Moroccan filmmaker Alaa Eddine Aljem joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about his debut feature, The Unknown Saint.
Q: The strange situation at the start of ‘The Unknown Saint’ pits faith in conflict with money. Where did the idea for this starting situation come from?
A: As in my previous work I always tend to start from an absurd situation and try to exploit its potential both in a dramatical way and in a comic way.
Here it’s the same with this starting point. A fake mausoleum built on a bag of stolen money that become a place of cult. In Morocco we have dozens of saints and mausoleums, some of them are unknown and a lot of stories go around them. I also think that there is almost a paradox between the holy and the unknown yet they seem to be quite linked. It’s something we find in all cultures.
Q: I hear the film has elements of burlesque and the absurd. Can you tell us about the tone of the film and why you feel it fits this story?
A: The tone of the film is tragi-comedy. It’s a mixture between serious and light situations. Something in the style of Aki Kaurismäki and a modern Arab Keaton. Even in the US press reviews we were called Fargo in the desert and a Moroccan Coen brothers… which is quite funny as I didn’t have them as a reference at all before making the film.
The film talks about some serious and sensitive matters – the fake saints, the relationship between money and faith are almost taboo in my country. The comedy and the lightness of the film creates a good distance and helps to talk about this subject with respect and without offending to anyone. The comedy in the film is in the situations, it’s clearly not mockery. We have fun with characters that are all lovable and we never make fun of them.
Q: You’ve filmed in the desert before for your short film, ‘Desert Fish’. What draws you to this setting?
A: I find that there is something very cinematic in the desert. I’m very attracted to wide open spaces. I find that somehow they make you feel small and powerless. There is something beyond us that we don’t control. We are a small thing in this word. This fits very well with the story and the characters of The Unknown Saint.
Q: How did you find the process of making your first feature film? Did you have any notable challenges along the way?
A: It’s a great challenge to make a film. No matter what happens next, where it goes, the success it does or does not have; making a film is an achievement itself. The hardest part was to get the financing. It is always always difficult to do so, and it’s getting more and more difficult from what I see.
Also making my debut with a comedy was risky, everyone was advising me to not do so. It’s better to begin with a film having a strong social subject in the background, a well identified social matter from the region. Comedies never travel well; what’s the last Arab comedy you have seen in a major festival (Elia Suleiman excluded)? This was the kind of advice and warnings I received when I started to work on The Unknown Saint.
I’ve also always been advised, since cinema school, that a feature debut should avoid kids, animals, dogs, vfx, explosions, choral stories, scenes with a lot extras and non professional actors… so of course my debut feature needed to include all these things.
Q: What is it like being a Moroccan filmmaker when there are still no more than 30 odd cinemas in the country? Does it effect your approach and the stories you tell?
A: I made a short called The Desert Fish. It was very well received among the critics and festivals, but when we had the Moroccan premiere I was in the cinema theatre and I could feel people getting bored. The film was not accessible to them.
It was a story set in the desert, with three characters, the father, the mother and the young son who dreams of being a fisherman even though he’s never seen the sea. So everyday the young son goes to fish in the desert. The short was 30 minutes long with barely three pieces of dialogue in it… it definitely was not accessible to a non-cinephile audience.
I was very frustrated with this, I thought I could live the same situation with the feature film. I make movies without thinking about my audience, but it’s important to me to share the movie with a large audience, especially the Moroccan one. So The Unknown Saint was designed to work on both levels – for festivals and critics but also for more casual audiences.
Q: Where does your passion for cinema and filmmaking come from?
A: I like observe people, situations and life in general. Cinema gives me the opportunity to create a small word every time, my world, and share it with the audience. It’s a gift and I’m very grateful to be able to make movies.
Q: What are your hopes for the future?
A: To make a second film as soon as possible. I can’t wait four or five years. It’s an addiction, I need to live this experience again.
Q: ‘The Unknown Saint’ will screen at FIDMarseille. What does this film festival mean to you?
A: It’s a very known festival. Very selective, very cinephilic… I know the Fidmarseille since a long time ago. I even tried twice to participate to their lab but I didn’t make it. This is a great way for me to participate to this festival that I like very much.