Moroccan filmmaker Maryam Touzani will not be censored
Maryam Touzani’s films give people a voice.
From her 2015 short Aya Goes To The Beach, which followed the story of a domestic helper who dreamed of a life by the sea, to 2019’s Adam, which explored the connection between a young pregnant woman and a single mother, Maryam isn’t afraid to dive into topics others might consider taboo.
"It’s important for me to tell meaningful stories, to give a face and voice to people that don’t necessarily have one because it’s hard to be who they are in certain societies and contexts"
Her latest work is no different. Premiering at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, The Blue Caftan watches emotions unfold in one of Morocco’s oldest medinas.
Married couple Halim and Mina, played by Saleh Bakri and Lubna Azabal respectively, run a traditional caftan store, hiring Youssef (Ayoub Missioui) as an apprentice to keep up with business. But as Mina watches the two men work, it’s clear that there’s more than business between them.
For Maryam, inspiration can come from anywhere – a by-chance five-minute meeting that plants an idea later triggered to fruition by an accumulation of thoughts or moments. “Sometimes it’s in the walls of a place,” she shares, but for The Blue Caftan, the story actually germinated from a man she met while scouting for Adam.
“He lived in a conservative part of the medina and I felt there was this whole part of his life that he was obliged to shut off in order to go about his everyday business. I imagined how hard that must have been. We never went into his personal life because I felt I didn’t have the right to ask him, but he let me feel that what I was thinking was probably not wrong. This story just built its path inside me and appeared, little by little,” she tells The New Arab.
As much as The Blue Caftan explores Halim and Youssef’s desires, Maryam also hopes we focus on the relationship between Halim and Mina.
“There are different kinds of love, and there isn’t just one way to love that’s right. Mina faces her own fears out of love for Halim. At the end of the day, when you’re with somebody that you really care about you want to see them happy. It’s not easy for her, choosing not to see her husband’s homosexuality in order to keep the stability and harmony they’ve found for themselves,” she says.
Growing up, Maryam doesn’t remember Moroccan cinema being as rich as it is now. “There were Bollywood or American films, but it wasn’t until my first year studying in Madrid that I saw a Moroccan film. It was Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, and the filmmaker [Nabil Ayouch] later happened to become my husband.
"The story was so beautiful and showed me things that I didn’t know could exist in regards to making films and how they could make a strong social impact. Before then, it was mainly about entertainment for me. It was a wake-up call,” she explains.
Starting out in documentaries, no doubt inspired by her early career as a journalist, it’s clear Maryam is a true storyteller. “I never thought I was going to become a fiction filmmaker. I’d never studied film. But when my dad passed away, I felt the need to talk about the things that I felt,” she says.
After that came the script for When They Slept, a story “about a little girl accompanying her grandfather through death, saying goodbye to him in the way she wants to rather than the way society imposes on her.”
Maryam initially thought When They Slept would be a one-off exploration of emotions that called out to be shared, but spending time on film sets with her husband Nabil Ayouch awakened her desire.
Five years later, Maryam’s cinematic CV is full of stories with strong social messages. But her work isn’t just political – it aims to humanise the experiences and struggles of her characters, who so many Moroccans and North Africans can see themselves in.
“It’s important for me to tell meaningful stories, to give a face and voice to people that don’t necessarily have one because it’s hard to be who they are in certain societies and contexts,” she shares.
“It’s engaged cinema. There is something I want to talk about and defend. It’s essential in countries like mine to tackle subjects that not everybody’s comfortable with. Cinema can bring change because it’s emotional, rather than just some statistics – that’s why my films are about characters first, then the backgrounds they carry with them,” she explains.
"There’s a desire for change, and also a sense that we’re full of contradictions – we can be modern with some things and conservative with others"
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Maryam has faced some obstacles in bringing her stories to screen due to their subject matters but tries not to let that hold her back.
“Whether I think they’re going to be well-received, not well-received, censored, not censored, I just write the story I want to write and talk about my characters the way I want to talk about them. I give them the freedom that they deserve. If you’re scared from the start, it has an impact on the final product,” she says.
She also shares her concerns about “self-censorship” in cinema, particularly in Morocco. “People might avoid certain themes if they want their films to be screened,” she explains but is quick to add that The Blue Caftan received money from the state to support its production and was released in Morocco, which Maryam says she’s “ecstatic” about.
“I never even wanted to think ‘what if the film doesn’t get released in Morocco,’ I wanted to be optimistic. I think [the release] is proof that we’re willing, as a society, to tackle subjects that we weren’t a few years back. There’s a desire for change, and also a sense that we’re full of contradictions – we can be modern with some things and conservative with others,” she says.
Her approach to casting is similarly valiant. In all of her films, Maryam says it’s important to work with actors who understand and empathise with her characters.
“My approach to casting is with a lot of sincerity. We had an open casting for the role of Halim, and it was essential for the actors to feel a real understanding of the part and how important it was to be as true to the character as possible, to not be afraid to go to places they didn’t know.
"There could be a lot of uneasiness in this part of the world for exploring a character like Halim, but I wanted my actors to want to go there,” she concludes.
Isabella Silvers is a multi-award-winning editor and journalist, having written for Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, Refinery 29 and more. She also writes a weekly newsletter on mixed-race identity, titled Mixed Messages.
Follow her on Twitter: @izzymks