On 16 May 2003, 12 suicide bombers detonated bombs in 5 sites in Casablanca, killing themselves and 33 others and injuring more than 100 others. They were the most lethal terrorist attacks in Morocco’s history. Last night, I attended the first showing of Nabil Ayouch’s Horses of God – about the Casablanca bombings – to a Moroccan general public.
This was no exclusive festival gathering of critics and celebrities. At 10dh (less than £1/€1), the public screenings during the Marrakech Film Festival are open to a very diverse audience: young and old, affluent and less so, male and female and many wearing djellabas against the icy Marrakech night. The enthusiasm for the cast and crew who were present (many of their friends were in the theatre), and the pride in home-grown talent was clearly evident before the film was even shown. However, the reception for the film itself was remarkable – especially given how recent this harrowing history is (Casablanca experienced further bombings in 2007). The strength of feeling echoed the immediate reactions to the attacks 9 ½ years ago, when tens of thousands marched through Casablanca saying ‘No’ to terrorism and shouting ‘Down with hate.’
The action begins much like in Ayouch’s earlier film, about Casablanca street kids, Ali Zaoua. The film begins with the protagonists as pre-teens. Twelve years later, they left their lean-to homes in the slums of Sidi Moumen for the first and last time. In an interview for L’Officiel, the newspaper of the Marrakech Film Festival, director Ayouch says “this is the story of what the kids in Ali Zaoua might have become.” Despite their youth, the suicide bombers felt they had nothing to lose.
Ayouch knows Sidi Moumen – he filmed scenes for his earlier film there. In this new work, he slowly builds up our picture of the dismally predictable, grubby and precarious lives of its inhabitants. This is barely subsistence – and the urban poor have no land from which to live. The only escape from the grime and the grind is the odd gram of hash or a cheap bottle of wine. The mother of main characters Hamid and Yachine manages her family as best she can: including her mute-depressive husband and her autistic news-obsessed second son. That her eldest is in the army in the Sahara is some relief on the family budget.
Year on year, plus ça change, except the shanty town gets bigger and slummier. The transfer of the devil they knew, ‘Pitbull,’ the Sidi Moumen police chief, sets off a chain of events, however, which lands Hamid in prison from which he emerges a changed man. The gradual absorption of Yachine and his two best mates into the newly-established brotherhood which arrives with Hamid’s release is both horribly believable but also surreal. Even for a well-informed viewer, it is still difficult to comprehend just how little these people have to lose and how attractive the fraternity, stability and consistency of a real community (in this case a fundamentalist Islamic one) can be to someone who has known only chaos, poverty and violence. The young men, seeking atonement for crimes of their youth and relief from the complete hopelessness of their lives, are the perfect victims for the manipulation of others and are eventually willing to put their lives in the hands of the God that these outsiders portray.
Ayouch’s film is incredibly powerful. It is well-directed and the young actors portray believable characters well. Although we know the end from the start, he nevertheless builds a set of complex characters for whom we hope there is another way out. And finally, what he shows us is that poor people are not necessarily victims, but that poverty exposes them to manipulative and malevolent forces which they are often powerless to resist.
Nabil Ayouch’s documentary, My Land is reviewed here.
For background on Moroccan cinema, see here.