Making its debut at the Cannes Directors' Fortnight, Nabil Ayouch's latest film, Much Loved (Zin li fik) is causing quite a stir. This uncensored plunge into the world of prostitution in Marrakech is realistic for some and shocking for others. The film, several scenes of which have already been leaked online, will undoubtedly leave its mark on the history of Moroccan cinema.
And for good reason. In five short clips and only six minutes, Much Loved has divided Morocco. Nabil Ayouch's seventh feature film is a mirror of society, of its less presentable face for some, but that mirror is now cracked by censorship. By announcing, on the night of May 25th that the film would be banned "given that it constitutes a grave outrage against moral values and Moroccan womanhood," the Ministry of Communication chose to follow the prevailing public opinion. In doing so, it commits two political errors.
A brief summary of the facts: Recently, a team from the Moroccan Cinematographic Center (CCM) was at Cannes, as it is every year, to promote Moroccan cinema. This delegation (distinct from the Moroccan film permit and review commission, and therefore unable to act on the release of productions in Morocco) took the opportunity on this visit to the Côte d'Azur to watch the Nabil Ayouch feature presented as part of the Directors' Fortnight.
To speak of "competent authorities" without elaborating further, as the ministry of communication does is an abuse of language. The decision to censor Ayouch's film based on the assessments of these "authorities," who are ultimately not so competent, is an abuse of power.
Substantively, a debate has (re-)surfaced on art and its purpose, on limits to freedom of expression, on cinema and reality, on the cultural mores that we project and those that we live. Sometimes excessive, always passionate, the #MuchLoved polemic has moved beyond the realm of critics and it is the better for it. But the "competent authorities," in using a remarkably consistent vocabulary ("outrage," "moral values," "violate,"), have reduced the discussion and put an end to it. That's unfortunate. Scheduling coincidence: Mustapha El Khalfi, Minister of Communication and government spokesperson, was touring the United States to play up "the dynamic of the Moroccan model of reforms" the same day the decision was announced.
Apart from timing, the second error in the official objection relates to the substance of the ban. Let's start at the beginning: The film was shot in Morocco after receiving the necessary authorizations. The scenario had therefore been submitted to and validated by the CCM. Before that, the advance on receipts fund had refused to subsidize it. Unfortunate for the director, but certainly the government's prerogative. No to public assistance based on aesthetic criteria. Yes to filming in Morocco. A radical and therefore exceptional measure, the ban goes against the previously more balanced approach.
The ban falls in line with a unique context: strong mobilization on social media, a complaint against the film crew, death threats against the actors and the director, political opposition from the Istiqlal party. There are objective reasons for the decision. All things indicate that the same "competent authorities" cited by El Khalfi acted to avoid potential excesses. When the security climate is disturbed, cover up! Except that this intolerance is an admission of weakness. Above all, the measure contradicts the motives put forward: By censoring a film presented at Cannes and the rest of the world, the "harm to the image of the kingdom" is ensured, and poses serious questions.
Are we able to discuss subjects that anger us without insults or anathemas? Without takfir (excommunication)? Apparently not. On questions of identity, the debate is lively. It is not limited to Morocco. The major Western democracies have also seen real "culture wars." In the United States, for example, "culture wars" are raging: from abortion, to bearing arms, to blaspheme and creationism. But this "preventive" censorship, operating outside the law, and issued even before the director had requested a screening permit, is a sad first in Moroccan cinema. A first that could also set a precedent. By acting too strongly on the issue, the "competent authorities" are clearly treating Moroccans, artists and audiences alike, as if they are minors. And so, we are all Nabil.
This article was originally published on HuffPost Morocco and was translated into English.