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From a doll's house, Asmae El Moudir revives familial trauma

Within the labyrinth of a doll’s house, Asmae El Moudir recreates private memories and collective history
7 min read
27 October, 2023
Asmae El Moudir's documentary Mother of All Lies is the Moroccan entry at the 2024 Oscars and features a complex plot that resurrects family secrets and an episode of violence abandoned amidst the ashes of the past.

It all started about a decade ago when after some time abroad Moroccan film director Asmae El Moudir returned to the family home in Casablanca where she grew up to help her parents move out.

The occasion was suitable for introducing her camera into the house and asking questions about a mysterious photo from her childhood – the only one she had, a photo her mother gave her.

Asmae, however, was convinced that it wasn’t her in that picture and that her mother was lying. So she initiated a cinematic journey in search of the truth, only to find that her family’s rejection of images was more personal and painful than she could suspect.

“I didn’t feel really traumatised by the fact that I didn’t have photos before the age of twelve but I wanted to recreate the imagery of my childhood and to put together my own records,“ Asmae says.

“It was important for me to start from nothing and this nothing caused me to understand the value of having a personal archive. Starting from scratch was not easy but throughout the ten-year process of gathering memories, I found my way towards this particular way of storytelling, used in the film.” 

To partly rebuild the memories buried in oblivion, Asmae decided to create a miniature replica of her neighbourhood, the Sebata district, and especially of her family house.

Her father, a mason who built many houses in Casablanca and other cities, designed the structure of these tiny settings out of cement and bricks, while a decorator helped to make the figurines as realistic as possible.

“My father turned out to be a real artist without formal education as I discovered while making the film. I knew that he was very talented with hand-made stuff as he was inventing toys for me and my sister when we were little, also some sort of doll’s houses out of sand we could enter,” recalls Asmae.  

“I came up with the idea for this setting as I wanted to have scenes in places where we could not shoot. For example, I could not film at the cemetery with my characters, so I decided to put everything together in this model which is the film’s main scenery. I wanted to control the setting by creating it from scratch and thus free myself from outside influence while also avoiding possible restrictions. Whatever could not be documented was left to the imagination.”

Another more practical reason for creating this miniature figurine for each character was that Asmae had no idea when she might finish the film. “It was a long process, so I had to make sure that if anyone was not among us anymore, I could continue shooting.”

About five years after she began working on The Mother of All Lies, Asmae saw a story on the TV news about the inauguration of a cemetery not far from her place, dedicated to the 1981 Bread Riots victims.

Already twenty-five years old at the time, she heard for the first time about this completely forgotten event of Moroccan history which took place not only in her city but in the heart of the neighbourhood where she grew up.

Asmae with the house miniature

“The departure point was the personal story, but finding out about the Bread Riots made me search for the connections between the secrets and lies of my family and silenced events on a state level,” explains Asmae.

“I was looking for footage from the riots in France and in Morocco but all that was left was this one photo shown in the film which displays people with bicycles – it pops up everywhere on the internet when one looks for images from the Bread Riots. Lots of articles and journalist’s reports have been written about the events but no images are left. It very much resembled my own story.”

In the TV news, Asmae’s attention was especially caught by a black-and-white portrait of a young girl held up with both hands by a woman with a sad face. Her name was Fatima and she was twelve when she died in the riots on June 20, 1981, on the very same streets where Asmae later played carelessly during her childhood. She learned that Fatima’s body was never found.

“The most important thing for me was to bring the hidden stories out onto the surface and to focus on the people whose bodies disappeared. I wasn’t looking for the people responsible for what happened, just for evidence. It’s not only about my neighbour Fatima, it’s about all the neighbours who lost their lives that day – something that concerns the collective memory. Not talking about the riots was part of a silence by mutual consent but I believe that my generation can now talk freely about the past. Today’s Morocco is not like before, the fact that this film was chosen to represent the country at the Oscars means a lot.”

What comes clear during our talk with Asmae is that the core idea behind The Mother of All Lies is to interweave personal trauma with the bigger picture of events to understand how society has been shaped.

“The interaction with my family in the film showed the mechanism of lies that was applied not only at home but also outside, within society as well,” Asmae tells The New Arab. 

A Moroccan woman's search for truth tangles with a web of lies in her family history [Kabir Abyad]

As one gets to understand towards the end of the film, the family lies Asmae refers to concern her grandmother’s traumatic loss in her youth which made her forbid all images at home under the pretext that religion does not permit them. And it is no surprise that the hardest thing for Asmae was to persuade her family to get involved in her project.

“It took me a lot of time to convince my grandmother to participate. Firstly, she was afraid to speak about her troubled past, and secondly, she is someone who does not like pictures. So, after three years of shooting without her, I threatened to hire an actress to play her character. I showed her photos of three famous Moroccan actresses as possible options. Right the next day she suddenly agreed to take part, while still keeping me on stand-by because she couldn’t guarantee she would finish the film.”

Eventually, the film turned out to have a therapeutic effect on Asmae’s family. By restoring memories, its members managed to return to some deeply buried aspects of their souls and thus start communicating more openly.

“My grandmother isn’t afraid of images anymore, she can even watch films and TV series.”

And, as a key storytelling element, Asmae’s background voice helped her give voices to herself as a child and as an adult, even though they might contradict each other. “I allowed myself to examine the stories that made me who I am today.”

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The Mother of All Lies has not yet been shown in Morocco but the premiere will be soon, although Asmae admits she feels a bit nervous about the reaction in her native land.

This will be the last journey of the film before the Oscars race where this inventive documentary will be the second Moroccan film by a female filmmaker to be presented after Maryam Touzani’s The Blue Caftan (2022).

In addition, Asmae El Moudir is among the six filmmakers, five women and one man, admitted to the half-year-long Cannes Film Festival 2024 residency program where she will develop her next project – a fiction feature based on true events. Without a doubt, she is a filmmaker to watch.

Mariana Hristova is a freelance film critic, cultural journalist, and programmer. She contributes to national and international outlets and has curated programs for Filmoteca De Catalunya, Arxiu Xcèntric, goEast Wiesbaden, etc. Her professional interests include cinema from the European peripheries and archival and amateur films