[This article features an interview with Moroccan filmmaker and activist Nadir Bouhmouch. See Bouhmouch’s first film My Makzhen and Me here: My Makhzen and Me and a clip for his upcoming film, 475, here: www.475lefilm.com.]
“The state-backed raping of poor women undermined the class solidarity that had been achieved in the anti-feudal struggle. Not surprisingly, the authorities viewed the disturbances caused by such policy…as a small price to pay in the lessening of social tensions, obsessed as they were with the fear of urban insurrections…the legalization of rape created a climate of intense misogyny that degraded all women regardless of class.” - Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch
Sexual violence is by no means a new phenomenon; in Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici traces sexual violence as a social phenomenon at its emergence in post-feudalist Europe. At this time, the emerging alliance between the state and the bourgeoisie decriminalized the violent gang-rapes and humiliations against poor and working class women. This deplorable tolerance served a distinct purpose: to break class solidarity and to foster an outlet for the frustrations of a new class of poor, working men with no political recourse--better violence against women than violence against the state.
Nearly seven hundred years later, the climate of sexual violence is still pervasive in contemporary society, crossing state, religious, and cultural boundaries. The recent gang-rape and death of a young woman on a bus in India, the enduring use of rape as a tool of war, the filmed gang-rape of a young woman in South Africa, sexual violence in Tahrir Square: the frequency, intensity, and sheer number of contemporary incidents is staggering. The film 475 investigates the case of Amina Filali, a sixteen year old Moroccan girl whose public suicide dominated Moroccan and international media. Filali had accused a young man in her village of rape; when authorities failed to properly investigate her accusations, she was married to her rapist following the citation of article 475 from the penal code, which dismisses a rapist of his charges if he marries his victim. Not long afterwards, she ate rat poison, walked into the village market, and died.
Underscoring the pervasiveness of this problem, the team filming 475 discovers that Filali’s rape and marriage was only one of four similar incidents that had happened in her small village’s recent memory. They also discover that the account of Filali’s experience was not as simple as it had been portrayed. While the film highlights the difficulty in determining guilt, it also adeptly showcases the endemic nature of the problem of sexual violence in Morocco. The point here is not to assign guilt to Filali’s eventual husband, but to condemn the readiness of the society to accept the situation.
Why did authorities refrain from intervening in Filali’s case? Why have they failed, in so many instances, to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence? Why are Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane and Minister of Families and Development (and the only female MP in Morocco) Bassima Hakkaoui so intent on diminishing reports of violence against women? Much like fourteenth century Europe, sexual violence is tolerated, even legitimized by authority. Also, much like fourteenth century Europe, class solidarity provides a tangible threat to the Moroccan regime’s hegemony, the makhzen. Resistance to the makhzen has been systematically and violently repressed; the tolerance (and sometimes direct use of) sexual violence and the degradation of women must be understood in this climate.
Through footage of interviews with Benkirane and Hakkaoui, the President of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) Khadija Riyadi, human rights lawyer Omar Benjelloun, the families of Amina Filali, and her former husband, Mustapha, 475 tells the story not only of Amina Filali, but of the relationship between sexual violence and state repression. This link carries weight not only in Morocco, but for men and women around the world.
I had the opportunity to interview Nadir Bouhmouch, the film’s creator. Bouhmouch was born and raised in Rabat, is currently studying at San Diego State University (SDSU) where he heads SDSU’s Amnesty International Chapter and is writing his thesis on sexual violence in Morocco. 475 is Bouhmouch’s second film; his first, My Makhzen and Me, traces the 20 February protests of 2011 and debuted at the Féstival de Résistance et d’Alternatives, which is going to be held again this year in Rabat. Bouhmouch and I had the chance to discuss the process of filming 475, which was done with the help of film cooperative Guerilla Cinema, as well as the relationship between sexual violence and popular resistance in Morocco.
Allison L McManus (AM): Your first film My Makhzen and Me (MMAM) focused on the 20 February movement protests. How have these protests affected expressions of resistance in Morocco? (Have they?)
Nadir Bouhmouch (NB): These protests have significantly affected expressions of resistance in Morocco. Although many may claim that the 20 February movement protests were a failure, I have to strongly disagree with that. What we are seeing in Morocco is similar to what we saw in Egypt after the 6 April movement. The movement was initially a success but it was soon squashed with repression and political manipulation. Back then, some may have said that the 6 April movement was a failure. But look at Egypt today; it is exploding with dissidence and resistance. This is because splinter organizations of civil society formed out of the 6 April movement, just as they are today out of the 20 February movement: these are forms of association that have a more targeted cause but they still undermine the authority of the makhzen. These organizations are very different from the ones that existed previously, because the state has already co-opted the older organizations--even the ones that were initially formed to resist the makhzen. Hence, what we are seeing today is a richer (not financially of course) civil society which has a growing culture of dissidence. Like Egypt, I believe important events will eventually trigger Morocco’s new civil society and we will see a reaction of full force against the makhzen.
AM: Your next film, 475 is scheduled for release 18 February. How/where can we expect to see the film?
NB: Various locations throughout the world will screen the film. It will also be available online for free on 21 February in commemoration of Fadoua Laaroui, a single mother who set herself on fire in protest against the discrimination she faced from Moroccan society and from the authorities.
AM: How has your filmmaking process changed – either internally or externally – from the first film to the second?
NB: The filmmaking process has changed significantly. Firstly, the first time I did not work with a crew, this last time I did. This made some things easier but also complicated a lot of things. Decision-making became more difficult because more opinions had to be considered, but at the same time, this helped the ideas we tried to convey through the film become more developed. With a crew, things became much easier. I am so grateful for all their hard work; this film would not be possible without them.
Another thing that changed is the amount of footage. For MMAM I recorded approximately 100GB of footage, for 475 we recorded 500GB. These are both not counting stock footage, this is just the footage we shot ourselves. So in terms of post-production, there was a lot more work to do. It took a lot of time to go through the footage and find the right parts before organizing them by summarizing each clip with a few words that would be written on a post it and posted to a wall on which they would be organized in a coherent, story-like order. After that there was a lot of back and forth before I finally found a good film structure. Anyway, this is just a summary for something that’s more complex than that.
Another important change is the budget. I shot My Makhzen and Me with no more than 200USD. For this film we raised over 7,000USD through Kickstarter.com. In terms of paying technicians, paying studios, DVD production, future distribution, and applying for festivals, this has been a huge step beyond what I was able to do in MMAM.
AM: My Makhzen and Me features a scene where the activists organizing demonstrations receive a note from police that these protests are illegitimate - an ironic moment that illustrates the subjective nature of the freedom of expression in Morocco. Did you experience any resistance to filming 475? Can you elaborate on any legal issues in filming in Morocco?
NB: In terms of any issues with authorities, we got lucky and did not encounter any major problems; there were some close calls, however. We were forced to erase some footage of a caid (local authority) from an unnamed region for his own anonymity. He ended up letting us go without confiscating any equipment. This was a surprise to us then, but in hindsight, it makes sense since it was a rural region, where a film crew is perceived as an oddity.
As for the legal issues, there are many institutional obstacles in the way of any filmmaker in Morocco. These are all designed to censor films. The Centre Cinematographique Marocain (CCM) is the institution that is in charge of all filmmaking in Morocco. This institution’s existence started in the Years of Lead, when King Hassan II was facing opposition from the left and increasing artistic dissidence. The purpose of the CCM is to channel all filmmaking into one institution in order to “minimize the surface area” of dissidence that the state has to deal with. It is kind of like a hoop... the smaller the hoop, the harder it is for a ball to get through. The CCM is that small hoop. This small hoop is made up of several regulations:
1. The issuance of a filmmaker permit/card (which you can only get after making a certain number of films, a system that is inherently flawed because this means one must break the law in order to work within it).
2. You must be a part of a production company to ask for a shooting permit.
3. You must turn in a script (or a plan for documentaries) which a committee then reviews. This last point is the most direct when it comes to censorship.
AM: Very recently, legislation was proposed for the abolition of article 475. However, in the same week, parliamentarian Hassan Arif was acquitted of rape despite convincing DNA evidence. How do you see the abolition of article 475 in a larger context of a struggle against sexual violence in the country?
NB: I think the abolishment of article 475 will have no effect on sexual violence in the country. It was merely an escape route for families whose daughters were raped and were unable to marry them off to the rapist because of the rapist’s family’s refusal. In the great majority of cases, the legal process is not involved whatsoever in the forced marriage of girls. And here I am only talking about rape in the realm of young girls. If we take a look at other circumstances, say, for example, rape within marriage, the state does not even recognize this as an offense. And another point I should add is that there was a lot of speculation about Amina being in a relationship with her alleged rapist. Well, we can end that speculation right now because she was indeed in a relationship. But what many Moroccans do not seem to grasp is the fact that rape occurs even among couples. As a result, I am very skeptical about this proposition. I think rape will continue to happen and rape culture will continue to exist. Hassan Arif’s case demonstrates this so clearly, especially the case’s timing with the proposition to abolish the law.
Generally, sexual violence goes beyond just rape anyway. So even if we were to assume there was no rape whatsoever, we still have women who face domestic violence and daily sexual harassment.
AM: How do you see the struggle for women’s rights in Morocco – legally or socially – as a part of the greater struggle for political and socioeconomic equity that was a focus of the 20 February protests?
NB: Women are half a society, so the struggle for women is half of the greater struggle for political and socioeconomic equity. As Khadija Riyadi told us in her interview for the film, women’s rights and democracy come hand in hand. Women should not just fight for women’s rights, but they must involve themselves in all aspects of society and especially in the fight for democracy. But we should not fall into the trap of fighting solely for democracy alone, because we also have to fight for women’s rights, because women have rights specific to them. I am paraphrasing, but that is pretty damn close to what she said. I also think that generally, women are central to the development of any society. I am hesitant in saying this because it sounds like the only reason we want women to do well is because it will serve society, but in the end a better society will result in a better situation for women. I have to point out that one of my critiques of the 20 February movement is a lack of emphasis placed on women’s rights; I think this is due to their collaboration with Al Adl wal Ihsane (AWI).
AM: As an artist and an activist, what role does filmmaking play in your experience as an activist?
NB: Filmmaking plays a very central role in my experience as an activist, and it does so in two ways. First, it plays a major role in my growth as an activist. Making a film allows me to discover things that one does not encounter on a daily basis. It is through filmmaking that I met democracy activists, feminists, ex-CIA prisoners, rape victims, and rapists. You do not normally encounter these kinds of people, so filmmaking has pushed me out of my privileged life to see our country in a better light. To show the extent to which a film has an impact on me, before I made My Makhzen and Me, I did not consider myself as a part of the 20 February movement, after that I did. And then again, before 475, I did not consider myself a feminist and actually refuted the term as a label that could be applied to me. Now I am proud to say that I am a feminist. It is really hard for me to explain to what extent these films have had an impact on me. All I know is that all the films I make from now on will incorporate the principles of democracy and feminism. I have become far more aware in noticing prejudices, or patriarchal portrayals of women in the world that surrounds me, and this is something I am keen to expose in all portrayals of women in my future films.
The second role filmmaking plays in my experience as an activist is far less personal. I think that filmmaking and art in general plays a crucial role in contributing to the growth and progress of a society, by challenging the status quo and asking questions about how things could be better. When art does not challenge something, I do not consider it to be art. Die Hard for me is no art, for example, but just a consumer product, or entertainment. That is the problem we have with Moroccan filmmaking. There are a lack of voices that challenge something, mainly because all the means to create are state-controlled. But this is changing, because filmmaking is no longer the rich man’s art form. High definition cameras get cheaper and smaller every year. Digital media is equalizing the field of artistic opportunity. So the means are growing. What is needed now is a generation of young artists who will seize this technological revolution and I hope that the films I make will tap the pendulum just a tiny bit--just enough to shift the momentum of Moroccan cinema in this very different direction.