El Ayel – A Muslim Childhood – Le Gosse de Tanger
Poster by AST Head Librarian Serena Epstein
"They accuse me of making 'intellectual' films, so the presence here of so many women from the medina – from our Beni Idder neighborhood where Le Gosse de Tanger is set – is extremely important to me." So Moumen Smihi, veteran Tangier and Paris filmmaker, greeted our very respectable gathering on Wednesday, on the margins of Morocco's National Film Festival, in Tangier for the 13th year running.
"Respectable," not only in terms of the quality of the people attending, but in their number: we had literally just gotten the word out less than 24 hours before, and our posters (above) were only distributed hours before our showing. But most importantly, the women that Moumen Smihi were referring to were "our" women from the TALIM-FTAM women's literacy program housed at the Legation.
Why was this so important, to us and to the filmmaker? Well, it was a first. Smihi is used to appearing before cinéphile audiences, congnoscenti who know what he means when he compares his returning references to the Tangier of his youth to Woody Allen's use of New York as a setting for his films: "it's the place I know best… with its multiplicity of languages and cultures, and the destiny of people to live together, whatever it takes."
And it was that aspect of Le Gosse de Tanger (2005, 90 minutes) that spoke most strongly to the women of our literacy program. Several of the older ones (Smihi's film takes place in the 1950s, when Tangier was still the International Zone) vividly remember this very neighborhood in the days when Muslim mothers brought in Spanish seamstresses to make trousers for their sons, or a Jewish matron sought advice from a Muslim sage, or Christian prostitutes shared the street with their colleagues from the other communities.
Sure, the x-rated language of the Fifties-era street kids did shock some in the audience, and some of the mothers regretted that they couldn't show the film to their children. Of course Moumen Smihi understands this, but explained that his goal was to portray the reality of growing up in a time and place where the respectable lived next door to the rejected, and the tempations of the street were a danger to boys even from the happiest of families.
For our impromtu showing, we even had the benefit of academic analysis – in French and Arabic – by Dr. Peter Limbrick of the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), Smihi friend and professor of Arab and Middle Eastern cinemas. Be sure to read Peter's excellent "guest post" after the page break at the bottom of this post.*
There are touches of Cinema Paradiso here, and one of the most memorable images is of the little friend "Ouahrani" mesmerized in one of Tangier's old cinemas before the flickering black and white images of a world that he will never grow up to know. Moumen Smihi has given us a loving, lasting work, one that would be a nice addition to any serious study of Tangier, International Zone, as seen by the Muslim population of the time.
*UPDATE 29 January: Guest Post by Dr. Peter Limbrick
A Muslim Childhood at TALIM: Putting le gosse back in Tangier!
One of best things about writing and teaching about film is getting to experience a film with new
audiences and, sometimes, in the presence of its director. So I eagerly accepted the invitation from Jerry Loftus to come to the Legation with Moumen Smihi to present his film Le Gosse de Tanger/El Ayel/A Muslim Childhood (2005). I’d arrived in Tangier a few days earlier to continue my research on Smihi and on Moroccan cinema, and with the Moroccan National Film Festival taking place the same week, it was an ideal moment–many of Smihi's team of collaborators, like producer Ody Roos and cinematographer Thierry Lebigre, were also in town.
This screening was an exceptional event. First, it was truly "Tangerian"–like the city itself (and like Smihi’s film!), the evening was a very international affair, its audience speaking a range of languages, sometimes simultaneously. Expecting a large group of English-language students, we’d purposely chosen a film with English subtitles (Smihi’s film is in the local darija or dialect of Moroccan Arabic, with some passages in French too), and expected a post-screening conversation in English. But in the end, as Jerry describes in his blog post, the primary audience for the screening turned out to be local women from the medina (enrolled in TALIM’s literacy program), most of whom spoke colloquial Arabic but not English or French. So everyone just changed key, and Smihi graciously translated in and out of darija and French where necessary. That multiplicity of languages, perspectives, and histories, all unfolding in Tangier, is just what his film is about.
But the best aspect of the evening was one that Jerry mentioned, too: the medina women formed an audience that many people assume are purposely excluded by Smihi's films. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth! Not everyone in the room (no matter where they're from) might have caught all the film's references to an international cinema, but that's beside the point. Jerry thinks of the film Cinema Paradiso (1988), whereas I recall the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu to the Spanish director Luis Buñuel or the Chilean Raul Rúiz. But the film's images and story are also deeply embedded in local Arabic language, in the stories of the medina of Tangier, in the long history of Arab and Berber culture in North Africa, and in the status of Tangier before, during, and after French colonialism and the International Zone. Smihi’s cinema is one that is deeply invested in the local, the particular, and the historical–and that’s why he was thrilled to see the film with these particular viewers who, like him, understand the realities and history of their locale better than the rest of us. So it was no surprise that they had more to say than anyone else in the room! And, most importantly, here they had a venue to speak for themselves and not be spoken for–or simply ignored–which is what happens if one simply assumes that they could never understand or be interested in a film like A Muslim Childhood.
So why might we wrongly imagine a “disconnect” between a film like this and a medina audience? To understand this better, we might think about the ways in which a film like El Ayel/Le Gosse de Tanger is the product of two different contexts. On the one hand, it’s the result of a creative method that Smihi refers to as a kind of research: a research not just in the history of cinema and its diverse styles and genres, but also in the history of Arabic language and culture, in its relationships between (as Smihi put it) the sacred and the sacrilegious. In the film, Muslim piety and faithful religious observance coexist with dirty street talk, the presence of prostitutes, and a non-Muslim world that Larbi, the young protagonist, encounters all around him. There was much conversation after the film about how those worlds co-existed in the Fifties (and now) in Tangier. Smihi’s research also produces images that are not arbitrary but have within them the traces of many traditions: those of European cinemas, as we’ve mentioned, but also those of the Arab-Islamic society in which they’re made. That means that the film has a “look” that is not “simply” religious but cultural: when Smihi shows the arch of a medina door, the rich pattern of a tiled wall, the flowing folds of a djelaba or a veil, or the sound of a prayer, he’s not doing so to make his film conform faithfully to religious customs; he’s showing a society whose culture is made with the influence of religious and non-religious things alike. Importantly, in this film, the cultural context includes Judaism and Christianity, which have also been important presences in Moroccan and Tangerian life.
But after a careful process of production, any film is subject to a whole host of other cultural forces as it enters a marketplace, where distributors and exhibitors have final say over whether or not they think an audience will like or understand something. And guess what? If your film is in black and white, or it doesn’t move as fast as some more commercial films, or it seems to show a world more complicated or contradictory than that of other films, it’s easy for a distributor or critic or festival programmer to pin a label like “intellectual” or “elitist” onto it and decide not to support or show it. That’s what happened with some of Smihi’s wonderful, enlightening films like Moroccan Chronicles (1999) and The Lady from Cairo (1991), which Moroccan audiences never got a chance to see even as they screened at festivals around the world. As a result of commercial decisions like those, a filmmaker can achieve a reputation as being cut off from or uninterested in a local audience. Fortunately, events like the Cinémathèque de Tanger’s retrospective of Smihi’s films in 2009 and this wonderful TALIM event show that films like El Ayel – Le gosse de Tanger – A Muslim Childhood belong just as much in the medina of Tangier as they do in a festival in San Francisco or Paris. Kudos to TALIM for helping bring a Tangerian film back to one of its homes.
2 thoughts on “Tangier Filmmaker Finds His Dream Audience – at TALIM”
Dear Mark, I’m sorry I only just saw this response! I’m so glad you found this interesting. Unfortunately, as you point out, there are no works by Moumen in circulation on DVD but I’m trying to change that! There are so many great films from Morocco, the Maghreb, and other parts of the Arab world that have never appeared on VHS and DVD and we’re all the worse off for that. Part of my work as a film historian and writer is to try to get some of this work to audiences in different ways, so I hope that might happen in the case of Moumen’s films in the next year or two. Feel free to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to keep in touch about that. Thanks for reading and responding!– Peter Limbrick
Inspiring. I really want to see the films. Alas, I looked hard for a dvd of each movie and found nothing.
Please, is there a source for someone like me who has Morocco in his heart and lives far, far away?