Taboo and Transgression in Contemporary Arab Cinema

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Nabil Ayouch’s films stay with us long after the lights have ceased to flicker on celluloid. His stark, intimate and deeply affecting portraits of Moroccan life have won him the admiration of cineastes around the world. Never one to back down from unsparing and often transgressive critiques of his native Morocco, Ayouch’s films have attracted their fair share of controversy, including the uproar that followed the release of Much Loved, a bold and remarkably frank tale about the lives of four prostitutes in modern day Marrakesh.

His first feature, Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, was a visceral crime drama released in 2000, set against the backdrop of the Casablanca docks, about a loose gang of about twenty homeless young boys. The kids sniff glue to escape from their harsh reality, and the director captures the stark contrast between their fantasy world and the real world.

The boys have dreams of traveling to distant lands as cabin boys on a ship. Ali is killed early in the film while trying to leave the gang with three other renegades. The rest of the film revolves around his comrades trying to arrange a decent burial to honor their friend.

Perhaps only an artist with Ayouch’s sensibility could transform harsh topics like child abuse, prostitution and drug addiction into what feels at times like a magical realist fable.

His next significant outing, Horses of God, was adapted from Mahi Binebine’s novel, The Stars of Sidi Moumen, about the 2003 Casablanca bombings. It premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2012.

The bombings were the deadliest terrorist attacks in Morocco’s history. The suicide bombers were all residents of Sidi Moumen, a shanty town on the outskirts of Casablanca. The film delves deep into the gritty lives of the bombers in the years leading up to the attack.

After Horses of God, Ayouch wrote and directed Much Loved, which examines the underbelly of the sex trade through the eyes of four upscale prostitutes living and working in modern day Morocco. Noha (Loubna Abidar), Randa (Asma Lazrak), Soukaina (Halima Karaouane) and Hilima (Sara Elalaoui) are four feisty, free-spirited and garrulous prostitutes sharing an apartment and a devoted chauffeur, Said (Abdellah Didane) who ferries them to lavish parties and orgies hosted at the palatial homes of their rich Saudi clients.

Ayouch’s treatment is non judgemental, the brash female protagonists mouth bawdy and explicit dialogue and the camera takes us into dark and provocative spaces seldom seen in Arab cinema.

One of Soukaina’s customers reads poetry to her all night and is unresponsive to her feminine wiles until she discovers gay porn on his laptop, leading to an eruption of violence in the bedroom. Noha’s mother disapproves of her lifestyle and banishes her from the family home, but is happy to take her money nevertheless. Randa is initiated into the pleasures of lesbian love by a woman she meets at a nightclub and realizes she prefers women after all.

In one scene, the girls are lying in bed, gossiping and watching a Bollywood musical on a laptop. Noha tells her friends she would gladly offer the lead actor a fifty percent discount on her services if he were interested.

The film premiered at the Toronto Film festival and at the Director’s Fortnight section of Cannes in 2015 to near universal acclaim.

Following the Cannes screening, a statement was released by the Moroccan Ministry of Communication, effectively banning the film. “The Moroccan authorities have decided not to allow this projection. It has serious contempt for moral values and the Moroccan woman, and is a flagrant breach of the Kingdom.”

A Facebook page was set up calling for the execution of the director and lead actress Loubna Abidar, both of whom have subsequently received numerous violent threats.

The public outrage over the film is ironic when one considers that Marrakesh is a well-known destination for sex tourists from Europe and the middle east. Sex work is a mainstay of the economy and according to a Ministry of Health study, more than fifty percent of the prostitutes pay for the upkeep of their families through the sex trade.

A researcher in sexual identity at Mohammed V University in Rabat, Abdessamad Dialmy, points out the inherent hypocrisy around prostitution in a country in which it is a pervasive social phenomenon. “Sex labor is an informal response to unemployment,” he explains, “In certain regions, it allows the economy to function. It gives work to taxis, hotels and so on. It helps the economy expand.”

The filmmaker’s most recent film Razzia is by far his most ambitious. Spanning more than thirty years, Razzia attempts to capture all the hopes and contradictions of a country grappling with its modern identity.

“It is [set in] Morocco, but ‘Razzia’ goes well beyond that,” he says. Even countries which have long believed in “civil rights and essential freedoms, such as the United States, are taking a giant step backwards and falling into autocracy.”

“Though the Nazism of the 1940s has been replaced by modern ideologies, Ayouch says “we remain at the heart of a resistance against totalitarianism.”

Ayouch, like his fellow Arab artists, is working in the aftermath of the events of the Arab Spring. Apart from shaking up the political establishment, the momentous events have brought about a sea change in the way artists and filmmakers of the region told their stories, encouraging them to experiment with fresh ways of looking at the world.

A host of younger filmmakers have infused Arab cinema with a wildness and sense of creative abandon that may be unfamiliar to local audiences. Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb, Selim Morad’s This Little Father Obsession, Hicham Masri’s Starve Your Dog, Leyla Bouzid’s As I Open My Eyes, Avo Kapraelian’s Houses Without Doors and Salem Brahimi’s Let Them Come are groundbreaking films that push the envelope, blur stylistic boundaries and frequently abandon formal strictures adhered to by predecessors.

While some of the films deal with political events in the Arab world head on, others are more personal and experimental in nature. The Egyptian hit ‘Mawlana’ (The Preacher) is an example of the former, asking tough questions about the nexus between organized religion and the state, and what happens when a popular preacher turned television celebrity tries to deviate from the ‘script’.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, artists are grappling with complex issues of identity, of what it means to be an Arab against the larger socio-political context; with a population oscillating between demands for cultural revolution on one hand and reinforcing conservative values on the other.

“Since the late 1940s when independent sovereign Arab states began to emerge, the forces of social conservatism [have been] really powerful and governments have been repressive and inhibiting freedom of expression,” says Rasha Salti, who has curated film from the Middle East and North Africa for the Toronto International Film Festival. “There is very little investment in film, but at the same time the field is really flourishing.”

An emerging genre that might be termed Arab-American transgressive cinema, was jump-started by Chicago-based Usama Alshaibi, who has produced a remarkably large body of work in a relatively short period. Updating ideas and techniques derived from heroes William Burroughs and Kenneth Anger, the Iraqi director has made over 50 short films dealing with topics he is obsessed with: religion, technology, sexuality, culture-clash and identity. His full length features have explored post –Saddam Iraq, cross-cultural relationships, growing up Arab in the heartland in the 70’s, 80’s and today. Alshaibi’s most recent film, Profane, is about a Muslim dominatrix in spiritual crisis.

Artists are the bellwether of any society and if the cinema of the Arab world is anything to go by, the region is at the cusp of another major upheaval. People’s aspirations for freedom, both personal and political, cannot be suppressed indefinitely. And the Arab world’s artists, writers, poets and musicians are at the forefront of this upheaval. As Ursula Le Guin says in The Dispossessed, “You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution”, you can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

(This article was published originally in Fair Observer)

Author, Filmmaker and Cultural Critic

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