By Stephanie Willman Bordat and Saida Kouzzi, with Houda Benmbarek
Morocco World News
New York, June 3, 2012
In The Source (La Source des femmes), women in a marginalized rural village “somewhere between the North of Africa and the Middle East,” go on a sex strike to protest having to search water from a distant source. The arduous trek up the mountain and back carrying heavy pails of water leads to frequent miscarriages, subjecting women to accusations of sterility and threats by their husbands of repudiation or taking another wife.
A comedy/drama, The Source is in the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, with a diverse cast from Algeria, Tunisia, France, Palestine, and Morocco. Women’s rights in the region have become the focus of increasing international interest and analysis following the “Arab Spring” revolutions. This film is a must-see for anyone interested in going beyond stereotypes and understanding contemporary realities of women’s lives in North Africa.
“Sex strikes” by women for development or peace goals have been reported from diverse countries around the world for years. The Source does not however suggest that that sexuality is the only weapon women have over men. The exact translation in the film is “love strike,” and as the marital rape scenes illustrate, even sex men ultimately can obtain by force. The premise is rather that sex is men’s weak point, that the women use a pressure tool to obtain economic (water) and human (love) development, turning refusal ultimately into a challenge to men’s domination over women. Just as the drought in the film refers both to the climate and to men’s hearts, “source” in the film is used to refer to both water and to women as a source of power, of love, of reform, and of human rights.
The Source successfully weaves together a host of hot issues that contemporary North African society in transition is grappling with – economic development, women’s rights, unemployment, girl’s education, the impact of foreign television, conflicts between generations, the growing popularity of religious extremism, and States’ failure to provide basic public services. It depicts the tensions and negotiations around the competing imperatives of tradition and modernity. The women’s campaign to bring water to their village illustrates advocacy strategies for change. And finally, it tackles evolving male–female relationships and the struggle to redefine them based on love and equality.
The film not only accurately captures these substantive issues, but establishes an emotional tone reflective of current North African society. Going immediately from one extreme to another, hilarious to tragic from one scene to the next, the film takes the viewer experientially through the diverse emotional reactions of daily life for women in North Africa. As the proverb goes, “I am so unhappy that I laugh.”
Growing Religious Extremism
The Source juxtaposes two types of religion. On the one hand, extremists who issue orders and threats to women to wear the veil. When the women in the village refuse sexual relations with their husbands, the extremists offer to bring in second wives for all of the men – in other words, their only solution is to go back in time. This is contrasted with a flexible version of religion based on tolerance, individual spirituality and guidance.
Women play a leading role in confronting the extremists who embark in the village. Vieux Fusil (“Old Rifle”) puts her extremist son in his place, exposing the self-serving political motives behind his purported religiosity. In a pivotal scene in the village mosque, Leila, the protagonist, makes an impassioned argument to the local Imam on how religion is meant to protect women’s rights. As the only literate woman in the village, she demonstrates how once women learn to read, they can appropriate religion to claim their rights, make concrete demands for change, and protect their faith from political manipulation.
Tradition and Modernity
Throughout the film, tradition and modernity are juxtaposed in realistic and humorous ways. Leila hangs her mobile phone on a specific spot on the laundry line outdoors in order to capture the network signal; Vieux Fusil simultaneously talk on her mobile phone while shouting at the donkey she is riding.
Vieux Fusil illustrates the now disappearing key role that older women traditionally played in rural contexts, as a source of wisdom and trusted advisor for other women, and feared and respected by men. An older, traditional delivery man, going village to village on his donkey bringing mail, messages, and selling wares, represents a disappearing human role in communication, information transmission, and connecting remote communities to each other.
Questions of identity are also raised. Comically realistic scenes depict the impact of steamy Mexican soap operas on young women’s vision of love and romance in defiance of their realities; in many ways they are more familiar with the Spanish language and Mexican culture than with their own. This is contrasted in the film to with readings of A Thousand and One Nights as an authentic Arabic language source of culture and sensuality.
Advocacy for Change
The depiction of the battle to bring water to the village reflects the elements of an advocacy campaign, from allies to strategies to challenges. The movement is truly launched when Vieux Fusil transforms a scene where women are doing laundry in the river into a mobilization meeting in favor of the strike, challenging the women to decide if they are human beings or “chickens.” Once the women decide to fight for their rights, they are faced with nasty gossip, family pressure, threats of divorce, and retaliation against other family members.
Among their direct local advocacy tactics, women confront men by invading their sacred space, namely the village café traditionally reserved for men. In one scene the women hold a sit-in in front of the café with a banner woven from branches, and in another Leila paints a protest slogan on the café wall.
Expanding beyond their own village, the women publically – and comically – denounce men’s lack of initiative to address their village’s underdevelopment and marginalization. They change the traditional lyrics to folklore songs and dances to protest lyrics when performing for European tourists visiting their village and at a moussem in a nearby town.
Success comes when an article is written about the strike in a national newspaper, shaming authorities into acting quickly to build a well in the village. This illustrates the critical role the press can and should play in social change. However, the film doesn’t do so without first taking a critical stance towards the media, through the character of the journalist with outdated jeans, thick rimmed glasses and big hair, who comes to the village to study “the littlest insects” – in other words to write articles on small, petty topics rather than on important issues impacting on people.
Through Leila’s schoolteacher husband, the film also shows how men can play a key role in the struggle for women’s rights, through both support of the cause and through self transformation. On the other hand, women’s collective mobilization is challenged by their animosity to each other, an animosity not rooted in cultural or religious beliefs, but in individual suffering. Leila’s mother-in-law will not allow Leila to be happy because of her own personal disappointments, needing other women to suffer too in order to validate her own painful experiences. In contrast to her mother-in-law’s attitude, Leila herself goes to great lengths and schemes to make her own younger sister in law happy in love.
Of course, nothing generates support (or the desire for credit) like success. Once the authorities install the well in the village, a local representative declares publically that of course the men in the village supported the women in their campaign all along.
Refining Male – Female Relationships
The overarching theme woven throughout the film is the redefinition of gender relations. The choice presented is between two types of relationships between men and women – one based on force and cruelty, the other on equality and love. The subtext being that the first will maintain poverty and marginalization, while the second will lead to economic development and happiness.
As part of this transformation, the men must choose between jealousy and violence, or thoughtfulness and comprehension, dramatized by Leila’s husband’s internal struggle when faced with this decision.
The film ends in a fabulously sensual scene – that should not be construed as women giving sex back to their husbands. Rather, both parties are fulfilled not just sexually but in their lives, on an equal basis. This is likely why in this scene Leila and her husband – rather than horizontal lying down with one on top of the other – are shown standing up, facing each other, vertically.
 The Source (La Source des femmes) opened in the U.K. on May 18th and in the Netherlands on June 14th. A Belgian-Italian-Moroccan-French production directed by the French-Romanian Radu Mihaileanu, it was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and first released in France last November. It was filmed south of Marrakech in the Moroccan High Atlas mountains.