Asmae El Moudir is one of Morocco’s freshest new voices in cinema today. Last month, she made history in Cannes by taking home the directing prize in the Un Certain Regard section for her documentary The Mother of All Lies, becoming the first Moroccan director to win the prize at the festival. Past recipients include Taylor Sheridan, Alain Guiradie, Mohammad Rasoulof, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Sergei Loznitsa.
El Moudir also shared the L’Oeil d’or (Golden Eye) prize with Tunisian director filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania for her film Four Daughters. Last year’s L’Oeil d’or winner, All That Breathes, went on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Previous L’Oeil d’or winners include Faces Places and For Sama, which also earned Academy Award nominations.
With The Mother of All Lies, El Moudir continues her quest into documentary filmmaking, for which she is well rewarded through her critically acclaimed short films, by taking a closer look at her family’s past by the use of figurines. And although she dislikes the association of the words “therapy” and “film,” Asmae agrees that telling the hidden and hurtful events related to the Casablanca bread riots that marked the whole nation in 1981, through the eyes of her parents and relatives made for an interesting group therapy session.
A few days before the film’s Cannes premiere back in May, I sat with Asmae El Moudir in the Moroccan Pavilion to talk about her personal film that she has been working on for 10 years under the mantle of her own production company. In our discussion, we talked about the audacious approach she adopted to tell this specific story and the political debates her film will surely stir once it is released in Morocco.
Ali Benzekri: I had the chance to watch your wonderful film The Mother of All Lies a few days before its world premiere in Cannes. And I have to say that I was utterly surprised as I was expecting a different film. Before diving into the subject of your film, I want to discuss with you its audacious structure as it is one of its major attributes. What was your inspiration for that?
Asmae El Moudir: Thank you, Ali. Indeed, the form is very important in the film because of its hybrid nature. When I started my research for this film 10 years ago, I wanted to find the right way to tell this story; I wanted it to be fun and engaging without compromising my artistic vision especially as I was working with non professional characters whom I love since they are my family and represent the core of my work which is to show normal people from my everyday life. I really wanted to escape the classical filmmaking with these characters. For this reason, I wanted to work again with familiar tools that I have already used in the past: figurines… Same goes for the production design that we fabricated from scratch because we couldn’t film on location for many reasons. However, the location was important to liberate my characters and to let them speak about personal events from their past that they never got a chance to tell. So to get back to the form aspect, it was important for me to shoot this process and to show it in the film.
AB: Speaking of the simple yet engaging approach you adopt for this film, I noticed your special use of narration in a very childish way, and I am saying this in the best way possible.
AEM: Definitely! This is a tale and I wanted it to be an accessible one. It’s a story of a girl who is telling her story as she uncovers all the little white lies she was fed by her parents and entourage before getting to the bigger picture of what really happened in her neighborhood. Personally, I love hearing and telling stories; this one in particular, I decided that it should be told in a simple way to reach all audiences because I never intended for this film to be for intellectuals or cinephiles only. So it was important to me to succeed in my equation of expanding the real life events in a cinematic way while making audiences all over the world understand this story no matter their age, origins or intellect.
AB: And I find your definition of the cinema d’auteur to be refreshing in its simplicity.
AEM: I always wanted to make my films in a personal way without thinking about their commercial prospects. I always say that my story is the film, it’s never the other way around.
AB: In the film, you are surrounded by your family and friends and while watching, I couldn’t help but think that this experience must’ve felt therapeutic for all of you.
AEM: In most cases, I dislike the word “therapy” for the simple reason that while making films, we provoke feelings but we are not doctors and we heal no one. But to be honest, this experience was indeed a therapy for all of us. But it is important to note that we had already made peace with our past even before making this film. We are also proud of the freedom in which we tell this story and I must admit that it is a liberating position to be in.
AB: Certainly, the power of the film shows in its freedom.
AEM: Absolutely! And I am thankful for His Majesty the King Mohamed the 6th for helping us create a climate that has allowed us the freedom to tackle these difficult subjects from our past. I am really grateful to be part of this generation that has the agency of telling stories by evoking and even making our own archives.
AB: There is a big political position in your film. How did you manage to speak about events that may spike controversy?
AEM: I didn’t think that raising real life events would evoke any kind of disagreement since the reconciliation with this topic has already been made. I really don’t think this film will bother anyone since I am telling my own family’s recollections of these events and that is subjective to me. Same goes to my parents who are telling their own personal accounts. Obviously, links will be drawn between this personal story in the national context but that is to be expected since this is after all our own collective identity.
AB: You mentioned the Moroccan identity, and to me this is one of the main weaknesses facing Moroccan cinema today; we see films that do not represent the way we the people of this country live or talk. But your film is different, it is fully conceived in the most Moroccan way possible.
AEM: I agree with you. In this film, I talk my own language the way the people of Casablanca talk and my characters show no artifice in the way they communicate.
AB: The Moroccan identity is also presented via the Nass El Ghiwan music.
AEM: Absolutely. And I was lucky to get the rights to include some songs from the iconic band thanks to the kindness of Omar Sayed, God bless him. And this choice comes from my personal pride of being Moroccan and for having this wonderful repertoire of Nass El Ghiwan that I had the pleasure to include in my film.
AB: Your film is beautiful but it is also an important document of a hidden past. Was this work of documentation the main motivation behind the making of The Mother of All Lies?
AEM: That is true. We can’t deny that most of our memories were told by the winners which makes everything questionable. During my research, I was well aware of this which led me to verify the different interpretations. After all, the 80s are blurry to me thus I can’t fully take anyone’s word for it. This is why I felt the need to create a visual document for the generations to come so they can go back to the film to have a real and extensive testimony about this period of time as told by the people who lived it. This is how the film starts and this is how my story started as well since I was looking for nonexistent pictures of myself when I was a kid. By searching for my own memories, I seized the opportunity to dive in the bigger picture of a suppressed national tragedy.
AB: We know that most of the films selected by the Cannes Film Festival get confirmed very late ahead of the press conference announcing the final slate. How did you get the news?
AEM: I want to be honest with you, the film was invited to participate in a big festival before Cannes, but once I got the email and my eyes noticed the Cannes Film Festival logo, I couldn’t believe it and I started jumping with excitement like a kid. Even my nephew who was with me that day thought I won the World Cup…
AB: And I believe that is the equivalent of it.
AEM: Of course. And let’s face it, to be selected in Cannes is the dream of all film directors around the world, and I am no different since this has always been a dream for me. The first email I got was from Christian Jeune and then I received another touching email from Thierry Frémaux as well and I really am grateful to them.
The Mother of All Lies had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.