BBC Arabic Festival: Director Mariakenzi Lahlou On Her Mystical Short Film ‘The Calling’

The Calling is Mariakenzi Lahlou’s first short film and tells the story of a woman who attempts to rescue her parents from an isolated military prison. But in this surreal, sisyphean place where time has collapsed, she has to come to terms with her own cause and her own path.

Through the eye of a glass blower, the director aims to present a poetic and dreamlike tableau about the repetition, hope and the fragility of life. “The glass blower is a guide, an older ‘soul’ who managed to overcome his own demons in order to help someone else do the same,” Mariakenzi Lahlou says. “The reason I wanted to portray a glass blower in the film lies within the basic characteristics of glass. When in fusion, glass is malleable, flexible, and can be turned into any possible shape. But, once a shape is formed and the glass gets cold, it becomes fragile and it can easily break.”

The Calling will be screened on 23 March 2019 at 2pm as part of the fifth BBC Arabic Festival (@BBCArabicFest). The festival will take place in the iconic art-deco Radio Theatre at BBC’s Broadcasting House in central London between 22-27 March 2019. Free tickets for the film are available here.

Q: The Calling sounds like a mysterious film filled with symbolism and metaphor. Who – or what – inspired this approach to storytelling?

A: During my studies in Paris, as I was once riding the train, an image popped into my mind: two hands spinning a glass blowing rod in a furnace. For some reason I immediately felt it was the beginning of a story set in the afterlife, which I had wanted to do for quite some time. I can’t explain why, but it felt obvious to me.

Once I had this image in mind, I tried to make a story out of it. And since I had already started working on a script a few years back about a woman waking up and finding herself in some kind of eerie and undefined place, I connected the two ideas. Both of them were abstract, and inherently metaphorical, but only meaningful to me at first.

I didn’t consciously choose to make a symbolic film, but as I was trying to create my ‘own’ vision of the afterlife, I realised that it couldn’t be anything but. As I knew I would be dealing with dream-like story, with ambiguous atmospheres, I felt free experimenting with it. And through symbolism, the main plot became only a way to make a multiple-layered short film.

In fact, my main challenge was to make a short film that would try to speak directly to the viewer’s unconscious in order, for me, to make it ‘universal’.

Although there are many ways to reach the universal (from the particular to the general, for instance), I chose another way which was to remove, as much as possible, any cultural references, in order to focus on the universal symbols, archetypes, images, metaphors, seemed to be the natural way to go.


Q: The film follows a woman as she attempts to rescue her parents from an isolated military prison. What made you think of this scenario and why did you choose a daughter-parents relationship?

A: My father, Nabyl Lahlou, is a filmmaker and actor, and my mother, Sophia Hadi, is an actress. They brought me and my little brother along with them on film and theatre sets.

I grew up knowing that I wanted to become a filmmaker. But here in my country, my father and his work were often seen as disruptive and provocative. As his daughter I felt I had to ‘avenge’ him in some way.

But as I grew up, and started writing and making my own short films, I realised that I was believing in a fiction. This ‘mission’ that I had assigned to myself was only justified by the irrational fact that he was my dad and I was his daughter. So, I began questioning my own identity, my own heritage, starting with that of my family’s and then broadening my questions little by little to the history of my country, of mankind, and how it affected me.

I still don’t hold all the answers, and I think that’s probably a lifetime’s work, at least. But my common sense drew me to some kind of conclusion that can seem obvious or naive. In order to live more freely, to feel a bit lighter we may first need to face our heritages, our histories, honour them, ‘remember’ them, to better let go of them. The daughter-parents relationship in my short film symbolises all of this, because parents are our first teachers. This would be the ‘psychoanalysis’ explanation.

On the other hand, there is a more political point of view that I wanted to address. When I was born, my father was forbidden to make any more films, or distribute the ones he had already made. So, for the first ten years of my life cinema was this forbidden fruit I couldn’t taste. And even though I wasn’t the one who got censored, the consequences affected me as well.

Through my short film I wanted to honour my parent’s struggles, their work, their voice, and generally every artist, every intellectual, anyone who would stand up for they beliefs against oppression, and who would end up tortured, beaten up, wrongfully imprisoned for daring to point out what’s wrong with a system.

Morocco lived through what we call ‘the lead years’ essentially from the 1970s to the dawn of 2000. These were years of oppression, of political opponent mysteriously disappearing, years where philosophy and social sciences would be cut out from University curriculums.

I only lived through the last eight years, but it feels like the shadows of these times still linger on people’s minds. Things may have changed, but I think we are still stuck in the past. My parents’ works addressed the issues of those times. And since I didn’t live them to my core, and only experienced the remaining ‘ghosts’, through the daughter-parents relationship I wanted to acknowledge the generation gap in my short film.

How their fights are not ours, how we should accept that, but also how, we, as the so-called ‘new generation’ should be more than grateful for those who came before us, for what they taught us. Common sense would dictate that now, drawing on their experiences, we should know better. But common sense is quite rare, and history keeps repeating itself like the symptoms of a badly treated disease.

Q: What significance does the glass blower (played by Ahmed Marzouki) have in the film?

A: The glass blower is a guide. An older ‘soul’ who has managed to overcome his own demons in order to help someone else, in this case the woman. But the fact that he’s a glass blower and not something else revolves around the basic characteristics of glass.

Glass when infusion is malleable, flexible, and can turn into anything, any shape possible. But, once a shape is formed, once the glass gets cold, then it becomes fragile, easily breakable.

To me, this is the perfect metaphor for human condition: as long as we keep moving, changing, as long as we know that we are constantly evolving, we become stronger and more resilient. We can adapt to anything. But as soon as we narrow our minds and our hearts, we become as fragile as our fixed beliefs. But that’s fine, because broken glass can be melted down again, and so can we.

Although it’s set in the afterlife, it still concerns us all: we shouldn’t wait for death to deal with our own demons. And those, can take up many forms. The character of the glass blower, for me, is some kind of guide. He doesn’t tell the woman how wrong she is. He just tries to put her in a position that will make her realize that on her own. For me, that’s the only real way for people to help each other.

As for the political point of view, Ahmed Marzouki is not a professional actor. His story is actually quite incredible. In the 1970’s he was an officer in the Moroccan army. He participated unknowingly to a coup against the former king, for which he was sentenced to prison. A few years after that, he and other prisoners were brought to a secret military prison. He spent 20 years of his life in an underground hole. We can’t even speak of ‘living conditions’ since there were barely any.

He was among the few who survived. That ought to break one’s spirit, and their will to live. And yet, I have rarely seen someone as grateful, as peaceful, as Ahmed Marzouki. He keeps on sharing his experience in prison. He doesn’t elude the past. For me, if he can make it, anyone can. In that way, he embodies everything that I wanted to convey.

Q: The film takes place in view of the shoreline. What impact does the setting have on the film?

A: First, it had a purely pragmatic impact on the sound recordings, since the waves on the shoreline would come to be a challenge for the sound engineer, Reda Zniber.

But it also added to the eerie, nightmarish atmosphere of the film. Since the story is set in the afterlife, I wanted a place that was sort of suspended in time. We shot the film in an old bastion from the 13th century on the coast of Salé called the Bastion of Tears (Borj Addumu’). Now, it’s protected by the city, which gives this impression that time has really stopped there.

The fact that the beach we shot on is in the same area was a real advantage in creating a microcosm. From the bastion you can see the beach, and the other way around. Only the passages between the two remained ’secret’, like in a dream when you find yourself in some other place in an instant.

So, once I discovered the bastion, I adapted the script, either beforehand when it was going to be a big change, or on set during the shoot. For instance, I only had the idea to make the lead character climb on the rooftop of the glass blower’s workshop because it was made possible by the decor.

Before, in the script, she would do something completely different that didn’t make any sense at all, but I couldn’t find a solution back then. It just didn’t feel natural, until I visited the bastion.

The fact that we shot in one place, though it was huge, made a real difference.

Q: How did you find the shoot and your first time directing a short?

A: I started writing the script during my film studies in Paris, but I wanted to take my time, to find money, and producers to help me make it. I started working with some people that promised me wonders. But I quickly I realised that they weren’t that involved.

So, in 2016, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I managed to get my first ‘Yes’, which was the hardest. And after that, things evolved really quickly. I didn’t have much time to prepare for the shoot, especially because it was the summer holidays and people weren’t available. I couldn’t find ready to work with me beforehand, which means that when the first day of the shoot arrived, I was still multitasking.

It was my first professional shoot. Before that I directed a few student short films, and the experience was quite different. This time, on the set, I remember being really distracted, compared to my previous shoots. I was always on the phone between takes, managing when the food would arrive, the permits… which is quite common. But for the first time, I couldn’t just enjoy the whole experience and focus on the actors.

I had come face to face with my own limitations. This was great, and I realised how important it was much later during the post-production. On my previous shoots, it was easy for me to overcome any challenge, change a scene at the last moment. This time, since I had a lot on my mind, it didn’t come to me as easily.

Fortunately, I had a wonderful crew, especially the DOP, Oscar Viguier and the Sound Engineer, Reda Zniber. Reda actually decided to act as my AD on the set, which really changed the dynamic since I couldn’t assign that job to anyone else (my bad!). It was also challenging in the sense that my father wanted to help me. But I was obsessed with the idea of doing it on my own, which he took pretty badly.

I only wanted him to be an actor. And once his scenes came up, it became chaos, because he’s not used to someone else directing him. But those are also the best memories I have of the shoot, and the ones I learnt the most from.

Q: What did Boutaïna El Fekkak bring to the lead role?

A: Boutaïna and I were already friends before this project. She agreed to play the lead right away. And as a friend, and an actress, she actually played a major part during the writing. The character was moulded around her from the beginning, and she helped even then. When Boutaïna loves a project, she dives into it. She’s very thorough when it comes to understanding the motivation of a character, their story, their ways, their thoughts. She helped ‘giving life’ to what was just an idea.

I had already seen her in plays in Paris, and I liked how adaptable she could be. We actually didn’t have much time to rehearse before the shoot, so it was really different than just talking, imagining what could be. It was a challenge, but we managed to find our own rhythm.

In fact, I had imagined a character that was self-contained, sometimes apathetic. And then, on set Boutaïna brought a wider range of emotions that I hadn’t thought of before. Then, together we tried to create a character that was somewhere in between: cold and gentle, determined and desperate, submissive and yet strong.

Q: You’ve touched on it already, but can you tell us more about your formation as filmmaker and what interested you about the art?

A: I would say I am mostly inspired by my childhood experience, growing up on theatre stages, and later on film sets. My parents were, unknowingly, my first school.

The themes that touched them, such as dictatorship, oppression, corruption, inspired me at some point. But it’s mostly their way of life that appealed to me. They would make no concessions when it came to their art. They would never do anything just for money. Truth and courage no matter what, was the family motto.

However, as I grew up, I faced my own fears, my own insecurities, which I think determined how I would tell a story. I tend to choose abstraction over direct ‘confrontation’. I am aware of that. Truthfully, sometimes I think fear may be driving the way I would write a film, other times, I see it as smoother way to convey something as, for me, screaming probably isn’t the best communication skill there is.

Film school was important to me, I learnt a lot there, mostly theory, aesthetics, history… But, if I dare to phrase it this way, ‘my’ cinema doesn’t feed on cinema, rather, it’s inspired mostly by my own experience of the world, my own point of view, which is biased and flawed. But whose isn’t?

Q: What do you hope UK audiences take away from ‘The Calling’?

A: When I have to, I describe my short film as somewhere between the mystical and the political. Some may lean towards the first one, other towards the second, depending on their own history, their own lives.

When I screened The Calling in Sweden in Malmö’s Arab Women Film Festival, generally, the Arab audience would mainly focus on how the woman tries to fight oppression by reconciling with her ‘country’s history’, and the Swedish audience would only see the ‘spiritual message’ underneath. But it still reductive on my part, and I can’t make a rule out of this observation.

I hope that the UK audience would take at least a little bit of both the mystical and the political, but mainly, focus on how we are all human, and how that may be the only thing that really counts.

For me, there is absolutely no reason that can possibly justify any form of violence, of oppression, even in our daily lives, as long as we just stay focused on what really matters: that we are essentially the same.

People may think it’s naive, maybe they’re right, but I hope UK audiences won’t agree.

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