Rabat Stories

PICT0006.jpgOnce again we were asked by the British Council to run a documentary workshop, this time, destination: Rabat (Morocco). 

The deal is to teach creative documentary skills to 16 young filmmakers in 7 days and get them to make 4x3' films for international distribution. The stakes are high as the last set of films Dhaka Stories is doing extremely well, having been premiered in Sheffield in November 2010.

We always start with the screening of examples of docs exploring what do we mean by creative documentary, how do we prioritise emotions over information? How do we construct, dramatise those emotions keeping to the truth of the character? What do we mean by reconstruction when we are talking about metaphoric images?

Of course there is not one answer to each question, that would be too easy but there is a sensibility that the director needs to develop in relation to his/her subject that will stimulate the right answers. That sensibility is hard to define but I would say it is a mixture of creative instinct and cinematic language and only by talking through examples can we explore the variety of answers. The palette of colours is at our disposal for us to come up with new shades. I would say that the limits of possibilities stops at where we as director/ human being position ourselves on ethics. I found it an endless fascinating discussion across cultures. With our Moroccan young filmmakers, more familiar with factual TV than cinema documentary, if asked by their characters NOT to film, they would regardless, but faced with the proposition of using non sync sound then they feel they are crossing the line.

We organised them in groups of 4 around 4 proposals of film:

Fossoyeur_2.jpg1. Hand and four fingers

(That's a span and a half, for those of you familiar with the measurements of a coffin set up by Koran.)

The dead is buried wrapped in a white cloth and, if bigger than this, it is said that the earth rejects the body. I cannot even begin to think what it must feel like to be dead and rejected! No doubt there must be a way of cheating such tight measurements. I remember in Bali when they burnt the bodies they made sure to place a coconut in the fire so when it exploded everyone heard the sound of the soul escaping the body... no family was going to run the risk of throwing suspicion on their loved souls not having escaped. So I am pretty sure Muslim families must have some tricks up their caftan' s sleeves. Anyway the film is about a grave digger and reflects the anxiety and superstition felt around death by Moroccans. It was shot in one of many cemeteries of Rabat, looking out to the sea. The perfect resting place!

The film was straight forward to make because the character was a beautiful human being. His first preoccupation in the morning was to get up before his family in order to make tea and coffee so they could choose. With the right kind of light the cemetery looked beautiful, a museum of muslim architecture. The challenge here was for the team not to fall into the trap of following his day but to create a universal, philosophical dimension to him.

Men_Choufouch_2.jpg2. Men Choufouch

This one was about sexual harassment and was proposed by one of our female participants but when we shortlisted it, no one wanted to work on it, in fact not even the director herself. We only had 4 women in the group and we were quite keen to have at least one project out of four directed by a woman and even better to have a theme coming from direct personal experience. Tough call, do we make a female only team? We decided not to but it was hard to find any support from their fellow students. Two of them joined in but more because they had been left out of the other groups then out of empathy with the topic. This was the hardest group to work with. They locked themselves in a student mentality of expecting the tutor to tell them what to do. Whenever we questioned them, silence was met. If you offered them any ideas they came back with images that we had suggested but not the spirit of it... nor their interpretation. It was painful to watch them getting lost in what was already a difficult 3-minute film to make.

Sexual harassment in Morocco is really rampant. The public world is still dominated by male presence. Regardless of the time of the day, streets and cafes are guarded by men just looking around, waiting for a female to pass by and distract them from their emptiness by flirtatious interpellation. It is a waste of time to take it as a compliment because they do it to every woman regardless shape or size or even veiled or not. Of course some of them don't stop at words. Even with my many years of thick skin of feminism I found walking the streets intimidating. It was really difficult to get to the core of the film as the director kept voicing her own confusion between the pleasure of flirt and the pain of harassment. Women right from early age are both doted upon and repressed by their father's/brother's etc... no wonder they have a schizophrenic approach to men.

At the end we opted for an experimental approach in order to reflect that confusion and allow the boys of the team to distance themselves from the impact of some of the stories that the female interviewees related.

Bitter_Return_2.jpg3. Bitter Return

This is the story of a Moroccan migrant worker in Libya having to return to Rabat while waiting for the war to calm down. It was fascinating to hear a very different perspective about the Libyan war. Several months after the break of civil revolt, the character could not believe how stupid the Libyans are. As far as he is concerned, Libya was paradise... good wages, no tax, cheap cigarettes, anything you wish to buy... the only inconvenience was having to go to neighbouring countries to buy alcohol. I did not realise that thousands of female Moroccans from poor families migrated to Libya for prostitution and their only way in was to go via Egypt or Tunisia and pretend to be from there in order to be allowed in.

So we have the story of a migrant that cannot feel welcome at home as he can't find any well paid jobs and is living in the wait that Libya will return to it's former glory for him to pick up life where he left it. He is in for big disappointment.

El_Mikhali_11.jpg4. El Mikhali

There is a whole army of men going round the streets of Rabat at night with a wheeled cart, collecting plastics and other things to sell off the following days. Our character is a lovely man who has worked as a waste picker all his life, having taken over his dad's cart. His jovial disposition and energy is infectious and following him round the streets of Rabat, dipping his hands in every bin, builds our respect for what is a very important job of recycling. His little moments of joy when he finds something that he wants to keep for himself  make up for the police harassment who, if the mood takes them, will take away his cart. In parallel we see the official bin lorry gobbling up all rubbish... no recycling there!

The films were hard to make under such pressure of time. We could not go with them on shoots as the presence of European woman would tip the precarious balance between the character and the director. Immediate questions of payment would come up, turning them into actors. So we remained at ISCA (Rabat's film school) waiting for the different teams to return with their footage for us to look at it, talk about it and send them back with more specific footage to help the narrative development. They were only allowed two tapes so they had to think hard when to switch the camera on. Restrictions focus the mind and sharpens creativity as we have learned from Lars Von Triars!
During editing we went on talking about the material shot as it was the perfect time to see how the material reacts to be edited. Again, we had many discussions about storytelling and how to dramatise a story rather than keeping to the chronological order of events without betraying the essence of the character. For must of them that was a tough lesson to learn... probably the hardest because they had to stop thinking in terms of following a character around to having to think what they want to say about this character which brings some "ecstatic truth" to an international audience.
On the last evening, the four films were screened to a local audience made out of students and guests from British Council and ISCA. It was real pity that the screening was in a conference centre, far away from city centre and beautiful independent cinema, The Seventh Art.

The workshop was organised by a very active British Council film department, part of British Film Week, and hopefully will encouraged the local audience to come to cinema and watch more documentaries, encouraging local documentary talent to widen their ambition for documentaries to be produced beyond broadcasters. And of course Scottish Documentary Institute is always happy to collaborate championing that cause!