It's not too difficult to spot the bastards in Deborah Perkin's documentary of that title. And they certainly aren't the little angels who didn't ask to be born out of wedlock.
"Bastards" played to a capacity audience at the Legation last Friday, its premiere in Morocco, prior to its official presentation tonight at FIDADOC – the Agadir International Documentary Festival – where Perkin's film opens the festival. On May 4 at 9:30 PM, Moroccan TV network 2M will air an edited version.
Perkin's 2014 documentary shouldn't be confused with the 2013 Claire Denis film "Les Salauds," whose international title "Bastards" accurately conveys the sense of "despicable person." We flinch at the word – our post-film interpreter used "monsters," a good substitute for the reference to these extreme deadbeat dads – and I even hesitated to use it in this blog post title line, for fear of censorious filtering in internet browsers.
If you think that the idea of stigmatizing "illegitimate" children is a phenomenon limited to Morocco or other Muslim countries, think again; activist group "Bastard Nation" in the US fights for the rights of millions of adoptees. And an Englishman in our audience recalled the opprobrium that was the lot of single mothers in the England of his youth, where concerns of "what will the neighbors think?" outweighed considerations of humanity toward the women and their innocent children.
Deborah Perkin is at pains to show the strides that Morocco has taken – in particular with the reforms of the mudawana or personal status law – to regularize and modernize the institution of marriage. But it's hard to overcome centuries of tradition, where in the past, a sense of honor and a simple recounting of the "fatiha" or opening sura of the Koran sufficed to create a marriage bond. And in many remote parts of Morocco, the practice continues.
The strength of Deborah Perkin's film is its simplicity, in subtitled Moroccan Arabic with no narration and a few explicative captions. The film's main subject is a courageous young woman, Rabha El Haimer, whose arranged marriage at age 14 is at the root of her problem. The traditional or "fatiha" marriage with a cousin has no legal standing, and her pregnancy coincides with her eviction from her husband's home. The code of honor no longer suffices; now it's "no papers, no recognition." Her baby is born a "bastard." Other cases are followed, but the core of the film is Rabha's quest for legitimacy – for her marriage, and therefore for her daughter.
And that's the magic of the film; daughter Selma (who is pictured in the poster), is a little angel, and gives lie to the archaic notion of illegitimacy and "bastardy." Deborah Perkin reminds us that the dictionary definition of bastard does more to describe the people who got girls like Rabha into their plight and then abandon them to their fate.
Rabha El Haimer (without headscarf) and admirers (photo: Rachid El Mziryahi, ALC Tangier;
The emotion generated by Bastards, in the presence of filmmaker Perkin and especially heroine Rabha El Haimer, was palpable among the Legation audience. Composed largely of the women from our Arabic literacy program and members of "100% Maman," a Tangier NGO for single mothers, our audience could identify with the ordeal of Rabha and women like her.
A particularly moving comment during our post-film discussion, in halting English by a young woman whose pregnancy led her to leave Marrakesh for Tangier – "we are your daughters, your sisters… we are good women" – led our event partner Mark Holbrook of the American Language Center to offer her a scholarship on the spot to follow courses to improve her English. He went on to offer the same to the women of "100% Maman."
Were it not for associations like 100% Maman and Darna in Tangier, and Casablanca's Association Solidarité Féminine (ASF), the lot of these single mothers and their children would be even more dire. For many children, it can be a death sentence: babies abandoned in the elements, or street children prey to disease, drugs, and a short, brutal existence. "It is a long, slow road," says ASF founder Aicha Ech-Channa, of changing the mentality that leads to exclusion.
This validation of her film by scores of Moroccan women was especially gratifying to Deborah Perkin. She knows that her film isn't going to rake in the big royalties, but if it can help change minds, then it will be all the compensation she needs.
US readers: "Bastards" will feature at the Lincoln Center's New York African Film Festival on May 9 and May 12.