x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Romance film sparks debate on taboos

Amours Voilées causes controversy in Morocco as more film productions are challenging traditions and pushing cultural boundaries.

A woman sits beside a giant poster for Amours Voilées at a cinema in the Moroccan capital, Rabat.
A woman sits beside a giant poster for Amours Voilées at a cinema in the Moroccan capital, Rabat.

RABAT // In anger she reties the headscarf over her hair and slips from his embrace. "I'll see you after Ramadan," he says bitterly, as she reaches the door of his apartment. "Once you've escaped from that disguise." The lovers' quarrel takes place in Amours Voilées (Veiled Loves), a new Moroccan film about a woman torn between her headscarf and the boyfriend who resents it. Amours Voilées unleashed controversy even before it hit cinemas in January, the latest product of a film industry that is increasingly challenging taboos in a society struggling to balance tradition and modernity. The story begins with Batoul, a 28-year-old doctor from Casablanca who has given up on love since the tragic death of a boyfriend. She spends her days at the hospital and her free time with a gaggle of female friends all seeking to attract a man. One evening in a nightclub they meet Hamza, a raffish interior designer. Hamza can dance. He can cook. His eyes smoulder. His seduction of Batoul is swift and effective. Their trysts are clandestine, their lovemaking passionate. As her family grows suspicious, Batoul dons a headscarf during Ramadan, which Hamza comes to accept grudgingly as the affair continues. The depiction of this sort of behaviour has angered some religious conservatives. Abdelbari Zemzmi, a parliamentarian from the Islamist Renaissance and Virtue Party, led the charge against Amours Voilées, calling on Moroccans to boycott the film and the government to ban it. "This film doesn't reflect reality, and gives Morocco a bad image," he said. "Most girls don't behave like that." Mr Zemzmi was joined by the Islamist opposition Justice and Development Party, whose secretary general, Abdelilah Benkirane, told the television station France 24 Amours Voilées slowed the spread of Islam and smacked of Zionism. "I knew my film might provoke debate - so much the better," said Aziz Salmy, who wrote and directed Amours Voilées. He maintains that some Moroccan women are conflicted over the headscarf, widely considered a requirement of Islamic dress. "I'm showing women who are asking themselves questions," Salmy said. "It's in showing things as they are that we can evolve." The face of Moroccan society has changed radically since the country gained independence from its coloniser, France, in 1956. In expanding modern cities, women have traded kitchen and headscarf for designer hairstyles and full-time careers. But a scratch beneath the surface reveals the traditional values of family, modesty and piety. Recently, Moroccan filmmakers have begun shining a light on areas where those values break down - something the government increasingly accepts. "Tackling taboos is a good thing," said Mohammed M'ghazli, head of distribution at the Moroccan Cinematography Centre, an official body that decides which films may be produced in the country. "We need to talk about things that upset us in order to find answers." Authorities occasionally block films they deem too risqué, but had no qualms about Amours Voilées, Mr M'ghazli said. The debate sparked by the film echoes controversy that erupted in 2006 over Marock, a teenage romance between a Muslim girl and a Jewish boy played out in the decadent world of Casablanca high society. And Amours Voilées comes on the heels of Casanegra, which depicts the gritty underbelly of Morocco's commercial hub, replete with violence and sexuality. As filmmakers push boundaries, some elements of Moroccan society have leapt to their defence. "Casanegra does not depict an amoral society, but rather a society that is not afraid to acknowledge its amoral side," wrote Ahmed Benchemsi, editor of the leading magazine Tel Quel. "In other words, a society that is not afraid of itself." Amours Voilées, which closed last week, similarly portrays Morocco as it is, said Zouhair Mhaissar, 22, a university student who saw the film recently in Rabat. "It shows the contradictions between Islamic values and the needs of everyday life, especially sexual needs." "Islam says that covering one's hair is obligatory, and I love my God," said Mr Mhaissar's friend, Rajaa Kada, 20, who saw the film with him and chooses to wear a headscarf. "But I have friends who only cover their hair because they're under pressure from their parents." Around them, moviegoers are streaming from the cinema, where Amours Voilées has just ended with the break-up of Batoul and Hamza by the conflicting forces of social values and personal desire. Disaster strikes when they bump into Batoul's protective brother, Hicham, while out partying and flee in Hamza's car. Hicham gives chase and is killed in the ensuing crash. Batoul, grieving and pregnant, turns to Islam for solace and demands that Hamza marry her. He refuses. Batoul rejects him utterly, vowing to raise their child alone. "I want people to leave the cinema with the idea that we should not judge others without knowing their motivations," said Salmy. "I think Batoul made the right decision in the end," Ms Kada said. "I liked the film - but I wouldn't see it with my parents." jthorne@thenational.ae