Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch’s new film, Horses of God, has been released in 30 American cities this year. The film competed in the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated as the Moroccan submission for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category. The film is based on the 2003 suicide-bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, which killed 45 and injured over 100 people.
Ayouch, a former documentary filmmaker, was especially touched by the bombings. “This was a tremendous shock for us in Morocco,” Ayouch says, “for us, it was an end of innocence. We were used to a kind of coexistence between races and religions.
That night fourteen boys from the slums came down in the center of the city and decided to bomb five places that are part of our DNA, our identity.”
Moved by this shock, Ayouch decided to craft a story that offers perspective on religious violence. “I was very interested by the fact also that those boys were coming from a place that I knew pretty well, the slum of Sidi Moumen, because I had shot some films there before,” Ayouch explains.
“I was, in a certain way, blind at that time, as the rest of the Moroccan society. I decided to come back there and to spend some time on the ground with them, and to try to understand how a ten year-old boy can turn into a suicide bomber.”
What Ayouch found during this time of observation was that young people had been forgotten by Moroccan society. “No father authority. No social care. No place for love or intimacy,” he describes. “I guess these young boys, when they see some radical religious leaders, and I don't even know if we should call them religious, because for me it's more a mafia that is using religion,” He adds, the extremist offered them a way out, "Of course, they jump in. They want to make it.”
This understanding of terrorist violence as a product of sociological circumstance is what Ayouch attempts to convey in Horses of God. “I think it's important for Arab audiences to hear about this film and this point of view. Most of the time we don't want to face our reality as it is.” Ayouch fears that if Arab filmmakers do not discuss these issues, the only voices addressing radicalism will be from outsiders.
“We should understand that if we do not do it, some others will come. I'm talking of those Hollywood movies and their point of view, which I respect, but it is not my point of view as an Arab film director from the region.”
Ayouch thinks the narrative audiences are more familiar with is a dangerous one. “They're used to a very black and white speech about this important topic. There are the bad guys and the good guys, as if this violence comes from nowhere, as if it has no origin,” he says. By complicating the explanation of violence, and offering a look at the young life of a future terrorist, he hopes to offer an alternative explanation.
“This violence doesn't come out from the sky.”
Despite this realistic depiction of poverty and corruption in Morocco, Ayouch managed to receive public funding for his film. “I had no problem of censorship at all,” he says. “It's all part of the job as a film director is to show this reality. I think the authorities are smart enough to understand it. This is the state's responsibility, but this is also the citizen’s responsibility, the civil society’s responsibility. We are all in the same boat. If we want another future for those boys, we have to offer them something else.”
That “something else” to offer is what Ayouch is working on now. Partnered with Mahi Binebine, who wrote the novel upon which the film is based, Ayouch opened a community center in the center of the Sidi Moumen slum. “We decided to open for those young people to have some other ways of expression, like the arts and culture especially,” he says.
In this new communal venue, Ayouch and Binebine hosted a screening of
“Horses of God” for families who had been touched by the Casablanca bombings. “It was the very first time, as you can imagine, that the families of the victims who came from the center of Casablanca, and some families of the suicide bombers met each other,” Ayouch describes. “There was a lot of tension in the beginning and emotions when they talked to each other, when they recognized each other. It's a huge step. It means a lot.”
For Ayouch, the power of film means bringing people together and breaking down barriers.
“I mean the biggest danger for our society is to have those walls that you cannot see, but you can feel, between different categories of the population.”
He adds, " “When some people decide to come and to meet and to spend some times and to listen to other people that they never cross the rest of the day, I guess it's very important. It says a lot.”