‘Bruxellois’ Mohamed Amin Benamraoui’s first feature-length film Adios Carmen (2013) has just won the Prix du Public at the 14th Mediterranean Film Festival in Brussels, and has been pleasing crowds and winning audience prizes on the festival circuit over the last year. This is a film that uncovers some of the reasons for the immense critical success and popularity of recent Moroccan cinema.
Mohamed Amin Benamraoui’s Adios Carmen (2013) fits in a wider context of Moroccan filmmakers or filmmakers from the Moroccan diaspora returning home to create masterpieces. Here, it is the director’s return journey that was crucial for the making of the film, as he traces the lead-up to his own journey of migration to Belgium as a young boy. He moved to Belgium in the 1980s to pursue a career in film, studying with Thierry Zeno at the Académie de Dessin et des Arts visuels de Molenbeek-St-Jean. He has worked with Belgian filmmakers, and made several successful short films, such as Sellam and Demetan (2008), Wedding on the Beach (2008) and Kif Kif (2008).
Adios Carmen is an exceptional film, not only because it embodies nostalgia for a long lost homeland and a childhood that is slightly romanticized (thus embodying in many ways the Cinema Paradiso-feel of Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 film), but also because it touches in some detail on an episode of Moroccan history that is often neglected: the long history Morocco shares with Spain. Moroccan cinema’s attempts to come to terms with a colonial history has focused on France, and ignored the Spanish presence in Morocco, but Adios Carmen deals with this difficult period of the country’s history in an exceptionally sensitive manner. Benamraoui’s phrase, often quoted in interviews and reviews of the film, encapsulates this attitude:
“This work sheds light on the ancient and complicated story that connects Spaniards and Moroccans, and highlights the need to tackle our common memory.”
Stories and memory are often connected to childhood in film, and Adios Carmen is told from the point of view of a child, Amer, and in fact it is the story of Benamraoui’s own childhood. His personal memories of the episode of his childhood that Adios Carmen deals with are traumatic, and so is the history of the 1970s and 1980s in the Berber region of the Rif. Benamraoui says that the decades-long marginalization of the Rif region ensured that the rest of Morocco is still not interested in this region. This neglect was no doubt exacerbated by the years of repression under King Hassan II, and also explains why cultural products rarely come out of the region, in spite of the specificity of its history. It is this region that experienced the most intense period of Spanish colonisation from the 19th century until the 1950s, and it is also in the Rif that the most active resistance to their presence was enacted.
Although local stories deal with this history, its history is neglected, because of Morocco’s general ignorance regarding the Rif. Benamraoui says:
“Touring this film, I have noticed how Moroccans do not know the area and its history, but how interested many now are, and proud and delighted to discover it, its language and culture, as a piece that fits in Morocco’s puzzle.”
The film is set in the late 1970s, and including Carmen as a central character enabled the director to link the forgotten history of colonisation and exchange to migration within Spanish Morocco after independence, which in turn needed to be linked to and made relevant through the current wave of migration between Morocco and Europe. Given the often tense relationship between Spain and Morocco, it was important to show a historical and contemporary context. Migration is and has always been a reciprocal thing: first it manifested itself in one direction and later in the other. First, a number of Spanish fled the Spanish civil war and the Franco regime, and later Moroccans fled repression and poverty. Through this story, we can also make the connection with other migration stories, wherever they happen in the world. Benamraoui comments on the physical and mental anguish these journeys cause:
“I wanted to show that it is never something simple or trivial, or even happy. People are leaving because they experience problems, follow a dream or because they have no choice.”
Working on such a serious topic while still aiming for an atmosphere of nostalgia, melancholia and especially childhood, was no easy feat. Benamraoui shows a real affinity with the children he cast for the film. It is rare to see such respect for children’s physical appearances and abilities. Adios Carmen, focuses on Amar, played by Benjalil Amanallah, an exceptionally talented and sensitive young boy, whose face and body language elicit solidarity in the spectator.
The film was inspired by the director’s own encounter with Carmen, a Spanish exile in Morocco, who was his neighbour when he was little. She worked as an usher in a small movie theater in the village:
“When my mother migrated to Belgium in the late sixties, my grandmother looked after me but it was Carmen who really took me under her wing and, in a way, brought me up. I was very young, and spent whole days in the cinema, which screened mainly Bollywood films, still very popular in Morocco. I did not really understand a word of the dialogue but that was no problem. I laughed, I cried, I identified with the hero, I was fascinated. The film is a kind of tribute to Carmen: thanks to her I managed to deal with the absence of my mother as she enabled me to stay positive.”
Bollywood, as Adios Carmen shows, has always been – and continues to be – of great importance to the popularisation of film and cinema in Morocco. A recent example is the International Film Festival of Marrakech, which in November 2012 structured its 12th edition around a Tribute to Hindi Cinema, to mark the centenary of film art in India.
This film then tells the story of a young boy’s abandonment and his fight to find someone to care for him, while it also encapsulates an enchanting first cinema experience: the story of a film initiate. The fact that what he sees are Bollywood films is significant in that these films are epic love stories, thus also embodying a sense of romanticism and melodrama. Benamroaui’s love for cinema and the desire to make films has clearly been there since childhood, and as he made his own journey of migration to Belgium, he became a film director. So this is a romantic, nostalgic story, but also one that does not avoid talking about the tense relations between Morocco and Spain.
Cinema has become popular in Morocco to such an extent that there is a large pool of ambitious young actors, but Benamraoui testifies that the casting of the children was a long process: it took a whole year. His producer and he met more than 300 children. Amanallah Benjilali, the boy who plays the character of Amar, was in fact one of the first they met:
“He was great. He spoke the Berber language perfectly and interacted well with other actors. I could not believe I had found my protagonist so easily. So I continued my search. He stuck in my mind and I decided that he should play Amar. It turned out that I instinctively knew which child could play the complex part, and from then on the relationship of trust was crucial.”
Young people embody remembrance as well as the hope for the future. Young producers, directors and actors are establishing an exciting, unusual cinema of migration, where children elicit solidarity from a global audience, and where sensitive directors work on projects that are transnational in nature and Moroccan in sensibility: an openness, warmness, and hopefulness for the future speaks from all these films, even the ones that ostensibly deal with the past.
Migration is not a story confined to the past. It is an on-going journey of displacement and homecoming, and this idea continues in Benamraoui’s future projects: he is working on a film that tells the stories of crossed destinies of Moroccan immigrants in Belgium. The film will focus on dreams, disappointments and a decline in values that had united migrants at first, while it also looks at integration and the changing concept of ‘home.’ As memory is one of his central tropes, he will, he says, continue to work with children and young people.