Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"The Mosque," A Movie by Moroccan Filmmaker Daoud Aoulad-Syad

Here is a review of the film The Mosque , that came out earlier this year and that has been doing the rounds of film festivals. It was made by award winning Moroccan director Daoud Aoulad-Syad. The premise is quite interesting. Here is another link to the Doha Tribeca Film Festival site where you can see a clip from the film.


Festival films, critics picks: Morocco's 'The Mosque'

Moroccan director Daoud Aoulad-Syad's excellent entry into the Cairo International Film Festival could be called a sequel. Syad's previous entry won Best Arab Film in the 31st year of the CIFF.

Festival films, critics picks: Morocco's 'The Mosque'

"Waiting for Pasolini" told the story of group of Moroccan villagers who find their town overtaken by an Italian film crew exploiting the pastoral setting for a film about the Bible. As the title suggests, the film's characters spend a lot of time on the lookout for a cipher named "Pasolini." As the title also suggests--with its echo of Samuel Beckett's absurdist masterpiece, "Waiting for Godot"--the drama is in the waiting, not the arrival.

"The Mosque" takes place in the southeastern rural Moroccan town of Zagora, where, some time past, a filmmaker named Daoud (played, briefly, by the filmmaker himself) had made a movie that the villagers refer to simply as "Pasolini." The town has mostly profited from the movie; its inhabitants seem to be largely still buoyed by their roles, with the town leader proudly calling the opening ceremony of a film festival taking place there "a great day for this small town."

But the results are not all positive. A large set was built for "Pasolini" on land rented out by a local farmer named Moha. When the movie wrapped, Moha expected to get his land back, but the villagers refused to demolish the set mosque, which now sits squarely on his land with its back facing his house, the exposed beams and flimsy, impermanent material adding insult to his financial misery.

The mosque prevents Moha from farming most of his land; he is unable to arrange the circumcision of his young son (and much drama is evoked from this simple combination of advancing age advancing toward the knife) and is very unsuccessful in getting any of the villagers to agree to tear down the mosque. In his appeals, Moha is challenged by bureaucracy, and by religion; a local imam tells him that having the mosque on his land is good luck, will secure his fortune in heaven, and that to demolish it would bring, well, quite the opposite.

Moha is a religious man. One scene, in which he stops in the middle of the desert to perform ablutions with sand and pray, seems to support his opponents' argument that a mosque belongs anywhere, but Moha remains stalwart in both his assertion that the mosque is fraudulent and in his own piety, at one point even declaring that everyone is against him but God.

In a superficial reading of the plot, what seems to be a dispute about religion is mostly a dispute about land and power; deeper, it is a movie about how the penetrative force of cinema and television has changed our perception of what is real and what is manufactured.

The imam of the fake mosque played the imam in the movie. He vamps for tourists in the costume of a Roman general, also from "Pasolini." He conspires with an invading politician, trading votes for the promise of a job in Marrakesh, and runs the film's real hero (and Moha's only ally), an imam named Sellam who is considered the village loon by most neighbors, out of town to live in exile in the cemetery. The imam is fake, a swindler, but with every passing day the religious building he works in grows more and more real.

In one pivotal scene, Moha and Sellam rent a bulldozer to do the job themselves but are forced into a standoff with a group of mourning villagers using the mosque for a funeral. Douad expertly fractures the audience's sympathies, which at that moment are not with the buffoonish Moha and Sellam, but with the genuinely grieving villagers--Douad offers close ups of the women's faces in still shock as their wailing is interrupted by the bulldozer's growl, and the coffin in the procession is child sized.

At times, "The Mosque" is disarmingly quiet and still; much is said outside of the dialogue. In one scene, Moha and his wife chat in front of a still life composed of a hanging slaughtered goat and a satellite dish. The implications are obvious--television and cinema are spreading their influence to even the most remote corners of the globe, and with that comes enlightenment and some material wealth, but also the loss of customs, of naiveté, and, in Moha's case, sometimes the loss of material wealth.

But, rather than just presenting this dichotomy--as true as it is--"The Mosque' seems mostly concerned with the ambiguities that such abrupt and sweeping changes engender. Moha's wife is asked, at one point, if the dress she is wearing--the normal style of the village--is her own, or a costume leftover from "Pasolini." When a TV crew comes to film Zagora's local folk music group, the members are commanded by the town leader to clean their clothes, trim their beards, and carry their knives. The mosque appears to be about as fake, or real, as those who go to pray in it.

"The Mosque" illustrates the ambiguities it plumbs with delicate, precise and varying shots. Some are from the perspective of an actor in the film--the imam as he walks around the village collecting money to paint the mosque--and impart the feeling of the camera being embedded in the village, rather than snaking around the periphery. Douad favors close ups, and the results--with the subject often looking directly or just beyond the camera--are at times chilling because of how quickly they direct an uncomfortable, as if ill-begotten, familiarity with the villagers.

When the TV crew arrives, the villagers commence their half-charade. Their new "real life" is one that involves cameras, exposed daggers, and cleaned slippers--one that is half real, half pageantry.

"The truth is above everything," says Sellam to Moha. But Sellam, in taking this solo position, has given up his job, his community, and, in some practical way, his sanity. In the new Zagora, those who survive best are the true believers

Jenna Krajeski
Al-Masry Al-Youm

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