Cherien Dabis on Bringing ‘Amreeka’ to Morocco

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Cherien Dabis

Film Forward Morocco kicked off in Tangier, a city whose legendary charm first captivated me at the age of 15 when my family ferried over from Gibraltar. We were touring the south of Spain, my parents continually pointing out all the ways in which Arabs influenced Spanish language, custom, architecture—you name it.

Though I was amazed, my eyes were perpetually rolling, only because at that age, you simply can’t give your parents the satisfaction of knowing they’re having an impact on you. Returning now, almost 20 years later, I couldn’t help but marvel at how blown away my 15 year-old self would’ve been to know that I’d be back one day with a feature film, one that highlights (at least in part) Arab contribution to modern civilization. It was too much.

Suffice it to say, I arrived with a sense of nostalgia. And it didn’t take long for the city’s magnificence to evoke yet another era, one of World War II espionage, fraud and large-scale smuggle. Just walking the haunted halls of our bewitching hotel was a thrill; I half expected to run into Humphrey Bogart or Jean Genet! So arriving at the Cinematheque de Tangier, my enchantment was complete, and I was officially transported back in time.

One of North Africa’s rare permanent homes for independent film and repertory programming, the Cinematheque de Tangier is housed in a pristinely restored 1938 landmark building overlooking the historic Grand Socco plaza. Stepping inside is like walking into Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso: You have no choice but to fall in love with the movies.

Amid old program guides and faded black and white portraits of Omar Sharif and Asmahan, documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson and I along with Sundance Institute staff and American embassy personnel had a daylong dialogue with moviegoers and cinema promoters alike—sharing common experiences, acknowledging shared obstacles and taking in the region’s cinematic achievements. Laying the groundwork for what was to come, we were off to an inspiring start.

From Tangier, we drove an hour by car to nearby Tetouan (which means “open your eyes” in Berber). The strikingly beautiful little city poised atop the slope of an enormous valley quite literally lived up to its name. By far the most eye-opening stop of our adventure, it still gives me chills to think about it.

Amreeka screened at the Abi Bakr Errazi Junior High School in Jamaa Mezouak, a slum made notorious for it’s connections to the 2004 Madrid bombings. The room couldn’t have been packed with more spirited 12 to 15 year-olds, eager to ask every question under the sun. “How did you know you wanted to tell this story?” “Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?” “Why didn’t you put yourself in your film?” “What are your hobbies?”

Needless to say we covered a lot of bases. I was amazed to learn that despite their perceptions of the U.S. as a challenging place for Arab immigrants, (a perception they shared with me even before watching my film), more than half of them expressed a strong desire to immigrant there.

One such girl named Moynia seemed especially adamant to realize her American dream despite the fact that her aunt’s home in the States was burned down in an incident of anti-Islamic hate! The discussion culminated in my asking the roomful of young students how many of them would like to become filmmakers so that they too could tell their stories. More than half raised their hands. It was at that moment that I realized I was witnessing the power of cinema.

Of course not all our conversations were so effortless. One particularly challenging one took place after my film screened at the Cinema Hollywood in conservative Salé, Rabat’s less-fortunate sister city.

“You’re the jack of all trades and master of none,” said one audience member. “Don’t you think you try to tackle too many issues in the film, and therefore, treat them all superficially?” Um… No? (Luckily, agreeing is optional.)

Another audience member stepped forward to ask, “You portray positive images of Arab Christians and American Jews… Where are the Muslims?” It’s not about religion—was my response; it’s about culture. Hasn’t religion divided us for long enough?

I came later to learn that in this Islamist neighborhood (so-called by one of the locals), it would be difficult for people to separate religion from culture, making it all the more important we were having the discussion. There were many uncomfortable moments throughout—for the entire audience.

And the whole of the experience left me thinking that within the space between what you believe to be true and what you’re being challenged to think could be true, when any conceivable charm escapes you, language fails you and you realize your sense of humor is bound by culture, you stand there, defenseless, staring at a fellow human being and realize that even despite your differences, you’re the same. It may not be the way you see it, but you can see what the other person is saying. Isn’t that where new perspective lives? Isn’t that where change is possible?

A short time afterward we were back in the comfort of the embassy van, heading to our next destination, when a conversation on free speech ensued. And that famous French philosopher whose name we couldn’t remember at the time was evoked: “I disagree strongly with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

It’s Voltaire’s most famous quote. And I’m sure it comes as no surprise that we couldn’t have agreed more.


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