Home Op-Eds The Uncomfortable Complexity of Nabil Ayouch Films

The Uncomfortable Complexity of Nabil Ayouch Films

The Uncomfortable Complexity of Nabil Ayouch Films
Moroccan-French film director Nabil Ayouch. Photo Credit: AFP

Rabat – French-Moroccan film director Nabil Ayouch was born in Paris to a Muslim Moroccan father and a Jewish Tunisian mother. His lineage informs his work as a film director, complex layers of personal, cultural, social, and religious narratives that make his films innovative and engaging.

Prior to the release of Horses of God in 2012, Ayouch had directed a handful of small- and medium-sized films and produced dozens of others. But Horses represented his arrival as a master storyteller. He followed up Horses with two more major films, Much Loved (2015) and Razzia (2017). The three films each capture so much about Morocco’s social complexity.

I watched Horses of God and Much Loved on DVD. Many films can lose emotional impact when viewed on the small screen (laptops or TV). But both held my attention. Razzia is a rich full cinematic story, set mostly in Casablanca, that deserves viewing on the big screen.

As a non-Moroccan who enjoys the cultural minutiae of this complex nation, some key aspects of his films have stayed with me. For me, the films help create relevant social narratives that inform where Morocco is in 2018 based on where Ayouch’s characters have been in his respective movies.

2012 – Horses of God

The polished drama about alienation among a group of young men from the slums of Casablanca is based on the novel, The Stars of Sidi Moumen. The film won several awards, and was Morocco’s submission for the Academy Awards in 2013. Horses is great movie. It gives the viewer an intimate look at a depressing day-to-day existence that helps foster spiritual decay, emotional alienation and intolerance. Alienation is a prominent theme of the film, alienation from home, family and the larger society.

Ayouch didn’t create a lecture piece on religious extremism. He created a great film that chronicles the destructive effects of stress on young men who see no future for themselves. A favorite scene of mine takes place when the main characters, having found a new sense of purpose and discipline from a small secretive group of devout men from the same neighborhood, travel to the countryside to escape the gloom and claustrophobia of the city. They relax in the fresh air and natural beauty of the countryside. For a few hours, they are free from the physical and emotional claustrophobia that would later doom them all.

2015 – Much Loved (original title: Zin Li Fik)

The gritty story chronicles the prostitution scene in Marrakesh through the stories of four female sex workers. While the film did address an important issue in Morocco (sex workers), it stumbled as a narrative story designed for the cinematic experience. The issues related to prostitution work overlap with many other public concerns, from health and disease prevention to gender equality. Much Loved only barely shed light on these issues.

The women had, by the very nature of their clandestine work, become both heartbroken and hardened to the realities of their lives. If Ayouch had wanted to make a serious documentary on the sex industry, then his plot points for Much Loved would have provided a good roadmap. The movie chronicles all the emotional emptiness of temporary gratification but Ayouch didn’t give us an ending to humanize a harsh and emotionless industry. It focused on both the superficial glamour of the parties and the emotional emptiness that no doubt follow for the main characters. The film didn’t let us see a more complex existence that certainly would have included their hopes and dreams. Perhaps that was the lesson of the film.

2018 – Razzia

Released last fall in Europe and just recently in Rabat, the complex film follows multiple storylines as various characters face unrelenting pressure from each layer of Moroccan society: family, job, religion, traditional culture, modern life in social media world, etc. The film includes references to the classic 1942 film Casablanca. Like Ayouch’s other films, its wonderful cinema from a skilled storyteller. Bright colors during joyous scenes, low light and evening scenes during moments of crisis, conflict and tension.

Razzia is a film in the same vein as Magnolia, a 1999 film from American director Paul Thomas Anderson. The tribulations of private lives intersect with the larger public world. And like Magnolia, Razzia stumbles as it moves toward a conclusion. The narrative of several characters is only partially revealed and he only hints at profound macro-level messages for Moroccan society rather than telling the audience anything profound. It’s still a very good film, revealing the tension that exists between tradition and modernity.

The characters that Ayouch has created are wonderful and capture the complexity of Moroccan society in the 21st century. Traditional, modern, Arab, European, Amazigh, obedient, rebellious, pious, sinful. His characters are often uncomfortable in their surroundings, often out of place and out of time. Ayouch’s films explore cultural dislocation and emotional alienation, themes worth exploring not just in his chosen medium but in all society’s institutions.

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