Film review: Sofia by Meryem Benm’Barek

Collective Museum of CasablancaIn the past two weeks, Casablanca has come to Edinburgh! The showing of Sofia by Meryem Benm’Barek in the 2019 Africa in Motion Festival coincided with the exhibition on the Collective Museum of Casablanca at the City Dome on Calton Hill. Both give pause for thought on the lives and lived experiences of marginalised groups in Morocco’s biggest city. Here, I consider Sofia and its messages around women’s rights.

Benm’Barek won the 2018 Un Certain Regard Award for Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival for Sofia, her first feature film. It has been critically acclaimed and shown in festivals worldwide, so when I saw it listed in the programme for the 2019 Africa in Motion Festival in Edinburgh and Glasgow, I was determined not to miss it.

Sofia film still


Set in Casablanca, Sofia exposes the rocky path which women have to navigate in Morocco’s megalopolis, where incredible wealth rubs shoulders with extreme poverty. Despite the apparent modernity of high-profile megaprojects such as Morocco Mall (one of Africa’s largest shopping centres), gender and class are still major determinants of Casaouis’ (Casablancans) life outcomes. Our protagonist comes from a middle-class family, which is clearly not as wealthy as that of her aunt, who married a Frenchman and lives in a beachfront villa. While her cousin Lena is a medical student, wearing Western-style clothes and driving her mother’s car, Sofia is expected to serve the family at the table and wear a traditional djellaba when she leaves the house. It is during a family dinner, when her father and uncle are sealing the deal on an agricultural project in the fertile Souss region, that Sofia’s waters break. She has been in denial of her pregnancy and it is due to Lena’s quick-thinking, medical training and connections that Sofia is able to deliver her baby in a local hospital.

Although Sofia by Meryem Benm’Barek traces Sofia’s journey from the shock discovery of her pregnancy to a series of decisions which help her rescue her reputation and set her on a path to social rehabilitation, this is not a character study. It is an exposé of the legal and social constraints which every Moroccan woman must navigate and the hypocrisy involved in preserving honour over anything else.

The film opens with Article 490 of the Moroccan penal code, which punishes extra-marital relations with a prison sentence of between one month and one year. But Sofia does not come across as a campaigning film like Hind Bensari’s 475: Break the Silence or Nadir Bohmouch’s 475: When Marriage Becomes a Punishment (see clip below), both documentaries. These films were part of a digital campaign, which included local and international women’s right groups, against Article 475 of the Moroccan penal code, the so-called “rape marriage clause.” Films which address such deep-seated cultural and social issues do not make for easy viewing for a Moroccan audience and, like Nabil Ayouch’s 2015 controversial feature, Zin Li Fik (Much Loved), Sofia received no funding from the Moroccan Centre cinématographique marocain. Although Benm’Barek claims she had a Moroccan as well as a festival audience in mind for Sofia, the latter is clearly her target; her film was entirely funded entirely by French support. As the saying goes, he who pays the piper, calls the tune and European funders of films from their former colonies are often accused of favouring sellable subjects, such as gender rights and immigration, which serve to further entrench the othering of the protagonists.

In a strange twist of timing, less than one week after I finally saw Sofia, I read the happy news that journalist Hajar Raissouni had married her fiancé, Prof Rifaat al-Amin. Both were pardoned by King Mohammed VI in October 2019 following their sentencing to one year in prison under Article 490, as allegedly evidenced by an illegal abortion which was never proven. At the same time as the world’s press reported the pardon of Rassouni and al-Amin, Moroccan press publicised a change in the law enabling children born outside of marriage in Morocco to be registered. The need to record both parents’ names at birth is another issue faced by Sofia in the film, and one which affects an estimated 80,000 children, preventing them from accessing vital public services such as health and education. Children’s charities in Morocco, such as Association Bayti, have been working hard to change this law because it sets up a lifetime of disadvantage.

Many aspects of the penal codes of Morocco and other countries are a direct postcolonial relic of European legal codes. Their origin lies not in conservative social attitudes, but their survival does. Honour is defined by academics IJzerman and Cohen as a “cultural syndrome prizing female chastity, familial loyalty, and reputation.”  As Palestianian-American professor, Lama Abu Odeh, explains, dominant honour culture dictates the norms of gender performance which women are expected to embody in order to exhibit honour, avoid shame, and pre-empt actions necessary to defend or restore that honour.  Virginity, or the semblance of chastity, is a critical attribute for women in this context.  It is easy to rally against the hypocrisies exposed by a film such as Sofia by Meryem Benm’Barek. But unless viewers feel encouraged and empowered to learn about the issues and the change – albeit slow – behind the images on screen, their partial insight contributes to a greater divide between viewer and protagonist, not a greater understanding. And without that additional interrogation of the subject matter, the snapshot which a film like Sofia provides negates the immense work conducted by feminist and human rights groups across North Africa and the Middle East on a daily basis.

Read my review of Fanon: Yesterday Today at the 2019 Africa in Motion Film Festival here.

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