There are those films that offer a visceral experience – an explosion of sound, image and color. Then there are those that turn the lens of the camera into a window frame for us to gaze upon and experience other cultures. Nabil Ayouch’s Horses of God (2014) is an example of the latter, though it is not without an assured and masterful technical and aesthetic presence. Horses of God looks to the real life events of the Casablanca suicide bombings of 2003, and fictionalizes the story of the men behind the killings. A Cannes winner in 2012, the film has finally found US distribution at New York’s Film Forum, with some help from back-end producer Jonathan Demme.
Mature and unprejudiced, Ayouch’s fourth feature film positions humankind as a catalyst for the perception of religion as something we can define as either good or bad. Ayouch is mainly interested in the manipulation and the exploitation of religion to shield evil and selfish intentions.
Ayouch is no stranger to documentary filmmaking and the exploration of reality and the everyday in fiction; Horses of God bridges the two strands of Ayouch’s oeuvre. In contemporary societies feeling the weight of xenophobic fears that are directed towards the Arab world, the exploration of this subject, through the point of view of an Arab filmmaker, is of paramount importance and value. Cinema may be the only means through which we can humanize a group so vilified and looked down upon as a direct consequence of a Westernized perspective. Through an Arab point of view, filmmakers can contribute to an open discussion of the subject confronted in Horses of God and help to create a diversified conversation.
Film International’s Paul Risker engaged in a thoughtful conversation with director Nabir Ayouch in which they traced his cinematic journey from a childhood desire of expression to the present day and beyond. During the discussion of Horses of God, the conversation spiraled outward to take in Ayouch’s thoughts on the subject of cinema and childhood, the possibility of escaping reality as a source of inspiration and the relationship between documentary and narrative storytelling.
Paul Risker: Why a career as a filmmaker? Was there that one inspirational moment?
Nabil Ayouch: This is what I want to do… This is what I want to express. Film is the mode of expression that I chose.
My childhood was a lonely one, and I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. I am from a mixed background [having a Muslim father, a Jewish mother, and having attended Catholic school], and so I asked myself a lot of questions about identity. Cinema helped me to express myself at a time in my life when I had the choice to make of whether or not I wanted to express myself; I chose to express.
PR: Can you recall your discovery of cinema and storytelling?
NA: I grew up in Sarcelles, a suburb of Paris. It was a violent suburb and there was no way out of it, but there was a forum of the arts and it was there where I sought refuge. At the forum I discovered music, I learned how to dance and to sing, and it was there that I saw my first movies. I remember seeing the films of Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and all of the classics. It was a window onto the world for me, and it became like an island away from the violence that served as an important source of inspiration.
PR: Is what moves you as a filmmaker cinema’s capacity to create an experience for the audience that takes them into the world of the film and its characters?
NA: What was most important for me was to take those young actors, to take where they come from and combine it with their own experience, their own background, and their own truth. I made the choice to shoot with non-professional actors and to work in the shantytowns because that way they brought with them their own experiences of life. They prayed in the same mosque, played on the same playground as the suicide bombers, and what they brought with them was something incomparable to what professional actors would have offered me. So when I make a film it’s important – and I did this previously with Ali Zaoua (2000), a movie about street kids, in which I shot with real street kids – to create the experience from the beginning to the top. For most pieces I spend two years in the street trying to meet those people, trying to understand how their world works. Then when I decide to work with them, I decide not only to work with them but I choose to also work with their background that brings to the film a more realistic aspect.
PR: Do you perceive cinema has a particularly powerful means to capture the identity or rather the image of childhood?
NA: Oh yes, definitely. But literature is also a very powerful way to depict it. Today’s cinema – I am talking from my own point of view because in Morocco, forty five per cent of the population can’t read or write. So the image has such a strong power in certain regions of the world that unfortunately the written word doesn’t have any longer. So for that reason, cinema is a powerful way to express ideas.
PR: Can cinema ever escape reality as a source of inspiration?
NA: Escapism is the main thing that the cinematic experience offers, but cinema is not only a means to show reality, and of course you can escape it as a source of inspiration.
PR: During the scenes of the children running through the streets, the camera almost seems to float, and along with the music which resembles waves creates the feeling of freedom for your characters. Could you talk about creating that sense of feeling?
NA: Well, you noticed that sense of freedom that I was trying to express through specific shots in the film. But this sensation of freedom is also a way for them to escape their own reality, and it is something they believe in, and having spent time there it is something I have personally experienced.
I see shantytowns as an open sky jail. They have no walls, but they deliver the same trauma as a prison. There is no way out, and you cannot gain access to the centre of the city, to education, to love or a job. So the only thing that you can access is that feeling of freedom inside the jail. They want to shout about it and that’s exactly what they do in the film or at least that’s what they do in the first part or at any stage before they are brainwashed.
PR: Do you look at Horses of God as having a positive message about religion or would you describe it as a cautionary tale?
NA: I’m agnostic. I have a Muslim father, a Jewish mother and I grew up in a catholic school. So I grew up in the middle of religion, and I decided for some reason to get away from it. I know religion pretty well because I’m living in a society where religion is very present in our everyday lives. But I think the worst mistake would be to make the point that because of those extremists who kill innocent people in the name of religion, it becomes a question of Islam. It’s not a question of Islam; it’s not a question of religion. The process, the modus operandi on which the brainwashers work is something that you can find in any type of organization – for example, the mafia.
In the film, [the extremists] come to replace parts of life that those young boys are lacking – love, authority, and a future and so on. They come and they say, “Okay, we are going to bring you love; we are going to bring you direction, and we are going to give you a future.” So Islam and religion are used in that situation as a tool, as an instrument. When you hear their speech it is very simple, and they take the text and they change it so that it appears as though there actions are in the name of religion. This is untrue and this is not what we find when we get up close and observe them. They are saying all of this for their own interest, and most of the time political interest.
PR: Do you perceive film as having the capacity to humanise foreign cultures and to tear down national boundaries to create harmony between peoples?
NA: Well, you know I’m going to answer you from the perspective of this topic. I mean, radical Islam isn’t the reason that we are talking about this point of view. We see lots of Hollywood movies talking about this subject, and most of the time they are talking about it from their point of view. Whilst this is a point of view I respect, most of the time it is not one that I agree with.
I believe it is important for Arab filmmakers coming from this region of the world to express ourselves, even if we are not happy with certain realities. It is about being capable of expressing ourselves in a certain moment on these topics. For me personally to bring my point of view as an Arab director of the region where I am coming from to the United States is very important. I have this feeling that I am talking to a new type of audience on a topic that they know fairly well, but one they only know from a unique point of view. It’s a way to break down boundaries and borders.
So yes, I do believe that cinema can help people to better understand each other just as music and literature can. All of these can even travel without their creators, which is great.
PR: To follow-up on the subject of reality, you have directed both documentaries and narrative features. What are your thoughts on the relationship between documentary and narrative fiction?
NA: I would not compare them. In Horses of God I wanted to depict the story from a very realistic point of view, and that’s why I chose to shoot in a real shantytown with non-professional actors. This was not an easy choice, and in hindsight this was actually the most difficult choice. But I wanted to be on the edge, on the border, because for me it was the only way to talk about such an important topic.
In the meantime, I wanted to make a real feature film with both a strong plot, and strong storytelling but without giving the audience the impression that they were in the middle of this feature film because I wanted them to feel as though they were always inside this space, and to have this very naturalistic point of view. But that’s maybe where I would place the junction between documentary and narrative films. Directors have the choice as to how they use the tools of documentary, by the way in which they choose to insert them inside their approach to narrative storytelling.
PR: Are you optimistic about the current place of the documentary in cinema, and are you optimistic for its future?
NA: I’m optimistic regarding certain aspects because the documentary genre today has shown that it has its own audience and therefore its own place as well as its own language. But it still remains difficult for the documentary to find room in the theatres. I believe a positive future for documentary will require finding new ways of distribution, new ways of reaching audiences, and to not allow itself to be in competition with feature films or find itself in the same places as feature films.
PR: What does the future hold for you?
NA: I’m working on a documentary film about love in the Arab world, and I am also working on a futuristic movie that is set in the Arab world thirty years from now. The latter is a feature film and the two topics are very different.
PR: One final question – are you optimistic about where we are heading as a civilisation?
NA: Well, it depends on the day and where I am.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.