Interview with Munir Abbar

Tangier 4 May 2016

Munir takes me to the terrace of La Tangerina, a ryad in the Kasbah overlooking a slightly overcast sea, under a cotton-candy haze that blurs the horizon. Munir does not wear his ponytail today. When I remark on it, he produces an elastic band, ready to conform to my previous image of him, with a mischievous smile. I decline. Hence the photo… He has an open face, a direct and frank gaze and does not mince words or emotions.

Q – Why Tangier?

A – I did not study cinema. I did commercials in Berlin and started my own producing company and worked there for years. I grew up in Berlin and had not gone back to Morocco since the age of 16: no freedom – back then in the thick of les années de plomb, there was no space to breathe and I wanted none of that Morocco. Then, in 2004, I returned to Morocco and stayed for six months. I started to love the place, the people. The regime was changing, there was a new king who was opening things up. I decided to try and learn Morocco and live there. So I went back to Berlin, worked a bit, came back and really started to learn French and darija. I am now fluent in the darija of Tangier, I even have its intonation: when I go to Marrakesh and say “assalam aleikum” people immediately know that I am from the North, not from the South.

But in the beginning, it was tough. I remember that when Paris sur Seine [a link to the film on Vimeo here] was screened at the National Festival in Tangier, I was asked to give an interview on TV. I asked if it could be in English and they said: no, Darija. I thought, well, if I am going to give an interview in Morocco on a Moroccan film, I guess that’s the language in which to do it. So I did. A few weeks later, I was driving in the country and a cop pulled me over. He asked to see my papers and I produced my id card, you know, the old-fashioned one that used to state your profession. So he read “réalisateur”, took a second look at me and asked: “You are the réalisateur who gave an interview on TV a short while back, aren’t you?” And then he added with a grin: “The way you spoke was so funny! I have to tell you: I had not had such a good laugh in a long while!” And he let me go without a fine!

Munir Abbar in Tanger
Munir Abbar in Tangier

Munir laughs with abandon before he looks out at the sea now turning a darker shade of bluish slate. He turns back to me, his face serious…

I realized Europe was done for. A fascistic place, really. Look, how long has it been since WW II? Seventy years? And we are still at it… In France, in Spain, even in Germany, of all places. I am better off in Morocco. So I come to Tangier in the winter months and spend the summer in Berlin. I dissolved my production company and I work as a freelance producing commercials when I am called for a job in Germany. Sometimes I even do jobs for German companies here: I was in Ouarzazate not long ago for one. This allows me to pay the bills, take care of my daughter, and above all do what I like to do most: filmmaking. I mean fiction. That’s what I want to do now.

I lived in Casablanca for six months. But Casablanca is not for me: it’s too weird and too big. It takes time for people to get together across such distances. People do their own thing, their own film but there is no café where they can hang out together, discuss things, get feedback, think together. Everyone is stuck in his own silo. I much prefer Tangier where someone calls you and says: “hey, I’d love to see you. Can you be at X?” And twenty minutes later, you are there. Tangier is more fluid this way… Tangier already is a cinema town, look at the filmmakers here: Farida Benlyazid, of course, but also Jilali Ferhati, Moumen Smihi[1]… It is deeply international, and has the inspiration that goes with such diversity. Yet young filmmakers always want to go to Casablanca: they need fancy malls, luxury stores, all that stuff… There is none of it here. I find everything I need here. But directors go to Casablanca, as if Casa was the only viable place… In some ways, Morocco is very centralized: one city – Casablanca – and the rest! A little like Paris in France or London in England. I prefer the federalism of Germany: Berlin is one thing, but other cities are also alive culturally in the federation.

Q – Paris-sur-Seine (17 min, Tunisia, 2007)?

A – The story started when, having come back to Tangier, I wanted to make a film on the people who were here, all these Africans who are not in the Tangier everyone knows but in the other Tangier on the periphery, in dwellings that are not finished, or that are hastily put together overnight… It’s the same old story: the migrants each give away $2,000 to a guy who tells them he’ll come back for the crossing, and they are left in the forest waiting. And then when it does not work, they stay…

I wanted to meet people and I did. I met a variety of people who told me their stories: there was one who came from Benin. His family had sold their house in order to send him away to make it, expecting him to send money back. He left, headed North, made it through the desert, finally reached Tangier and then failed to cross. He felt guilty towards his family who was expecting so much. So he bought a Spanish SIM card and went near the border of Ceuta to catch the Spanish network and called his parents telling them he had made it. Then he realized something crucial: the important part was freedom, not money.

Then, there was this other guy who squatted a place – not a house, really, just a place with walls. On it he started painting views of Paris, of Rome etc, and took selfies in front of them that he sent home. These were the two main life stories that fed into the film.

To play the part of Wilson, I wanted someone who had made it through the desert and reached Tangier. But that meant finding an African guy in Tangier (that part was easy), then taking him back to the desert he had so painstakingly crossed, and shoot the scene there. At which point any policeman could suddenly show up and ask for the documents he would not have and then… So, that was clearly too risky for everybody. Impossible. Luckily, I heard about this tourism school nearby with lots of African students with legal documents. That’s where I found my actor. But I have to tell you: directing a nonprofessional actor requires tremendous time and infinite energy…

I received a call from a man in Dubai who asked me to send Paris-sur-mer to the festival. I said I could not because I wanted it to be screened at the 2008 Berlinale and Berlin demands a world premiere. The guy insisted: “Please reconsider! I am not on the jury but I have seen all the shorts and yours is the best one…” That was nice! Through a series of circumstances, I ended up not going to the Berlinale and went to Dubai instead in December.

Last week it was in Brazilia and I received positive feedback: it was shown twice. (Munir shows me the feedback on-line: nine years on, the short film indeed gets great response. He smiled). I am happy when people like it! You know, the story of migrants, of refugees here, in Europe, is going to stay with us for the next twenty years. Probably longer…

Q – La Cible (21 min, Tunisia, 2012)?

A – That story came to me via unplanned circumstances. I was on a plane leaving Morocco for Berlin. I was seated in first class, and I saw a young man complete with a wahabi beard reading the Coran. I thought: what is this guy doing in first class where everyone else here is going somewhere to do business? He is not a businessman… What business is he after? And I started to fear that his business was to go “boom”! (Munir laughs at the recollection)The plane landed and I saw his family pick him up, I saw the joy shared by everyone gathered around him, and became mad at myself: “Come on, Munir! You are paying too much attention to this media shit!” and I started to think about La Cible.

I was looking for the actor when I saw Salah Bensalah. To be precise, I saw his eyes: I had found Tarik! I told him about the film, asked him to act for me; I also said I had to go back to Berlin for a while and told him when we would shoot, a few months later. He really trusted me. He called me a couple of times: “Munir, are you sure this project is still on? I am offered a part in a film”; and when I said: “yes, I am coming back to do the film,” he waited for me. Really a great guy and I loved his work in the film.

We shot the movie very quickly – in thirteen days. It was not a costly film: we built a little cabane on a roof and almost everything is shot within that space, so that made it easy.

La Cible received the Grand Prix du court métrage (Best Short Award) at the National Festival in Tangier in 2013. It also went to Cannes: they had a Moroccan focus that year and it was screened there with other shorts from Morocco.

Q – Le Manuel de la vie sauvage (your feature film in progress)?

A – We have just finished the script: I use a script writer, Sebastian Orlac (from Berlin) and a script doctor, Daniele Suissa (from Casablanca). I am not a writer: I see things. I can see the film. It is a bit complicated because it has been written in German, translated into English, in French and finally in Darija. The script needs to be in Darija in order to be presented at the CCM. We rewrote it several times (he shows me the number of versions on his IPad). We are almost there but I didn’t want to present it at the May session of the CCM: September it will be. I am not going to wait for the response of the CCM (it takes three months after the submission of the script) to start working on it: I’ll start getting all the elements of the production in motion in September, so I am ready to go when they give me the OK. Getting the CCM aid should also make it easier to go after other funds in France, Germany, Doha. And yes, Arte would be nice… And it might be a theme they like. Basically I am going to produce it because I know how to produce. This has been my job for years.

This film is not about the années de plomb frontally – I do want help from the CCM! (smile) – but it is about the next generation. The protagonist is a little boy whose parents, who are intellectuals, have been arrested by the police and the parents quickly hide him so you, the viewer, do not see the arrest. Just like the little boy who, from his hiding place, cannot see anything.

The maid then takes him away from Casablanca – where he used to live with his family – to Tangier. She used to have a crush on the boy’s father but he rejected her. As a result she hates the intellectual bourgeoisie and refuses to have him schooled. He will remain illiterate, yet he is also a poet. She treats him very poorly, like a slave. He grows up and, one day, discovers the photo of someone he thinks he recognizes in the newspaper. He starts to look for the man in the picture who might have something to do with his parents’ disappearance. He ends up becoming a gardener for this man. He lives in a little house in the garden.

I do not want to say more! But it is hopefully going to be a very poetic film. I can see it already. (Munir uses his arms to draw frames and panoramas in the air) I can visualize the frames, the sequences. (Munir smiles widely) This is such an important project for me. Imagine: my first fiction feature film…

Incidentally, because of where the film is taking place (Tangier for the most part) I’ll hire a few coaches to make sure the actors (who come from other parts of Morocco) master the Tangerine Darija – otherwise, it won’t work… I also want the actors to come and live in Tangier for six months, get a feel for the language, the place, the people here.

Q – The future?

A – All I dream of is to eventually earn a living doing what I like best: fiction films. I no longer want to shoot commercials. I now produce them, and live off of that for the time being. But I no longer can direct commercials. I usually produce for German companies, not Moroccan ones. Here, when people ask you to develop a commercial film, they give you no time, and you need time to think it through, develop it, in order to do a professional job. This hasty way of doing things does not work for me. You know, creating a film, directing a film, is very hard work. I know, for instance, that for the feature film, I will spend 20 hours a day working on it.

[1] There was also Yacoubi, who passed away recently. Not only was he a great actor, he had also been the costume designer for Lawrence of Arabia, Munir tells me.