Moroccan cinema serves as a cultural barometer measuring the sociocultural and political transformations that are taking place in the country. This presentation considers how memories, the unrevealed stories, and the facts about the Hassan II era (1963-1999), known as Les Années de plomb (The Lead Years) have inspired the psychologically probing Moroccan film Pegase (2010) by Mohamed Mouftakir. The film depicts how memories, trauma and the untold stories of Morocco’s violent past provide a historical backdrop that inspires psychological probing into very real, present issues such as women’s psychological trauma due to rape, incest and patriarchal traditionalism. It presents an interesting intersection of myth, dreams, and modern issues contextualized in a story about female mental illness. (See a clip : https://vimeo.com/38118339 )
Pegase focuses on two women, Zineb and Rhianna, the former a mentally and emotionally unstable psychiatrist working for a somberly dressed male doctor who walks with a limp. Rhianna, the prisoner/patient (both of which are words used to characterize her), was found mysteriously abandoned in the streets of an unnamed village. She is traumatized and pregnant, found muttering unintelligibly about “The Lord of the Horse.” A flashback sequence returns us to Rihanna’s childhood where her dictatorial father, a horseman and chief of his tribe, raises her as his son so that he may keep his lineage intact, maintaining the power and prestige of the tribe. Her father tells her: “When you’re a man, you can have everything…when you are a woman, you have nothing.” Trapped in her male disguise, Rihanna becomes conflicted when she falls in love with a young man, Zayad, with whom she discovers her true gender. However, Zayad is killed (by her father, or a war that goes undocumented and unnamed; we are never quite sure). Her pregnancy is either by Zayad before going off to war, or a rape committed by her father. Rihanna’s story awakens repressed thoughts in psychiatrist Zineb’s own troubled mind, and reality merges into a haunted surreal realm as both women’s stories, in turn, meld within the walls of the dark asylum/prison. In general, like many recent films, Pegase alludes to the modern problem of psychological trauma as rooted in abandonment, poverty, and social abjection that, in particular, touches the most vulnerable –women and girls.
On another level, the psychological trauma depicted reminds audiences of “the torture of prisoners in Morocco which was systematic in the past, as a violence that continues to afflict people in the present” as notes psychiatrist Rita El Khayat (2005, 15). The film forges its recall of this past by portraying cells of incarceration and abjection reminiscent of “descriptions of physical violence the consequences of which are still detectable in the personality of subjects ten, fifteen, even 20 years later” (2005, 15).
In order to encourage audiences to think about psychological trauma, the film operates on two levels: 1st as a memory space alluding to past egregious human rights violations committed during the Lead Years (Orlando: 2015); and a second more focused level, that of women’s psychological trauma both in the past and present and the taboos associated with rape, incest and violence against them that often do cause mental illness.
The larger, psychological trauma of the nation witnessed during the Lead Years is mediated through the cinematic postmemory lieux de mémoire for those of the “generation after”; in this case, audiences in the present. These younger generations, as Marianne Hirsch notes, bear the responsibility of remembering the “personal, collective and cultural trauma of those who came before. [Often, this trauma can only be remembered by] means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up [but were vague]…Postmemory’s connection to the past is thus actually mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection and creation…” (Hirsch: 2012, 5).
Although the film’s plot has been characterized as a nebulous haunting dream wrapped in gender-bending fear and denial, it also has been lauded as a visually striking, award-winning psychological thriller. Its intrigue for Moroccan audiences can be linked perhaps to their general fascination with dreamscapes. In studies based on his fieldwork in Morocco, Benjamin Kilborne suggests that, particularly in rural areas, the “dream [was] conceived of as a voyage of the soul to ancestral countries [couched in an animist belief system]” (1978, xi). Mouftakir’s film reflects Kilborne’s hypothesis that “the dream privileges the integration of the dead into living society” (Kilborne: 1978, xi). Thus, in the context of transmitting a dark past, a dream-like scape is useful for scrutinizing traumas, and more specifically victims of detention.
Pegase, expressive of Hirsch’s description of postmemory process as an “imaginative investment, projection and creation”, also places at the forefront female mental illness; past and present. Additionally, the film’s exploration of dreams and its psychological probing open up larger questions about understanding Moroccan psychological practice as a discipline. Certainly, how best to devise effective psychological treatment for mental patients in the country, most particularly women.
Rita El Khayat was one of the first female psychiatrists to document women’s mental health issues and lack of treatment as widespread in Morocco. She was also studied “the relationship between patriarchal medical institutions and the women within them [which, in turn, revealed gender inequality in both public and private spheres]” (Labidi: 2006, 637). El Khayat in her work, La Folie, El Hank-Casablanca (2000) compares the inadequate mental facilities at the El Hank hospital to “a harem” where women are incarcerated by a hyper-patriarchal system that does nothing to treat their mental illness (29). The psychiatrist calls for a deconstruction of patriarchy on multiple levels: the cultural, the political and the philosophical that form the taboos contributing to women’s trauma (El Khayat, 2000). Mouftakir’s film does the same, calling into question patriarchal structures that impede women from being enfranchised in society, keeping them from healing processes and general agency.
For women, the asylum is the modern version of a psychological civilizing mission that relegates the most unfortunate mentally ill women to dementia in perpetuity. This fact is visually reflected in the closing scenes of Mouftakir’s film– which actually offers no closure or positive outcomes for Rhianna’s healing. In fact audiences themselves are left dazed and confused in a no (wo)man’s land between myth and reality by the transference of mental illness from Zineb to Rhianna and back to Zineb. One could argue that Mouftakir is making a point about the way women have been and are treated by tradition and modernity as well as institutions in patriarchal societies. Little has changed with respect to traditional views about mental illness that persist even in modern times, thus impeding women’s psychological well-being.
Pegase functions as a travail de mémoire, evoking the traumatic untold –or unclear– stories of a persistently opaque past. In the confusion and blurring of lines between past and present, myth and reality, women and men’s place and roles in society, sanity and insanity, Mouftakir evokes the hard realities of physical abuse, patriarchal domination, and antiquated views about female sexuality in contemporary Moroccan society.
El Khayat, R. La Folie, El Hank-Casablanca. Casablanca, Morocco: Eddif, 2000.
El Khayat, R., and A. Goussot. Psychiatrie, Culture et politique. Casablanca, Morocco: Editions Aïni Bennaï, 2005.
Hirsch, M. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust. NY: Columbia UP, 2012.
Kilborne, B., Interprétations du rêve au Maroc. Paris: La Bibliothèque d’ethnopsychiatrie, Series: La pensée sauvage, 1978.
Labidi, L. “Rita El Khayat on Moroccan Psychiatry and Sexuality.” Women’s History Review 15 (4), 2006: 637–649.
Orlando, Valerie. “Women, madness, myth and film: exploring Moroccan psychological trauma and postmemory in Pegase (Mohamed Mouftakir, 2010)”, The Journal of North African Studies, 2015.