constantly berated by his superior at the college—where he earns very little money and obviously gets little respect from the administration and even students.  This is not a satisfying job so that Deven must even more so turn towards self-fulfillment in poetry and in the opportunity to interact with an idol—thus even further defeating when that idol turns out to be an imperfect man with wife troubles and self-esteem issues.

Nur is facing a challenge in that at one time he was reknowned for his poetry, ghazals that his second wife steals and sings as her own, but that poetry is losing its appeal in the face of televisions, boom boxes and new technologies with the modern era.  Only the hangers-on who want to get some advantage from him still pay him homage—thus when Deven comes wanting an interview Nur just can’t break his somewhat isolating mannerisms—he ignores Deven, calls for food and drink for his “friends”, drinks himself into oblivion, ignores Deven with the microphone ready to record poetry and instead calls for drink and food or recites Keats, etc.  He does everything to render himself isolated, yet regrets his isolation in the modern world.  In fact, aside from a shopkeeper’s stock of new technologies and talk of the modern technological marvels such as video cameras, and a few buses, we see little of the modern era in the film at all.  We are almost as stuck in the past as Nur and his entourage are.

The world of women is given interesting shrift in this film—we see just Deven’s wife, Nur’s two wives and mother-in-law, and a few drifting brothel women; even Nur’s second wife is said to have come from a brothel or have been a dancer, thus a “loose” woman to be suspect.  Yet two women, Deven’s wife and Nur’s second wife, have some power, though very little, as the mothers of sons—thus highlighting again the dominating world of men and the subservient world of women according to Merchant’s film—which may not tell the whole story of India in the 1990’s!  We see the more traditional version of male-female relations, dominating husband and subservient wife, though Nur’s second wife does her best to break this pattern, as she struggles to be taken seriously as a poetess in her own right.  But she will always be overshadowed as a poetess by her husband’s own fame and style.  Her only avenue is to sing ghazals and be showered with money as a sensualized performer.

In conclusion, Merchant/Ivory present us a very sensualized film overall, from the mise-en-scene to the touching struggles of men and women trying to assert themselves in a world perhaps they cannot dominate, to the lovely ghazals and recited poetry, to the lovingly crafted human characters.

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