Moroccan film 'Across the Sea' explores exile and Marseille’s queer community

6 min read
24 May, 2024

In two crucial scenes in the Moroccan-French film Across the Sea, the main character Nour is on a boat crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The first time, he is young and innocent, full of hope as he leaves his Moroccan home for France, excited for new beginnings. The second time happens over ten years later, on the way back, and it’s his first time returning to Morocco.

He is wiser but anxious and ill – to the point of seasickness. Homesickness calls him home, but Morocco doesn’t feel like home anymore, yet neither does France. He is neither here nor there.

Exploring issues of displacement, family life, and queer communities in Marseille’s vibrant 90s underground scene to the soundtrack of Raï music, Across the Sea by Moroccan-French director Saïd Hamich Benlarbi has been one of the under-the-radar highlights of the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Live Story

The film screened in Cannes’ Critics’ Week, a parallel section of the festival that highlights emerging filmmakers showing their first or second films, which propelled the discovery of gems like Aftersun (2022) and Ava (2017) in recent years.

Benlarbi’s moving drama stirred audiences and is up for a Queer Palm, an award celebrating a film at the Cannes Film Festival that explores LGBTQ+ issues.

It is only Benlarbi’s second feature film, but the director has already crafted a distinct style portraying issues around identity for France’s large Maghrebi community. This film – as evoked in the previously mentioned scenes at sea – looks at the difficulties of belonging faced by many people with immigrant experiences.

“Exile isn't when you leave,” Benlarbi told The New Arab. “It's when you reach the end of your journey – when you can't go back, and when the fantasies of departure and return are broken.”

Across the Sea centres on Nour (stoically played by Ayoub Gretaa) as he arrives into Marseille clandestinely, doing petty thefts to survive until he gets arrested by police, that want to deport him, apart from one police chief, Serge (Grégoire Colin, a terrific actor who rose to fame in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail in 1999), who we discover is queer and helps Nour stay in France as he’s attracted to him.

Despite his sexuality, Serge is in a straight and open marriage with Noémie (the magnetic Anna Mouglalis). Together they have a young son and live a life full of freedom and joy. They help Nour find shelter, and eventually integrate him into their social circles – introducing him to communities on the margins and a way of life that is completely new to him.

Actor Omar Boulakirba and Actress Anna Mouglalis in Across the Sea [La Semaine de la Critique]

The film centres on these three characters as a structural and narrative triptych, allowing audiences to explore each character in different chapters as Nour slowly adapts to his new life in France.

Benlarbi said that he was inspired by a novelistic approach to write and direct the film, influenced by Gustave Flaubert’s 19th-century A Sentimental Education that quickens and slows down time and love affairs, but also by by the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ettore Scola, and Todd Haynes.

The idea of creating chapters devoted to each protagonist allowed the director to evoke how “there are always people in our lives who have made more of an impression on us than others.”

Besides artistic influences, Benlarbi was heavily inspired by his own life and experience of migration for this film. Now based between Paris and Casablanca, with a production house in each city, Benlarbi left Fez in Morocco at 11 years old with his father, leaving behind much of his family.

“Exile is part of my identity,” he said. In fact, the director decided to place the film’s timeline in the 1990s as it coincided with his early arrival in the south of France. He was inspired by the many encounters with other North African immigrants at the time, when Raï music and underground cabarets blasting Cheb Khaled were at their peak.

While many films from or about the MENA region have dealt with issues of migration and displacement in recent years, Across the Sea differs from this genre of films that explore these topics through a dark political lens, often focused on suffering and trauma. Instead, Benlarbi depicts exile through personal relationships, looking at how identity and our lives are shaped by the people we meet – especially for people adapting to a new country.

Live Story

The film doesn’t romanticise the homeland (Morocco) nor the adopted home (France) – reflecting reality, it shows that there are highs and lows in both, and these contrasts are best illustrated when the three main characters, Nour, Serge, and Noémie, interact together in nuanced ways, from love to anger and betrayal.

“I wanted to tell the story of exile in an intimate way, how it is defined in relation to others. I didn't want to reduce the characters to their functions,” Benlarbi told The New Arab. “For me, it was really important to broaden their journey to include something other than their migration… I find it beautiful that the idea of exile is that at some point our identity and our homeland become the other people we've met.”

This idea that many of the characters in the film aren’t defined by their identity as migrants is the same for the queer characters that are not defined by their sexuality. The director sought to follow the theory that it's better to start with a cliché than to end up with one, and that characters must continue to surprise audiences as the narrative develops.

Across the Sea is a French-Moroccan-Belgian-Qatari co-production and will be widely released in cinemas in 2025. Although the filmmaker is aware that the film’s LGBTQ+ themes might be a barrier to it being widely released in some MENA countries, he hopes that it will still be seen in as many places as possible, especially by the Maghrebi community in France – whom Benlarbi had in mind while writing the script.

“I hope the film will speak to all those who have had to move and start anew,” he said, adding that the process of exile is “how you construct your identity.”

Carried by glittering moving images of the Mediterranean Sea and Cheb Khaled on repeat, there is no doubt that audiences will find a home in these sounds and visions, just like the main character Nour does on his own journey between France and Morocco.

Alexander Durie is a journalist working across video, photography, and feature writing. He has freelanced for The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, The Economist, The Financial Times, Reuters, The Independent, and more, contributing dispatches from Paris, Berlin, Beirut, and Warsaw

Follow him on Instagram: @alexander.durie