Death for sale: Faouzi Bensaidi, the award-winning Moroccan director of Death for Sale, talked to Alexander Macbeth.[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
"We are like animals that foresee the arrival of an earthquake," says Faouzi Bensaidi, the award-winning Moroccan filmmaker. Bensaidi's latest film, Death for Sale, the story of three young Moroccan friends wanting a better future, is filled with a prognosticative energy.
Malik, Soufiane and Allal get by as petty thieves in the bubbling streets and bazaars of Tetouan, a city where 'everyone is paid in blood'. Malik's sister has to queue outside a factory with hundreds of other women every day--usually to be turned away by the foreman. "The factory that we see in the film," says Bensaidi, "is this sort of savage globalisation with its own brands that operates in our country in such a way that people don't earn enough and there isn't enough work for everyone."
This economic crisis has left a landscape where half-built buildings trapped between past and future wander by in the film's background while children play in a garbage dump of broken film reels. Malik is in love with Dounia, a prostitute, with whom he'd like to run away and build a new life. Soufiane, the youngest and most perceptible of the trio, soon finds himself indoctrinated into an Islamic militia. Allal, meanwhile, wants the bounty from one final heist to break away from the city's chains; a robbery of a Christian jeweller awaits them all. As the three friends develop their own paths and ambitions, they also have to fight their own cruel destinies.
Filled with stunning imagery and an enchanting soundscape, Death for Sale is a biography of the dissatisfactions at the heart of North African youth. "I can see how now it might offer some insight into the energy that pushed young people to strive for something else," says Bensaidi, whose film was made before the so-called Arab Spring uprisings. "There is a generation, a youth that has been left to its own ways--abandoned and left to crash its head against the wall," adds the director.
But Bensaidi is quick to point out that there are reasons why Morocco insulated itself from revolutionary events across its borders. "We didn't see the same violence that took place in other countries. In the last ten years things have evolved. There has been a consciously-driven effort to invest in culture, for example," says Bensaidi, noting that Morocco has increased its annual film production by 2,000% in a decade, going from producing one feature film per year to 20.
"A vibrant hip-hop scene has also grown in the last 10 years," says Bensaidi, and indeed rappers such as DJ Key and DI Abdel have become powerful voices among urban youth populations in Casablanca and Rabat.
Death for Sale captures much of this energy. Many of the passionate scenes between Malik and Dounia push the boundaries of this conservative North African setting, but the director insists they were necessary. "Dounia is not an idea for Malik, she is a desire," says Bensaidi, who also stars in the film as a corrupt cop. To show such frank and exposing scenes, says Bensaidi, "was necessary to show the dynamic of the characters' relationship."
Bensaidi grew up in the city of Tetouan and Death for Sale is his melancholic and nostalgic vision of something that has been lost through the city's contact with modernity. But while the director aptly pervades the film with a sense of impending change, he does not feel ready to take on the metamorphoses of the Arab Spring. "In my humble opinion," says Bensaidi, whose films have won awards at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Berlinale, "it's too early to take on that subject. I feel there is a risk of riding the wave," he adds, between sips of his espresso. If the film is at all biographical, however, there are a few hints in the director's CV. Bensaidi came to cinema first through poetry and then via theatre. "I did a lot of theatre in the 1990s. I directed Brecht, Garcia Lorca and many Arab playwrights. It was like I was waiting for cinema to arrive," says Bensaidi. And while he's happy that his films now screen at the world's leading festivals, the 45-year-old actor and director feels theatre is the best training ground for a budding filmmaker. "I think theatre is a better training ground than, say, being an assistant director on films. You learn much more about the relationship with actors. A play might tour for weeks and show to 80,000 spectators. While in a film an actor can debut and be seen by five million people tomorrow," says Bensaidi. In short, humility learnt on the dusty stages of Marrakech will serve an actor well on the red carpets of Venice or Cannes.
Bensaidi himself grew up loving Hitchcock and despite tense moments along the journey, he has come to establish himself as a leading player in North African cinema. His breakthrough feature, A Thousand Months, won two awards at Cannes and was widely praised by critics. Death for Sale screened at Berlinale 2012 and was released nationwide in Morocco on 22 February this year. This feat alone is a success in African cinema; films are rarely distributed to home audiences before first being released in Europe or the US, if at all. The playhouse does continue to play a role in the director's life, however. Richard Horowitz, who Bensaidi met at the theatre in Morocco, composed Death for Sale's soundtrack. "He came to see one of my shows--I knew his work of course--but there was a desire to work together," says Bensaidi of his collaboration with Horowitz, the US composer who has also written scores for Bertolucci and Oliver Stone. Horowitz's delicate blend of Moroccan trance with sumptuous instrumentals compliments Death for Sale's dreamy feel.
So if it's too early for the Arab Spring, what can we expect next from Bensaidi? "I'm writing a film that is in a much more experimental vein," says the director. In the meantime, Death for Sale will be released in Europe later in 2012.