As part of the team of the Africa in Motion (AiM) Film Festival 2018, I was able to indulge my passion for Moroccan film through my participation in an international symposium on the Global Reach of Moroccan cinema, part of the Transnational Moroccan Cinema project at the University of Exeter and also to see UK Premiers of new Moroccan cinema. One such film was Apatride, directed by Narjiss Nejjar.
Apatride is translated as “stateless” and this status describes – among others – those expelled by Algeria in the 1970s following the Green March of 1975, when the Moroccan state staged a mass march to claim the Spanish Sahara from the colonial power. The protagonist, Hénia, is one among 45,000 families expelled from Algeria to Morocco and she spends her life trying to return to her mother, who was left behind. Producer, Lamia Chraībi took questions after the screening of Apatride at the Edinburgh Filmhouse on Saturday 27 October.
The 2018 Berlinale saw the film’s European premier, calling Apatride a “A quietly sensual film set before a bewitching backdrop that recounts the consequences of a historical event whose effects are still being felt today.” Personally, I found the emphasis on aesthetics and sensuality – lingering looks and sun-dappled shots – distracting from the important story which Nejjar sought to tell. Producer Lamia Chraībi was in a difficult position defending directorial decisions which were not necessarily her own. She explained how the choices of this poetic approach and a very beautiful actress (Ghalia Benzaouia, playing Hénia) were made deliberately to starkly contrast with the extreme pain and ugliness of the situation.
I also found Hénia’s ever-present headscarf, reproduced an orientalist image of North African women which did not positively add to the storytelling. She did not wear it in the typical manner of Algerian or Moroccan women, but draped impractically over her head, even when she was alone indoors. However, Lamia explained this was a device designed to demonstrate the barriers Hénia had raised between herself and the world around her. It did not become apparent until at least half, if not two-thirds of the way through the film, quite why she did so.
The closing credits of the film indicate that director Nejjar intends for Apatride to be a homage to all those who find themselves stateless, regardless of whence they came. Without wishing to give away too much of the story, I feel Narjiss Nejjar misses an opportunity to make more of the way women are treated when they cross borders illicitly. Orphaned and vulnerable, without papers to attest to her identity, Hénia is exploited: by her aunt who takes her in but then farms her out to take care of an elderly uncle, by the uncle himself, by his son, by the corrupt local border guard but also, we learn in the second half of the film, not only in the ways which are visible on screen. Even before she arrived in the Moroccan border town she now calls home, which despite its wide open fields, beaches and forests, is her prison, Hénia – then barely an adolescent – was subjected to abuse of which she cannot even speak. We learn of it as part of her thoughts, as she enjoys a moment of relaxed female solidarity with Lise, the French wife of the son.
Hénia’s unspoken disclosure reminded me of the Laila Alaoui’s Crossings project, where the late photographer filmed sub-Saharan migrants crossing the Sahara to reach Morocco and potentially Europe. She presented her work as an immersive audio-visual installation at the Marrakech Biennale in 2014. In a dark room, I remember watching night sequences filmed by Laila as the migrants sought to cross borders illegally and without being caught by security forces. One of the female migrants alluded to transactions between themselves and male border guards which were necessary to secure their passage.
The status of stateless is bad enough. It is a legal no man’s land like the boundary of land and sea between the Moroccan and Algerian flags fluttering in the Mediterranean breeze in Najjar’s film. But as our media moves on to the next story and we are inclined to forget that still people cross borders and seas in pursuit of security – be that physical, economic, social or otherwise – we should spare a thought for what those migrants have left behind and what they have experienced and lost along the way.
For many, like Hénia, this is unbearable. Najjar’s parting shot is of Hénia finally proving her own agency in her attempt to return to her mother, la mère in French – commonly used in metaphor with la mer, the sea.