Interview with Hassan Benjelloun

Hassan Benjelloun’s La chambre noire

3 March 2016

Florence Martin: What was it that first attracted you in La chambre noire, this dense book by Jaouad Mdidech?

Hassan Benjelloun
Hassan Benjelloun

Hassan Benjelloun: I must say that it coincided with a point in time when, in my career as filmmaker, I wanted to adapt a book, that is to say to engage in the exercise of adapting a book for the screen. At the same time, I wanted to talk about the Years of Lead. So I thought: well, since you can’t make a movie every year, why not combine my interest in the Years of Lead with a book adaptation. So I looked for a book that dealt with the years of lead.

The first thing was a personal decision in my filmmaking career. The second thing was that I read everything that was written about the Years of Lead, all the books and of course all the essays as well. I found that in Jaouad Mdidech’s La chambre noire, ou, Derb Moulay Chérif, there was a clear timeline. This is not an interior story, but the guy tells his story like this: ‘there is Thursday, Friday, Monday, Tuesday’: there is a chronology. So I wanted to do an adaptation of it, of course, but a free adaptation. I cannot follow the book literally, because not everything I want to say is in the book, and there are also things in the book that I do not want to discuss. In the book, some things were missing, basically, and some things were too much. When I met Jaouad, he first had to accept my offer and give me the rights to the book; and secondly he had to accept my free adaptation of it. I read the book several times to see what I could do. I noticed that it was missing a love story. He does not speak about women.

FM: Except a little bit, at the beginning of the book.

HB: Yes, but in passing. And I thought: this is not possible. A young man like him, an intellectual who works and all, surely had a girlfriend! So I asked. I asked his mother. I asked him as well. And he said “Yes, yes, yes, I had a girlfriend”. I asked him “Why don’t you  talk about her in the book? Can you tell me?” He said “Yes” and he told me about his girlfriend. So I went to see the girl, we talked a little. I said: “look, not to worry, I will change your name.”

So we have a love story in the film, which does not exist in the book. There are also several stories that I already had at the time when I was planning  the film, and then, of course, I packed in a lot of stories of former inmates, torturers, and others into the script as well. I tried to put the narratives of others into the story, obviously always seeking Mdidech’s consent. Because in the contract, it was clearly mentioned that I could not change anything, I could not add or delete scenes without the consent of the writer. So as I was writing the script, I would ask him, and he would give his consent. He never refused anything. Hence things happen in the film that do not happen in the book. And the opposite is true as well: while the prisoners left to go to the prison in Kenitra, in the film I stayed in Casablanca.

FM: And who wrote the script?

HB: I wrote it myself with,  of course,  the collaboration of many people, especially Laure Englebert, a French scriptwriter who provided most assistance. I attended many writing workshops with the script because, since it deals with  a very delicate subject, we had to show the world that we were preparing a film about the dark years before presenting it in Rabat.

FM: That’s interesting.

HB: I was in Paris. I was in Istanbul, Seville, Gabon, in Tunis, everywhere in the world, with the screenplay and talking to exhibitors. Everyone knew that I was preparing a film on the years of lead. And only afterwards did I present here. So I introduced the script everywhere, writing together with Laure Englebert. And once back in Morocco, I presented the project in Rabat.

FM: What did they tell you at the CCM?

HB: I was lucky enough to have Abdellatif Laâbi, a former prisoner, as president of the commission. That’s what happened.

FM: And what other funds did you get to make this film?

HB: For this film, the two Moroccan television channels did not support me. They did not want to and they could not, I understood that. So the CCM via its Fonds d’aide (not the  avance sur recettes at the time) and The International Organization Francophonie (via its Image Fund for the south) gave me some funding. The Euromed project also supported me. But that’s all. This film is very cheap: from the point of view of money, I did not have a lot of funding.

FM: Do you have your own production company?

HB: Well, I did not have much money and it is a period piece that required a lot of things. I put in a little money, my own money, but that’s it.

FM: And how was the film received when it came out?

HB: It did okay, it was received very well, but unfortunately many cinema theaters have closed here. Otherwise, it was distributed in France, but it was a technical release, the distributor did not support it. The film toured the world along the festival circuit, it garnered prizes, things happened, but the international distributor did not do his job properly and I think he even went bankrupt. So the film got stuck with him and I could not go to someone else. And then time passed … So even the career of the movie is funny, right? I assure you, it’s really funny: it’s like the years of lead! We’ve had no luck. The film lucked out in that it was well received critically, and it was seen by many people, and at major events, but commercially no such luck.

FM: Can we briefly revisit the idea of adaption? Have you made any other adaptations?

HB: No, no I haven’t.

FM: And for this one, did you work with “equivalences” the way Truffaut did when he adapted Jules and Jim?

HB: Exactly. I will give you the example of the part of the girlfriend that was added, that I felt I had to put in the film. She embodied all the girlfriends of those who were detained. You understand? I made sure she exemplified everything that had happened to the others…

FM: … you did this with one character?

HB: You see, all former inmates identified with the film… Here’s another example. In the novel by Jaouad Mdidech, you are made to understand, at least he implied that there was, I would not say a good atmosphere (it would be indecent to call it a good atmosphere), but something that resembled moments of relief… And I also worked on other stories and while I was doing my research I discovered that there was a kind of bond between the perpetrators and detainees, a human bond.

FM: You mean the guards? You do not mean the torturers, right?

HB: Both the torturers and the guards! And I was obliged to show this in combination with moments where everyone could laugh, and that’s what Jaouad has held against me. You understand. Jaouad accepted the script, but he did not expect the effect it was going to have on the audience. Because everyone was laughing in the movie theater, everyone, and yet it was a hard film. For me, it was necessary that people laugh every 17 minutes,, so as to be able to withstand the harsh things that were to follow. Jaouad did not understand this. He said: “I did not write a novel that makes readers laugh.” But I did make a film that makes the audience laugh.

FM: And cry.

HB: And cry… I will give you another example. A guard in charge of the detainees was not educated. But of course, the detainees were all intellectuals, and they started to give him lessons. The detainees did teach classes to the guards! And when this one guard turned 60, he retired. He left the prison, but he came back to see them, to visit the detainees for hours on end, and he continued to receive his education.

FM: Incredible!

HB: Oh yes! There are things like that. Of course, I could not put everything in the film. But there is enough material for an endless television series. Let me now give you an example of human meanness. There was an inmate who, bored of course and with time on his hands, had tamed a little mouse! Every day, the little mouse came to him, and it was always the same mouse; and he fed the mouse. And it was his beloved pet, he played hide and seek with it, that sort of thing. And then one day, to punish the prisoner, the guard crushed the mouse right in front of him, and the detainee went crazy. He literally became insane.

FM: That was the last straw…

HB: If you only knew how much I have learned in doing the research for this film… I could write books and books that would be really well-documented. You cannot imagine the things I found out. The history of the Berber woman in the film, for example. There was a Berber peasant woman who went to pick up her son, and she could not understand a word of Arabic. She went looking for her son at the police station in Casablanca. And then she went to live with the family of another prisoner, a family who had also come to search for their child at the same police station. Well, this scene in the film does not exist in the book, but I wanted to show the bond between the families. I told Jaouad “You know all these stories, why did you not tell them? Your book is too dry.” On the other hand, you see, that’s also why I chose the book. Because it is the way it i and I could add things to it.

FM: You select very sensitive subjects. You chose this topic, you also chose for example the departure of the Jews from Morocco… do you have others like that up your sleeve?

HB: No, that’s just because I needed to get things off my chest. I wanted to talk about these things. It helped me too. And also, my cinema is totally free because I don’t need filmmaking to eat. So I keep at it, even if they try to prevent me from filming, if they do not give me money to make my films, it’s okay. I’m not afraid of disturbing people, so I try to gently tease the thinking of society and the authorities. I provoke them a little, I talk of things one doesn’t talk about. And I talked about women with my two films Les Lèvres du silence et Jugement d’une femme, of which the release coincided with a series of films and books about women’s status in Morocco. This resulted in the Mudawana[1] which resulted in change. I am not saying it all changed because of what we did, but I feel we contributed to, we stimulated the debate… We talked about the Years of Lead, in fact I was the first to mention the Years of Lead. Others followed. And all this led to Reconciliation, but I say not thanks to that thing, no.

You know, we did not speak of the departure of the Jews: Jewish migration was taboo. We did not talk. Now they have tests on it in all universities.. That’s wonderful! With modesty and without pretence, I can say, I have been useful, I accomplished something. You can love my films, or not, but they make a difference. There!

FM: And what are you working on at the moment?

HB: After Jugement d’une femme, and after Où vas-tu Moshé I made Les oubliés de l’histoire. It is about the exploitation of Moroccan women. It’s already been done in American films, but this is the Moroccan version, the African story. And then I did a film for fun, because I wanted to tell someone’s life. It was La Lune Rouge: it is the story of a great musician who was a Leftist and not liked by the government. He was blind, never played instruments, but he made the best songs in the history of Morocco.

FM: So he composed songs? And he also sang?

HB: No, no. He gave the songs to others, to the big stars. And coincidentally, it was he who announced the news of the attempted coup of Skhirat. He went to jail and I made a film about him. He died in 1979. He survived for 40 years. And he was marginalized. His songs were banned on Moroccan radio…

FM: You have a really large filmography…

HB: Yes. I am among the fertile filmmakers of this country. Despite the disappointments, despite everything… This is what I have been telling you. When I want to make a film, I insist and I make it. I’m working now, and as they did not give me money, I have had to put this new project on hold. I did a whole research project on Sufism. And I wrote a script about it that they did not like. And I could not do it on my own, because it requires a lot of money. So, right now I’m working on another film.

So I’ll tell you. My current film is also disturbing in many ways. And I don’t know now what will happen to it, I have applied to the CCM Fund and we will see the results later on. In it, I talk about radicalization, about how are we dealing with Daesh and why. It bugs me, you cannot imagine. And I made some inquiries and found things. It’s called Le Quatre barré (the slashed Four) because we had a bus in Casablanca that was called Le Quatre barré. It went from a poor neighbourhood to downtown. It is a very long route, and on that long route all sorts of things happen in society and on that bus: flirting, marriage, divorce, pickpocketing, arguing, sleep … That’s why the film is called Le Quatre barré.

There are two young graduates in chemistry, they have a masters in chemistry, and they cannot find work. One lives with his mom, and the other lives with his dad – his mother died, his father remarried a young woman and he has other siblings. The one who lives with his mom is homosexual. The two are very close, but there is nothing between them. The audience will understand how radicalisation happens, especially with the gay guy. And that’s the disturbing element…

FM: I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you!


[1] Family code reform passed in 2004 in Morocco that extends the rights of women and gender equality within an Islamic framework.