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The Moroccan Non-Exception: 'Much Loved' and Realism, Colonialism, and Pornography in Moroccan Cinema

[Screenshot of the trailer for the film [Screenshot of the trailer for the film "Much Loved." Image taken from trailer on Youtube]

[The following is the second installment in "The Moroccan Non-Exception" Jadaliyya roundtable. Read the introduction here.]

A wave of contentious reactions have dominated the Moroccan media landscape following the release of Nabil Ayouch's new film Much Loved, a fictional story about three Moroccan prostitutes in Marrakech. The reactions to the film are based on several extracts and a trailer that emerged online, some of which contained sexually explicit scenes. The excerpts were released just before the film’s screening at the Quinzaine des Realisateurs in Cannes. The reaction culminated with the Moroccan Ministry of Communications' illegal censorship of the film. The reactions to the film raised questions in Moroccan Francophone press, as well as among some European critics, about how viewers could be so angry at a film they have not yet seen in its entirety.

Labeling the entire backlash as reactionary, the Francophone press largely ignored the variety and complexity of the responses. Some of the writings have described public anger as “sick,” “retrograde,” violent, “anchored in tradition,” “medieval,” “Islamist,” and people as “packs,” “cowardly,” and “populist.” In one op-ed, the author speaks of “incomprehensible negative reactions,” a phrase reminiscent of the French journalist’s narration toward the end of The Battle of Algiers: “incomprehensible ululations coming from Kasbah.” Like the journalist struggling to understand why Algerians rebelled against colonialism, the Francophone press’ lack of comprehension demonstrates a detachment from the social, political, and historical context from which such a “revolt” can emerge. They view it merely as a symptom of Moroccan backwardness, rendering them incapable of understanding art.

This article brings into question the assertions critics made about the film, particularly with regard to the question of Realism, and about the contentious reactions toward it; to attempt to understand the widespread negative sentiment toward the film in a nuanced way, through a colonial and neo-colonial historical framework; and to shed light on the sexist and orientalist tendencies found in the film which partially incited the negative reactions. This piece is, above all, a commentary on the critiques (both in the press and among average Moroccans who firmly opposed the film) rather than a critique of the film itself. This article does not hesitate, however, to critically examine the film in order to better understand the anger leveled against it. The first section of this article is centered around the most common argument in favor of the film amongst critics: its realist portrayal of the act of prostitution and how some Moroccan critics claim it is an appropriate method of influencing society and changing sentiment toward prostitutes. The second part is an attempt to historically situate Moroccan cinema within a colonial and neo-colonial context in order to make sense of what could be the source of the “revolt” against the film. The last section, treading more along a fine line between a critique of the film itself and a critique of the critiques, addresses how the film can be seen as a continuation of both sexist and orientalist “colonial discourse” and how this discourse can be counterproductive to the film’s stated objective of changing attitudes toward prostitutes and women in general in Moroccan society. This piece draws from a large number of comments made on social media, discussions with Moroccans from various social classes who expressed their discontent with the film and notes on the almost omnipresent loud debates about the film that took place in Casablanca’s cafés throughout late May and early June 2015. Their thoughts and beliefs are presented throughout this article, in contrast with the assertions made by critics in the Francophone press and situated within the social and historical context that could have produced them. 

Reality vs. Realism 

Through a multitude of articles that emerged in the Francophone press (both Moroccan and French), some critics accused those who reacted negatively to the film of being incapable of understanding Realism. This accusation is the basis for almost all of the writings in defense of Much Loved. The film, according to those who defended it, is merely a depiction of a social reality (TelQuel’s Abdellah Tourabi goes as far as to say that the film is “between documentary and fiction”). Yet, it is precisely because the film claims to portray a social reality that it is subject to a social criticism. As Shohat and Stam highlight in citing Mikhail Bakhtin: “art is incontrovertibly social, not because it represents the real but because it constitutes a historically situated ‘utterance’-- a complex of signs addressed by one socially constituted subject or subjects to other socially constituted subjects, all of whom are deeply immersed in historical circumstance and social contingency.”[1]

Just like one can understand the “incomprehensible ululations coming from the Kasbah” after having understood the history of violence France inflicted upon Algerians, one can also understand the “incomprehensible negative reactions” after having understood Much Loved as a “historically situated ‘utterance.’” Popular frustration with the film, even if it is merely based on extracts, is not senseless, uniform, or random. This frustration is conscious, or partly conscious, of what is driving it and, when placed in a historical context of colonial domination and the current context of neo-colonial domination-- economic, social, political, and cultural-- can be understood as a sound reaction. “That something vital is at stake in these debates” about cinema, write Shohat and Stam, “becomes obvious in those instances when entire communities passionately protest the representations that are made of them in the name of their own experiential sense of truth.”

What is at stake in these debates is the masses’ lived reality or their conception of that lived reality. Therefore, people are not necessarily concerned with the film itself but rather with the violating function it serves and how it is affected by and affects that social reality from which it emerged. For this reason, it becomes ironic when, Mahi Binebine writes in “Allez censeurs du dimanche brulez tout!”  (Come on Amateur Censors, Burn it All!), that those reacting against the film are doing so because they are afraid of a "mirror image" of their society, when in fact most Moroccans experience or are familiar with the conditions that create that “mirror image.” To be clearer, the widespread dire conditions in Morocco--which vary from poverty to overall lack of proper education and healthcare--yield the circumstances and reality from which this "mirror image" emerges. Indeed, some of the contentious opinions that were loudly expressed in cafés, social media, and the Arabic language press toward the film were drawn from a proclaimed familiarity with reality (“we do not need Ayouch to come from France to tell us what we already know”) in order to criticize the film and a filmmaker whom they perceive as paternalistic.

A vast majority of Francophone critics ignored his perceived paternalism, many actually glorified Ayouch as a benevolent figure and--after the film’s censorship--described him as a liberal martyr “lynched” by intolerant mobs. Preoccupied by the intensity of negative reactions, most Francophone critics failed to question the filmmaker’s self-proclaimed benevolence and evaluate the effectiveness of the film’s Realist approach toward achieving its stated objective of affecting social change. Some critics have treated the “accurate and realistic portrayal," indisputably, as the most effective way to change Moroccan society through film. No questions were asked about whether, to put it in Tomas Guiterez Alea’s words,  “cinema can draw viewers closer to reality without giving up its condition of unreality, fiction, and other-reality” or whether it “brings about in viewers, once they have stopped being viewers and are facing that other aspect of reality (the viewers’ own life, their daily reality), a series of reasonings, judgments, ideas and thus a better comprehension of reality itself and an adaptation of their behavior, of their practical activity.”[2] 

Indeed, it is important to consider the importance of reality over its “mirror image.” According to Argentinian filmmakers Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas, for bourgeois cinema, “the image of reality is more important than reality itself” as it can have the adverse function of normalizing or even disguising that reality.[3] Whereas some opinions expressed against the film demonstrate an interest in the function of cinema as something that affects their reality, some of the writings in favor of the film have tended to focus on how it functions on the screen.

What critics missed--this point on the effectiveness of the film as a means for inspiring social change--online viewers picked up on. Some interlocutors on social media, for example, who asked, “do we really need to use vulgar words and pornography to make [a] social change?” echoed similar questions and statements heard in loud conversations in Casaoui cafés. In its essence, this question raises the issue of accessibility and how vulgar words and pornographic scenes can make the film inaccessible to a large part of Moroccan society. Other comments made toward the film were also reminiscent of Alea’s The Viewers Dialectic: “The most socially productive show surely cannot be one which limits itself to being a more or less precise reflection of reality just as reality offers itself in its immediacy. That would be no more than a duplication of the image we already have of reality, a redundancy.”

The point here is not to say that Realism is entirely inappropriate for or completely misunderstood in the Moroccan context. In fact we can cite a plethora of realist Moroccan films that have been accessible and to varying extents, effective-- from Alyam Alyam (1978) to L’Orchestre des Aveugles (2015). Rather, the point is to raise questions about in which situations is it effective for a film to try to imitate reality as closely as possible, what aspects of reality should be left out to ensure that a film is not detrimental to people who live within the reality being depicted, and when should allusions or abstract depictions be made.

The Colonial Context of the Cinema in Morocco

Here, it is useful to return to the idea that Much Loved-- whether it is truly Realist or not, whether it is socially effective or not-- is a “historically situated utterance.” Although a multitude of important political, economic, religious, linguistic and cultural factors affect Moroccans, all of which have a significant impact on the way they understand cinematic representations of the real, we cannot make sense of the “revolt” against Much Loved without historically contextualizing it. Since film and photography were both introduced to Morocco during the colonial era (as Shohat and Stam point out, cinema itself was born at the “giddy height of imperialism”), for purposes of brevity, this article will only focus on the historical factors that impacted Moroccan filmmaking since that period. The intention here is not to downplay the importance of other factors which precede the colonial era, nor is it to claim that historic factors are the most essential or relevant. It is rather to demonstrate that there is some continuity of colonial discourse in Moroccan cinema that may explain (in conjunction with other factors which I am incapable of fully addressing here) some of the hostility toward image-makers.

Out of the articles, critiques, and reviews that some Moroccan critics published in defense of the film, several evoked literary works that defied taboos in Moroccan history in order to make the point that Moroccan society has regressed and become less tolerant. Binebine, for example, compares Much Loved to Moroccan literary classics like Mohammed Choukri’s For Bread Alone. Yet, images and words are not equivalent. Ignoring the particular histories of how these two artistic mediums have functioned, in addition to their varying accessibility (almost half the population is illiterate) to the average Moroccan, this argument is oblivious to the relationship Moroccans have to them.

North Africans have often owned their words (especially spoken words that are accessible to all) and have a long history of using them to break "taboos," from Abu Nawas’ poetry to Cheikha Rimitti’s lyrics. Yet images--particularly “realist” images in photography and film--have historically functioned as a means to promote and justify colonialism. Jean Rouch points out that the 1934 Laval Decree, which France implemented in its African colonies in order to regulate cinema, “served as a pretext to deny young Africans…the right to film their own countries.”[4] In Morocco specifically, the additional dahirs (royal decrees) of 9 December 1940; 14 August 1941; and 18 April 1942 effectively put cinema under strict French control and censorship.[5] It was in this spirit that the Centre Cinematographique Marocain (CCM) was founded in 1944. Representing the Moroccan through the visual was an activity afforded only to the colonist in whose interest it was to portray the colonized in a way that benefited colonialism. Claiming to portray reality, Orientalist photographers like Marcelin Flandrin, painters like Delacroix, or filmmakers like David Butler cultivated a distorted and often dehumanized image of Moroccans. Many of these images, whether they were “ethnographic” or “artistic,” were then exhibited in the West to justify colonialism’s violent domination and exploitation of other peoples.[6] It was these colonial cinematographic and photographic activities that initially fomented suspicion of realistic-looking images that had up until then, been almost non-existent in Moroccan culture.

Today in a North African and West African (“Françafrique”) neo-colonial context, we can witness--in one form or another--indirect French control over cinema, including Moroccan cinema. At this point, it should be made clear that I do not believe that the entire body of films Moroccans produced has been influenced by or controlled by French institutions. Nor do I believe that all films that French institutions funded did not try to subvert French cultural aid to convey ideas that contradicted the neo-colonialist intentions of programs like the CAI (Consortium Audiovisuel International), ADEAC (Association pour le développement des échanges artistiques et culturels), the Bureau du Cinéma at the French Ministry of Cooperation, and Fonds Sud Cinéma. We can for example, cite Farida Belyazid’s Une Porte sur le Ciel (1988) as an example of the subversion of French funds, as she portrays a character that rejects French identity and embraces a Sufi Muslim identity as a means of reaching feminine emancipation. However, we must recognize that a significant portion of Moroccan filmmakers who have received French aid tend to fall along a Western liberal vision of Moroccan society--a trend that has been increasing after the explosion of neoliberal programs in the late 1990’s.

Nabil Ayouch entered the Moroccan cinema scene during the birth of neoliberal policy in Morocco. The credit rolls on his films make it clear that Ayouch receives funding from France or Belgium (from both public donors like the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Fonds Sud, and private donors like Canal+). French funding for African films is not a type of benevolence. As Manthia Diawara recounts, following the independence of many African colonies, France embarked on a policy with the French Ministry of Cooperation (now a part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), starting in 1961, which supported filmmakers in “Francophonie” in order to maintain French neo-colonial domination over Africa.[7] Diawara explains that there are two ways of identifying neocolonialism in French aid for African film: assimilation and monopolization. Assimilation, he writes, “is based on the premise of selecting a few Africans at the top and giving them the same privileges as French men and women. Directing films is one such privilege.” Monopolization, on the other hand, “conditions the directors to conform their scripts to acceptable French standards. It is in this sense that controversial and anticolonialist scripts such as La Noire de… are rejected.” While adored by French critics, a majority of the Moroccan Arabic-speaking public despises Much Loved, confirming the idea that the film is intended to serve a Western or Westernized audience and not the Moroccan public as a whole. It is no wonder then that the film has been screened at least eleven times in France within the first week of its showing at the Quinzaine des Realisateurs and months before it was intended for release in Morocco.

Much Loved as an Intersection Between Colonial and Sexist Discourse 

Catering to the West, Much Loved can function as a continuation of colonialist/imperialist discourse, defined by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam as “the linguistic and ideological apparatus that justifies, contemporaneously or even retroactively colonial/imperial practices.” In this case, the discourse is specific to women, women’s bodies, and the European Orientalist conception of the Muslim world as being more oppressive of women. In Women and Gender in Islam, Laila Ahmad describes how British patriarchal structures of governance deployed Western feminist discourse in colonial Egypt. These observations can also be applied to French colonialist discourses vis-à-vis the Maghreb. She writes, while they  “devised theories to contest the claims of feminism, and derided and rejected the ideas of feminism” in Europe, they simultaneously “captured the language of feminism and redirected it, in the service of colonialism, toward Other men and the cultures of Other men” in the colonies.[8]

Under a patriarchal-colonial system, the colonizer could at once speak of the need to liberate the Maghrebi woman from the Maghrebi man while photographing her nude, as a sexual object for colonial masculinist desires (desires that were often violently expressed in the rape of native women by colonizing armies). Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin, for example, like other colonial photographers and filmmakers, sometimes depicted Moroccan women as virgins--a common trope in colonial imagery denoting both native women and native lands as untouched objects to be penetrated--or as prostitutes who could be bought and sold, just like the land and its resources.[9] These images were directly used to attract French men to join the occupation forces in the Maghreb. Like its colonial predecessor, the male-dominated filmmaking apparatus in Morocco can deploy feminist rhetoric in a way that functions to the benefit of both imperialism and patriarchy. Thus, like Flandrin, Ayouch depicts the prostitutes in Much Loved as constantly ready to be penetrated, conjuring a male audience to collectively participate in this penetration as they consume his voyeuristic images, while simultaneously inviting a Western audience to penetrate the native land in order to continue to “civilize” Muslims (in this case about women’s rights).  

[Trailer for the film Much Loved.]

Indeed, it is enough to see the extracts and poster to understand how it can function in this way. From the extracts to the movie poster, one sees a consistent theme throughout reflecting the filmmakers’ position on this issue. A movie poster with a half-naked woman invitingly sucking on her finger is not inviting an audience to come understand how she was put in a position that led her to become a prostitute, but inviting a male audience to indulge in the very type of imagery that tends to fuel, not alleviate, sexual violence. This should come as no surprise, considering Nabil Ayouch’s other films. In Ali Zaoua (2000), there are only two minor female roles and they are both the object of masculinist desires. One role is that of a prostitute mother, the second of a young teenager whom a boy desires. In The Horses of God (2012), the only female roles are minor and the most significant of those characters are mothers, prostitutes, or both a prostitute and a mother at the same time. If we were, as some writers ask us, to understand Nabil Ayouch’s films as a “true” reflection of reality, we would come to the conclusion that Moroccan women are either would-be prostitutes, prostitutes, prostitute-mothers, or naive uneducated mothers.

Thus, Ayouch’s films serve to disempower the Moroccan woman while making European spectators feel better about their privileged and “enlightened” positions. While misogyny exists in both Europe and the former colonies, a misogynist colonial discourse still continues to permeate some Moroccan films. This is particularly the case after 2000, among the new generation of filmmakers like Ayouch, Nourredine Lakhmari, and to some extent, Faouzi Bensaidi. Like their colonial predecessors, these films instill the idea that only “Other men” in the “uncivilized” former colonies are truly oppressive of women, and therefore it is a part of the European civilizing mission to teach the colonized what gender relations should look like. But the colonial civilizing mission is neither benign nor gentle; its objective is not to educate and assist, but rather, “with a kind of perverted logic,” writes Fanon, “it turns its attention to the past of the colonized people and distorts it, disfigures it, and destroys it.”[10] Ultimately, it is a means to justify violence and exploitation. The mission to provide the native with a “real” culture has long been a disguise for violent imperial penetration, from the “white man’s burden” that set out to civilize Native American peoples but was in fact a genocidal process, to Operation Iraqi Freedom which set out to instill “democracy” but left at least half a million Iraqis dead. 

However, many Moroccans reject Western paternalism. In Between Feminism and Islam, Zakia Salime has effectively shown the decline of west-leaning feminist organizations (often funded by Western institutions) in Morocco. Instead, Moroccan women increasingly look to Islam and Moroccan traditions for a route to their emancipation.[11] Just as they reject Western feminism, many Moroccans reject Western depictions of women in cinema. Thus, they refuse Nabil Ayouch’s objectification of Moroccan women on the screen. This does not mean Moroccans do not objectify women in other ways, but rather that they are rejecting a specifically western (and additional) mode of oppressing them: the presentation of women through various forms of media as sexual objects to be consumed.

To conclude, Much Loved is a film that operated not within a vacuum but within a historic, social, political, and economic context, where almost half of the people are illiterate. Thus, we must delve deeper and we must contextualize the complex public discourse against the film, which ranges from explicitly feminist rejections of its portrayal of women, to misogynist comments towards the actresses, to insults (and even death threats) towards the filmmaker, in order to bring out its underlying meanings. Those who loudly expressed their anger towards the film cannot be dismissed as being incapable of understanding cinema, their beliefs can be of great value to Moroccan filmmakers looking to understand their audience. Their discontent with what they label pornographic content in the name of Realism can provide insight for those who seek to reach a wide viewership without necessarily having to resort to populist self-censorship. But the debate around Much Loved is not just useful for Moroccan cinéastes but can also offer filmmakers and critics in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa with an understanding of how a variety of women-- from “laïcard” to Islamist women-- perceive films that address women’s issues. It is important to note that males published most of the writings in the press in favor of the film. Having little access to the media, women primarily expressed themselves through informal channels. Perhaps in this case, hidden discourses expressed informally can have more value than formally expressed discourse in the press.

[1] Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism. 1994.

[2] Alea, Tomas G. The Viewer's Dialectic. 1984.

[3] Getino, Octavio and Fernando Solanas. Towards a Third Cinema. 1969.

[4] Diawara, Manthia. African Cinema. 1992.

[5] Carter, Sandra G. What Moroccan Cinema?. 2009

[6] Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism. 1994.

[7] Diawara, Manthia. African Cinema. 1992.

[8] Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. 1992.

[9] Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism. 1994.

[10] Fanon, Franz. The Wretched of the Earth. 1961

[11] Salime, Zakia. Between Feminism and Islam. 2011

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