JAWHARA, prison girl
Hicham Raji - 13/04/2004
Saad Chraïbi’s latest film released on March 3rd received a mixed welcome and sparked off debate. It was to be expected as the filmmaker treads on a dangerous zone which was up until then unexplored and quite taboo. Jawhara is practically the first film to tackle the dark period of the lead years in Morocco. Has he managed to recreate this atmosphere of the 1970s? Has his reconstruction and the actors managed to arouse emotion in us or did they merely inform us on the era, urge us to get a clearer view as have some poignant articles since the end of the 90s? The answer is globally quite unfavourable to the film because for those, numerous as they were, who lived during this period or suffered from it, it did not manage to present a dramatic construction which suitably illustrates the era.
In the filmmaker’s defence, it has to be recognised that it is difficult to make a film following the release of about twenty accounts on the period, some of which were very good. The film is necessarily reductive and adaptations rarely measure up to their written inspirations. The fact the cinema adds a décor to the description, gives faces to the characters makes it an art of great precision where error is not permitted. As our imagination is less solicited through cinema (or is otherwise), so that we can relate to it we demand that the atmosphere, created for us by this creator that is the filmmaker , to be perfect or at least esthetically correct, and that no false notes disturb its harmony. The challenge was too big and the filmmaker perhaps, as was said, succumbed to the trend that insists for more and more filmmakers to take advantage of this ‘market’. The future release of many films on the same topic has already been announced. The imminent release of the adaptation of Jaouad Mdidech’s The black room (La Chambre noire) is currently awaited, realised by Hassan Benjelloun. Saad Chraïbi defends himself in his interviews of following any trend whatsoever and adds that it is only since 1999 that the lead years can be approached in cinema and that previously it was a taboo subject. It can be assumed that the argument of defence is more damning than the accusation : an artist is in essence subversive and nothing forces him to conform to governmental pressure or to apply self-censorship.
Those that were for a long time forgotten in prison would have liked for their ordeal to be told, in the 1980s for example. A work, even censured or exposing its author to harassment would have maybe contributed to the quickening of their release. Also Jawhara recounts so badly the suffering of the time that it becomes nice, inoffensive and well-meaning, so much so that the second television channel ( a state channel) ventures into airing the trailer. Finally the film could very well have been filmed and released in the 70s. It suggests many things as was common at the time to bypass censorship, vague allusions which don’t incriminate anyone and no-one is held responsible. A film like Nabil Ayouch’s, A minute less of sunshine censored a year ago is much more subversive even if it has been said that it is less well made than Ali Zaoua. It dares to confront taboos not admitted to and deeply rooted in our society, by showing erotic scenes or presenting the fact of homosexuality.
Jawhara is the story of a little girl born in prison and living with her mother (Safia) during her entire incarceration. In the 1970s a small amateur theatre company, as there were many at the time, put up a politically committed show which was not to the taste of the government as was often the case. Amongst the group of friends is Safia and Said, two young activists in love with one another and newly married. One day the whole company is ‘picked up’ by the police whilst in full rehearsal. And so begins the ordeal for the parents (who have no news from their children) and the young actors: bloody interrogations, torture and cramming together, whilst blindfolded in cells. Safia is raped and becomes pregnant. Said escapes from prison and will even manage to steal video tapes from the police station, archive tapes of the tortures and interrogations (a bit much…). Later the friends will be released from prison except Safia who will be transferred to another detention centre, a farm in a lost village ( to allude to Tazmamart where the Oufkir family were locked up in a farm). She will remain there a few more years with her daughter, to put pressure on Said who still possesses the incriminating videos and hasn’t yet had the good idea of divulging them in order to create a huge scandal. The evil police superintendent will however see to the destruction of the tapes. It is Jawhara, the little girl in the film who tells her story, much later as an adult.
Two thirds of the film take place in prison. The setting of the old prison in Casablanca (« Ghbila », which dates back to the protectorate but since disused) is quite appropriate. The architecture of the period and the sadness of the walls gives a certain melancholic beauty to the scenery.
A house of horrors should be set up there, the area is fitting. The second place of imprisonment we visit is far less original. It seems more like a badly maintained farm than a genuine penal colony.
One walks away from the film with a bitter taste in one’s mouth. Not because the scenes are atrocious or they touch you. They leave you rather cold. Or almost wanting to apologise for not shedding one tear whilst assisting to the unconvincing torture scenes or seeing the jailers mistreating and insulting the prisoners throughout. The insults are also quite trivial as everyone knows that our police are not very polite and that hurling abuse, especially during that period, is not the least of their lapses. One was rather waiting to see more violent scenes than those from the series Oz for example. Compared to our prisons the American penitentiary is paradise.
The actress Mouna Fettou (Safia) and the young Yassine Ahjam (Said) have a few rings of truth but they lack presence and consistency. They cannot communicate enough of the emotional charge to us so that we can delve into the drama. But I think that this is due to a problem in the scenario and the screenplay rather than the acting. The film seems to have diluted, drowned the heroes in a crowd of characters whose each one tries to steal the limelight. Once again the will to be exhaustive, to tackle several subjects in one go, affects the dramatic intensity of the fiction.
However the most serious criticism made about the film is its blatant anachronism. From the opening scenes the events are situated by the narrative of Jawhara the adult, in a distant past in the 1970s. But when one is plunged into this past we are surprised to find quite a modern setting, modern day Casablanca with new cars and architecture, and up to date fashion. Saad Chraïbi claims that this anachronism is a deliberate choice of screenplay. He says he wants to draw our attention to the fact that today still, we are not completely sheltered from these kidnappings, torture or arbitrariness. We’ll allow the remark but the procedure is quite audacious and confines to glaring errors. The public is old enough and intelligent enough to judge whether these methods are still in use today, without needing to have them underlined in red pen for them.
The film describes events, a past obscured for a long time. The references should be clear if one wants the public to recognize the era and themselves. The temporal chaos in the film and the chronological twists are constantly and blatantly contradictory with the real dealings of the events. If the film really tackles current affairs of present day Morocco (2004), which is what seems to be strongly suggested by a symbolic portrait of the king Mohammed VI hung on the wall of the police station which would be a logical reasoning, why expose the events through the narration of an adult Jawhara who sets the present thirty years later (2030?), when in reality the narrative makes reference to acts that occurred thirty years before (1970s?)
The feeling of uneasiness after the film comes mainly from the incessant toing and froing from this temporal mixture. The historic reconstruction could have been relatively easy and cheap to do since two thirds of the film take place in prison. The most serious danger of this ‘chaotic’ approach is to bring in current themes into the past, to exploit this past which isn’t really clear to begin with and to pass it off as a description to help us understand.
One of many examples : in the film at the end of school, we see young girls veiled. Whereas in the 1970s the Islamic veil was still a relatively unknown phenomenon. Those who did not know Morocco at that time (foreigners or young Moroccans of twenty years old) will think that the hijab has always been worn in Morocco, despite its first appearance after the Iranian revolution.
One might have voluntarily subscribed to such a chaotic universe if its treatment had been different. If this unorganized return into the past had been a trip to hell in a Dantesque or Fellinian setting. It is not essential to be totally realistic, even in telling of a painful past. Since Charlie Chaplin and more recently Roberto Benigni, we know that we can set off tears and laughter at the same time, even in tackling serious and traumatizing subjects.
The film remains in some aspects interesting. The somber scenes inside the prison restore the sinister and gloomy atmosphere. He draws our attention to the conditions of these women who experienced torture and prison because of their ideas. Many of them even died such as Saida Menebhi, deceased at 25 from a hunger strike in 1975.
Fiche du film :
Film web site : www.jawhara.ma
With : Mouna Fettou, Latifa Ahrar, Amina Rachid, Mohamed Bestaoui, Mohamed Khouyi, Ahmed Boulane, Yassine Ahjam.
Scenario : Saâd Chraibi, Youssef Fadel
Dialogue : Youssef Fadel
Music : Younes Megri, Ali et Hassan Souissi
Director : Saâd Chraibi
Length : 97 mn.
De la vie d’un village, 1978 (documentaire, 30 mn).
Paroles et expression, 1980 (court métrage, 28 mn).
Absence, 1982 (moyen métrage, 45 minutes).
Chronique d’une vie normale, 1990 (long métrage).
Femmes et femmes, 1998 (long métrage).
Avec : Mouna Fettou, Fatma Kheir, Soraya Alaoui et Salima Benamou
Durée : 98 mn.
Soif, 2000 (long métrage).
Avec : Abdellah Didane, Mouna Fettou, Jean-Michel Noirey, Louise Lemoine, Touria Jabrane.
Durée : 109 mn.