Filming Morocco’s revolutionary turtles

The Turtles Song
Jawad Rhalib in Brussels - © Redouan Tijani

Jawad Rhalib in Brussels – © Redouan Tijani

Two years after a group called the February 20 Movement started demonstrating in Morocco, the Belgian-Moroccan filmmaker Jawad Rhalib presents the story of Moroccan activists and artists in Le Chant des Tortues or The Turtles’ Song.

With this documentary Rhalib adds a seventeenth title to his filmography, among which The Damned of the Sea, a movie about the hard life of Moroccan fishermen who lost most of their income because they are not able to compete with industrial trawlers. Other films include El Ejido: The Law of Profit, on the exploitation of undocumented migrants in the Southern of Spain, and In The Name of the Coca about Evo Morales and the ‘cocaleros’ in Bolivia who oppose the destruction of coca fields.

Rhalib’s work has been recognised for its quality several times already. A few examples are the award for Best Documentary in the category of International Panafrican Film at the Film Festival in Cannes, an Oscar nomination for The Damned of the Sea, the prize for Best Film at Monte-Carlo Film Festival, and in 2009 he received the award for Best Documentary at the International Environmental Film Festival Envirofilm in Slovakia.

At the time of this interview Rhalib was in Brussels finishing the editing of The Turtles’ Song. On Wednesday February 20th, 2013 the preview took place in Lille, France. Rhalib reflects on his work and the politics that influenced it.

What makes The Turtles’ Song differ from your previous documentaries?

“This time it is about a revolution. It’s about people who went out to demonstrate for freedom and dignity. I followed them for 2 years and made portraits of artists. There is for instance the painter Kenza Benjelloun, and the band Hoba Hoba Spirit. I also spoke with the old political prisoner and journalist Khalid Jamai. More specifically, I followed two groups: the members of the February 20 movement and a group named UX, a students’ union that wants change in the educational system. In the film these young people speak their mind, but overall I give my view on the situation.”

And what is your view on the Moroccan revolution?

“In my view our story starts with fear. We experienced through fear during the reign of Hassan II, and today we can say that fear is gone. That in itself is an achievement of the people who demonstrated since 2011. I place Morocco in the Arab context where I compare it to the other countries that had an uprising. Countries like Tunisia are the hares. The hare always thinks it’s faster, but meanwhile the turtle is slower but smarter. Morocco is the turtle.”

So Morocco is smarter?

“Yes. Morocco is changing slowly. In Morocco we know there is a system of the king and the people around him. The relation between the king and the people differs from the relation between the people and the ruler in other countries. This is not something ‘Moroccan’, it’s just a different system: we have a monarchy and a young monarch. In Tunisia and Egypt you had old presidents and little preparation for strong political parties. Now in Morocco you have the PJD (the Party for Justice and Development) as a monarchist islamist party: it is not extremist and not talking about the sharia, while in Tunisia the party Annahda (the Tunisian islamist party) lets groups that want to introduce sharia have their way.”

The 20 february Movement

A demonstration of the February 20 Movement

You think the PJD is handling things better?

“Not really, they are making things worse. The PJD is closing all doors to healthcare, education and culture. People don’t have enough places like cultural centres and theatres and the PJD is not dealing with this. Instead the Culture Minister said he wants a ‘clean’ cinema, so they are limiting the room for art with the halal (islamically lawful) argument. When Spiderman kissed a woman in a film in an in-flight showing it was a problem. Rap music is also negative, unless when it is supervised. For these Islamists secularism means atheism or no religion at all. I noted in the film: ‘The mosque in its space, and the government in its space’.”

Do you see religion as a problem?

“I don’t have a problem with religion. My problem is when you use religion to tell me how to dress, to take away my liberty and to limit artistic expression. I’m strongly for laïcité (secularism).”

So far, the disappearance of fear is the only positive change you’ve mentioned.

“I acknowledge there’s not a lot of change in Morocco. Yes, we also had beatings, and arrests, but there was no chaos. Morocco has been handled like a pressure cooker that was repeatedly opened a bit. While in Tunisia there never was even a little opening to vent frustrations. In Morocco, people were given a bit of freedom of expression and each time that freedom was taken away again. Now the king is still there with all his powers. But he is not sacred anymore: we’re not afraid of him anymore. We can say things about him. I want to say things, but with respect, because there is no need to insult whether it’s about a king or a shoemaker.”

Yet some of us still get jailed when they say or show things the king or his entourage don’t like.

“But like I said we’re not afraid, even when we see people end up in prison. Because this time we know that others know what is going on. I may be miles away from Morocco but I’ll know when something happens to someone and thus I will react to it. During times of king Hassan II when a person disappeared we had no idea of what was happening, and those close to that person didn’t even know if he was jailed, dead or kidnapped.”

Are you saying before 2011 you were somehow disconnected from Morocco?

“No, never. I’ve always been connected through my work. But I don’t think this is the case for a large group of Moroccans. Moroccan television keeps people busy with Turkish sitcoms, Brazilian sitcoms and football and doesn’t show much of the reality. Here many young Belgian Moroccans are disconnected  and don’t really know Morocco. I was born in that country, and grew up there. But those who were born here and only go there for the holidays don’t know the oppression or the political reality. And even if they do know, they don’t talk about it. Because they see how afraid their parents still are from what they saw during Hassan II’s reign.”

Some might just think ‘I’m Belgian, so I’d rather just engage with only Belgium’.

“Belgian Moroccans have a bank account there, and family. So if something happens in Morocco, it will affect them too. For instance, these days we’re denouncing corruption in Morocco, and Belgian Moroccans better know about this so that when they arrive there, the police can’t take advantage of them. We have the right to tell a police officer ‘No I won’t give you anything’.”

While some may be disconnected, others in Europe even organise demonstrations to support the goals of the demonstrations in Morocco.

“My criticism of those groups is that they are isolated. They demonstrate at the Moroccan embassy in a posh area in Brussels on a Sunday to sing and shout. Nobody is there on Sundays. Yes it is a symbol of Moroccan authority but what’s the use if people don’t know your demonstrations even take place?! You have to be visible. Otherwise even for those who see you, it’s not even a demonstration: you’re just singing slogans with a darbouka (a hand-held drum).”

In Morocco they also sing and you have a special focus on artists in your new film. Why?

“Because there artistic expression reaches the public. There the authorities are afraid of all artistic expression, because art touches the people. The songs of Hoba Hoba Spirit are very strong. In the film Kenza Benjelloun paints and writes words like democracy on walls. This all reaches the people directly.”


Rhalib and his crew with the members of Hoba Hoba Spirit

You also spoke with rapper Mouad ‘El Haqed’?

“Yes but he is not in the film, because I couldn’t finish his part after he was sent to jail.”

Can you show your new film in Morocco?

“It is censored just like my previous films. That’s why I decided to stay in Belgium. Here I got support to shoot the documentary for 2 years. RTBF, (the public broadcaster organisation of the French speaking community in Belgium), the French Community of Belgium, the DGCD (the Belgian government’s Development Cooperation directorate), and the publicly funded Wallonie Image Production fund all support my work. At the same time I’m free and I don’t get instructions. This is how I’ve worked since 1997. We’ll try and ask for permission to show The Turtles’ Song in Morocco, to see how the authorities will respond.”

It’s weird to have your previous films censored while the Moroccan state television channel 2M co-produced The Damned of the Sea. Why is this seen as dangerous?

“2M keeps the film in a desk drawer because it talks about a politically sensitive region: the border with Mauritania and the Western Sahara. It is also delicate because Moroccans in the film talk about the role of the government and the people close to the king who exploit the sea and get the money of that exploitation. Not everyone at 2M agrees with this censorship. But they can’t do anything. There are journalists we see on television, who even demonstrate with the February 20 movement but they can’t report about it. This is the Moroccan attitude towards the press. For Al Jazeera and the Spanish press it’s also very hard to get permission to film. But I’ve obtained a permit to film The Turtles’ Song.”

But I suppose they watched you while you were making the documentary?

“While I was filming they kept an eye on me. This is how it works in Morocco: to film something you need the permission of the Centre Cinématographique Marocain. This centre will ask the Ministry of Communications for permission, which in its turn will ask the Interior Ministry.”

Do you hope to change Morocco’s image with The Turtles’ Song?

“Yes, because Morocco is not a postcard. There are even people who are dying from the cold. That’s not magical.”

Did something change after your previous film?

“When El Ejido: The Law of Profit was shown on ARTE, the next day a movement was set up in Switzerland, Canada and Spain against the industry that was exploiting immigrants. A discussion started in Spain’s and Andalusia’s parliaments. The migrants who spoke in my film received a residential permit because the Spanish law protects people who testify against illegal employment. They also got new homes. The Damned of the Sea was censored in Morocco, yet it made the Moroccan law change within a week to allow women to fish too. The situation is not much better for the fishermen in Dakhla, but there was some change and they know we are keeping an eye on the situation.”

Ghizlane with her permission to fish

Ghizlane got a permission to fish. In The Damned of the Sea she was still living as a beggar.

Morocco is not a postcard, but can you give us something positive to conclude this interview ?

“Here is a sparkle of hope: first, Mohamed VI is not Hassan II. They don’t have the same character. The second thing is that there are a lot of youngsters who get into action for their country, not like in the old days where they were just interested in going out and music. They want to change their country. They are turtles. They go slow, but they’re achieving a change. I’m sure they realise great things. Young people of age 15,16 or 18 are interested in politics. Before they used to say ‘this is not for us to care about’. And especially positive is that these young people don’t want to bring up their children in the way we were brought up with fear. Their children will live with a different spirit. The change is happening slowly.”


Le Chant des Tortues or The Turtles’ Song will first be presented at festivals in major European cities as of March, after which it will be released in the cinemas before eventually being shown on television. It will be available in several languages; for now it is only available in French and Arabic.


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