As Mina grows ill, her body withering, her husband bestows affection on her: He washes her hair, helps her change, brings a fruity sweetness to her lips. But beneath the really tender moments shared by this on-screen Moroccan couple lies a longing — a forbidden kind of longing.
In her latest film, “The Blue Kaftan,” Moroccan director Mariam Touzani delicately weaves complex, overlapping tales of love, traditional and largely taboo for many in her country and her region, as she lives as a woman and Tells the story of her secret gay husband. Together they run a kaftan making shop. The marriage becomes more complicated when the couple hires a male apprentice.
Tackling socially sensitive subjects is not unfamiliar territory for Touzani, who has won acclaim at international film festivals and, most recently, was a jury member at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. “The Blue Kaftan”, which was shortlisted in the International Feature Film category for the 95th Academy Awards, is set to be released on Wednesday in Morocco, where gay sex is illegal.
Touzani told The Associated Press, “I’m really hoping that this will be able to start a debate about the LGBT community and its place …, things that we don’t normally talk about because they It’s a sensitive subject.” “For a healthy society, it is important to be able to talk about everything.”
In Rabat, 27-year-old Laila Sahroui argued that some topics should be left behind closed doors.
“Moroccans … worry that their children may copy such ideas,” she said, adding that she would not watch the film. “Because of our Islam, we do not like such things in Morocco. … It is not appropriate for our society at all.”
But Touzani, 42, said others shared with her how important it was to portray characters like husband Haleem.
“Morocco is a very complex country with very different points of coexistence,” she said. “It’s just about being able to cross certain boundaries and question certain things. … That’s what art can help us too, especially in cinema.
Filmmaker Nabil Ayouch, Touzani’s husband, who co-wrote “The Blue Kaftan” with her and is its main producer, said he is curious about the reactions of those who saw the film, but feels confident.
“There are young and young audiences and they want to see new types of films, new types of cinema in the Arab world,” he said. “More conservative viewers probably won’t be too pleased.”
Part of the role of art, Ayoch said, is to disturb, to stir up debate.
While he welcomes the recognition of his films abroad, he said it is important for films such as “The Blue Kaftan” to be experienced by audiences at home and in the Arab world as well.
For those who “live their sexuality in secret,” he said, “films like this one might give them some courage to face them publicly.”
In “The Blue Kaftan”, Mina, the wife, has a sense of humor and a feisty side that she uses to protect her husband, who considers her his “rock”. He is an observant Muslim; The audience watches his prayer again and again.
Haleem is a torn man. He has a gentle soul and takes pride in his craft – correcting a customer on the exact shade of blue fabric – for the time it takes to hand-embroidery, while catering to shoppers in a changing world With some patience He loves his wife, even as she sneaks away to a cabin in a public bathhouse for secret sexual encounters with men.
Sexual tension builds between her and the male apprentice, Joseph. As Meena’s health falters, Joseph swiftly helps the couple and a love triangle of sorts ensues.
Ultimately, Toujani said, this is a film about “love in its many forms”.
It includes love for the traditional craft of kaftan embroidery with sensuous scenes of fabric and tailoring.
“What I wanted to show in this film is the beauty of certain traditions,” she added. “There are other traditions that … need to be questioned,” he said, citing scenes when Halim challenges certain burial rituals.
In one scene, Haleem apologizes to Meena, telling her that he has tried in vain all his life to get rid of “this thing”. She tells him that she is proud to be his wife, then rests her head on his shoulder.
Touzani said that being a woman of faith did not stop Meena from understanding her husband.
“We have a tendency to say, ‘Well, if you’re religious, you can’t be this or you can’t be that.’ I believe we can be many things at the same time because we are very complex beings.”
Speaking in Rabat, Hanane Bourfoui, 38, said she was against stories about homosexuality. “This should not be seen by our children, mothers and fathers,” she said. “We are a conservative people; We don’t accept it.”
Ahmed Benchemsi, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, said that while the number of people prosecuted for gay sex in Morocco is “relatively low” and the topic of homosexuality is less taboo than it used to be, “the law is still there and It hangs over everyone’s head.
Online, prior to the Moroccan release of “The Blue Kaftan”, some described Touzani’s work as powerful and dynamic; Others accused him of pandering to the West and catering to his sensibilities on issues more relevant to the Moroccan people.
“I don’t make cinema to please anybody,” Toujani said. “I just want to be as true as possible to my characters and the stories I want to tell.”
Touzani’s feature-film directorial debut, “Adam,” tells the story of two women whose lives collide, one an unmarried stranger pregnant and looking for a place to live until she gives birth. She talks about her plan to give away her child to save him from the stigma that would otherwise mar his future.
This was inspired by Touzani’s parents hosting a woman who appeared on their doorstep under similar circumstances. When Touzani was pregnant with his son, she felt the “violence” the woman endured in abandoning her child because “socially she could not do otherwise.”
The brooding theme between “Adam” and “The Blue Kaftan” is a common thread “unparalleled in Arab and Islamic societies”, said film critic Cherky Ameur.
“We hope that through discussion on all issues, there will be less taboos in our society,” he said.
In 2015, “Much Loved”, a film directed and written by Ayoch, in which Touzani acted in various capacities, was blocked from release in the country. Authorities alleged at the time that the film’s portrayal of female sex workers was disrespectful to Moroccan women and values. The film, excerpts of which appeared online, created an uproar; It was defended by some on grounds of freedom of expression and human-interest, and criticized by others who said that its language was crude and the visuals too explicit.
Touzani said that while it was a complicated period, he felt that the film pushed boundaries, and that it was followed by “something that opened up”.
Born in Tangier to a Moroccan father and Moroccan-Spanish mother, Touzani said they encouraged her to stand up for her beliefs. At one point, as a child, she wanted to become a lawyer like her father.
An avid reader, she ended up studying journalism in London but eventually switched to filmmaking.
She said she gravitates towards telling the stories of people on the fringes. On screen, she wants to give them a voice they don’t have and possibilities that don’t exist in real life.
“These are the people who inspire me, who touch me, who bother me,” Toujani said. “These are the people who really worm their way inside my heart and are naturally there without me looking for it.”
Associated Press religion coverage is supported through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.