Interview with Mohamed Amin Benamraoui

Tangiers, 8 May 2016

Florence Martin: You have said that Adios Carmen was somewhat autobiographical, but you really wanted the film’s narrative to unfold in 1975 for this story, against the backdrop of the Moroccan-Spanish history.

Mohamed Amin Benamraoui
Mohamed Amin Benamraoui

Mohamed Amin Benamraoui: Yes, I started with the idea that between Moroccans and Spaniards there has always been a love / hate relationship, just as there is a love/hate relationship between story and reality. The most important historical event the two countries have in common is definitely the Green March, because it crystallized all the tension that had been building up for years, even centuries. There was the story of the north being colonized by Spain, then the war between the Rif and the Spaniards, with terrible battles. And then, the Spaniards settled in Morocco. When they finally left in 1956, they did not all really leave: doctors, pharmacists, remained, because Morocco had a need for these professions. But then these people also left in the 1970s and the 1980s.

Apart from  colonisation. I also wanted to talk about the exile of Spaniards who had to flee Franco’s regime and the civil war. Suddenly, there were a lot of exiled Spaniards who sought work with other Spaniards elsewhere. They went to Algeria, or the south of Morocco, Casablanca, or northern Spain. This is the historical moment at which I place Carmen’s story. In the film, this is combined with her father’s death or murder perhaps at the hands of Franco’s people… These migrant Spaniards came to work for other Spaniards who were perhaps a little wealthier and had lived in Morocco since colonization. And as was the case with every family in Spain, there were those who were for Franco, and those who were against him, hence Republicans and Royalists, or, rather Franco supporters. In the film, I tried to combine the historical tension with a family tension. I showed the political tension that was starting to rise with regard to Western Sahara in the archival footage when Morocco began to negotiate the Western Sahara with the United Nations, and the tension increased more and more… Spain slowly began to let go of the Sahara, but among the Spaniards it was hard.In the film I tried to show that aspect through the eyes of Carmen’s brother, who may be a case of arrested development and gives the impression that he is pro-Franco. In the end we do not know whether he was the one who burned the film… Maybe it’s him, maybe not. After all, it often happens that film burns through because the projector is not up to speed … In any case, the idea is to see the Moroccans’ frustration through this event.  I tried to put all these elements in place to provide an idea of what was happening in Morocco at the time …

FM: Even if someone does not really know the intricate history, I think you do manage to make your audience understand many things through the bulletins on the radio, the TV, the news …

MAB: Yes. The idea behind this was to show how these neighbouring nations share a common memory, history, how they also have a shared cultural heritage – Moroccans are present in Spain, Spaniards in Morocco, and then there are those who are our neighbours here; the Spanish city of Melilla is not even ten kilometres from Moroccan Nador. The region is Hispanophone, as is most of the northern area. I wanted to show how these people experience this ongoing political tension. There is constant colonisation of one or the other, triggered by political events. When there is a change of government, for example, in Spain, policy changes vis-à-vis Morocco. I wanted to show how History with a capital letter always overshadows and separates the story or stories of ordinary people. That is my reading, and it is something I think we should all try to do. To see small stories: the moving story, for instance, of the little boy who finds a new mother, a surrogate mother, in Carmen. He refuses to say goodbye to Carmen in the end because he does not want to suffer another trauma after the painful departure of his own mother. To see Carmen leave is very painful … How is it that these people never get together, that they cannot live together, share this life, this neighbourhood? Why are relationships always conflictual?

To this I added autobiographical elements that belong to me to help me construct the narrative of Carmen. The Green March was what allowed me to tell both the history and that which I wanted to say with regard to the relationship between Morocco and Spain. Carmen, who was based on the person who allowed me to discover cinema, through Bollywood films, allowed me to experience certain emotions and taught me especially to look at my own history. You can see it in the Bollywood stories I chose to show: these are stories of separation, of reunion, the story of the little boy who finds his mother later on in life, and then the story of the three brothers who reunite at the end with their crying mother.

At the same time, I wanted to show how Indian cinema in the seventies, when there was nothing for us (apart from  street violence), allowed us to travel or flee the political and social violence. This is the type of cinema that let me live, liberate myself, escape, and be happy for a while, with Carmen who provided me with an escape away from my difficult life with my uncle… That is what I tried to underline: that cinema in general can give you a kind of freedom that we can experience through singing, through experience emotions, even if outside of the cinema one has to fight.

The film is also a kind of homage to Carmen because she allowed me to discover the cinema and to learn gradually to tell stories by watching movies. We see in the film how the boy is already beginning to tell stories (the stories of the movies he has seen) to his friend. And finally, at the end, the boy takes the voice of an adult who has become a film director. And so the circle is complete.

FM: Is it your voice?

MAB: It is my voice. In a way,  the voice comes from the little boy. There I wanted to say: Carmen, the little boy you brought to the cinema has become, or is trying to become, a film director, with his first feature film. That’s why it was important for me to start with this film, to tell how I discovered the cinema. Later I will tell other stories that are perhaps also my stories but that are still related to separation, to violence against women, because that’s what I’ve lived through my whole childhood. I was surrounded by my aunts, my grandmother, and I felt their pain, their tears. There was a lot of violence in Nador and it has stayed with me. The story I want to write now is a history of violence by men against women, but which shows how these women try to find strategies to protect themselves, to try to live in spite of it all. I also want to discover how the mother is always absent in my films, because that also speaks to me. My mother left and that remains traumatic, even if I found her later on, but the injury has always been there and remains present all the time. This has conditioned my relationships with women, and perhaps it has also shaped my viewpoint on the intolerable violence against women, and my understanding that this violence may exist elsewhere, but perhaps a little more so here, in Morocco. So there is this mix of my complicated, chaotic life, which conditions and colours my films, and which guides my choice of topics for my movies. That’s how some of my films are born. I finally made my first feature film, but I have lots of other stories in me, and I notice that there are always those elements that are present within me, and I turn towards them.

FM: Earlier, you described a kind of mise-en-abyme, a story within a story, that returns to the life of the little boy and his drama… When I saw the film, I thought about what you said about providing a narrative that makes one see something else, there is a story that fits into another, like Russian dolls ….

MAB: Yes. There are many stories like that in what I am writing at the moment. There are always those stories that join, that cross one another, and finally those which practically revolve around the same subject, with the same pain, but viewed differently. Whether one is from one culture or another, we share essentially the same pain, the same survival or defence strategy. In the end, the elements are always the same: I will never tell stories of an individual having to overcome a couple of individual obstacles here and there, because others face the same obstacles and these will intersect somewhere. It is interesting to see how everyone evolves in his or her own way in trying to face the same issue, whether it is linked to violence, to the lack of something, to childhood, to filiation, to the relationship with one’s parents, or to domestic violence and gender violence.

Adios Carmen / Bollywood Films
Adios Carmen / Bollywood Films

To return to Bollywood – or Hindi cinema, because Bollywood is a term that was given later on – I remember that when I went to the movie theater, people were really fighting to get tickets, to get a space, especially when they could see films screened for the first time with actors like Shashi Kapoor, for example. These stories have enabled a whole generation to dream in spite of everything, to escape from their everyday sadness, from the political violence. There was a political violence in the seventies in Morocco that had consequences on the relationships among people. There were men who were becoming more and more violent, especially against women, the weak, and against children too, and then even against animals. Moroccans who went to the Bollywood films received answers to their problems – even if they did not understand Hindi and most could not read Arabic subtitles. Hindi films told stories that contained elements of justice in the end, or rewarding love stories, for example: a poor person could, at the end of the film, marry their beloved one even if the latter belonged to another or higher, caste. There was always hope. State justice also always intervened. There was a kind of agreement between the military regime in India and the Hindi film industry so that even if the heroes created justice for themselves, the state always intervened at the end, when the police arrived. So the solution was always that when the cops arrived, they would capture the bad guy. It was this model that made Moroccans dream, it’s what made them come out of their slump. And it’s what provided answers to their own questions, some hope, and reassured them that there was a future.

FM: At the same time, you made this film in Tamazight.

MAB: Because it’s the story of Nador, a northern Moroccan story, with a Spanish presence – and it’s my own story. I could not see this story differently. I myself am someone who passionately defends this culture because it did not receive its rightful place in history. It has been marginalized, like the North has been marginalized at some point. I really tried to devote myself to this culture, so that this language may live, that the language is developed, in a dynamic way, so that it gains its place within other cultures, so that it is not marginalized or folklorised or otherwise regarded only from a political point of view. So culturally, there needs to be that presence of the language, especially from the perspective of diversity, because it is important that Morocco continues to hold on to the different elements that constitute it all… If we continue to set up these elements against one another, the tensions will lead to violence; but as soon as one recognizes other elements within his or her own identity, one can become more open to others. At this time, there is less violence and more harmony in Moroccan society. That’s why it’s important for me to continue to work in Berber: Firstly, we need an assertive view of this culture, for the acknowledgement of this culture. Secondly, we need to work with Rif actors, so that they may gain confidence in themselves, so that they can tell themselves that they can demand more of themselves and reach a higher level of acting, and make films like everyone else, and finally find their place in the film industry. This is also to say that we have the right to exist; and so that others may say that we do a good job! As such, their point of view will hopefully change, because we often hear, “you are making movies? No longer on VHS ?” This is what we were told. But then, when I presented Adios Carmen at festivals all over Morocco, the way Moroccans welcomed the film was amazing.

Florence Martin