This interview was originally conducted for subtitledonline.com and centred on Bensaidi's 2011 film Death for Sale.
Moroccan film-maker and actor Faouzi Bensaïdi released his third film Death For Sale last year, with a UK release date imminent. Beginning in theatre, Bensaïdi started to make short films, quickly gaining several accolades. In 2003, he made his first feature film, A Thousand Months, which won the ‘youth award’ at the Cannes film festival. He went on to direct and star in his second picture, 2006’s WWW: What a Wonderful World, a playful genre movie about the life, times and sexual encounters of a professional hit man.
Death For Sale is the director’s third feature film. Set in Tetouan, a Northern port town in Morocco that overlooks the Mediterranean, it tells the story of three young men who are driven into planning a heist on a local jewelers. The film delves into the lives of these three men with an eye for gritty realism as well as moments of dreamlike surrealism to create a thriller rife with twists and dilemmas.
We at subtitledonline.com were lucky enough to talk to Bensaïdi about his latest film and his career in general.
Death For Sale is set in Tetouan. Coming from Morocco yourself, it seems like a film you have personal ties with. What inspired you to make this film?
My childhood… I lived there from the age of 3 to 4 years old, it’s the town where my family is from. The most distant memories of my childhood have their source in the streets, the mountains and the light of Tetouan… and then my adolescence, the small time crooks, the losers from my neighborhood, their half-assed schemes, their pride, their dreams, their grandeur…
The three young men at the centre of this film, exist within this brooding atmosphere of poverty, crime and manipulation of which there is no escape. Is this an indictment of the socio/political problems of the region, resulting in a wasted disenfranchised youth?
Through the three characters, the film sets its gaze on this youth: their abandonment, their confusion, the lack of meaning in their lives, their emptiness and their boredom… a dead end as hard as a wall that the younger generation is running straight into. At the same time, the characters also exist as human beings in their own right, rather than just as representatives for their generation. They live ordinary lives and then confront extraordinary destinies – destinies they don’t have the strength to shoulder, which is what makes them tragic characters.
The movie looks great – props to your cinematographer Marc-Andre Batigné – especially in all those grand vistas showing off the city and the neighboring mountains. The film seems to toe the line between gritty realism and the sublime. How important was maintaining the balance between the real and the fantastical?
Since the beginning, that balance has been the essence of my work and the desire for cinema I have. Telling the stories of the little people. The ones who aren’t trying to make or change history but just want to live through it without too much damage – but instead end up subjected to it and paying the cost of its whims. But at the same time, these people all have the breath of life, the larger dimension that comes to them as they confront the big decisions that can make or destroy a life forever. The great feelings of love, betrayal, friendship, greed, faith. It’s this added dimension that allows a thriller, a film noir, to evolve into a modern tragedy. Through mise-en-scène, it allows me “the cinématographe” to lift and carry the raw realism that is the film’s foundation towards the strength and grandeur of emotion, and of cinema. The success of that coherent combination of realism and flights of lyricism is the main thing at stake in the films I make… making the chamber music coexist with the opera.
Dounia holds a very enchanting presence throughout the film. How did you come to cast Imane Elmechrafi?
I was looking for an actress with beauty, presence, and the talent to convery the ambiguities and nuances of a complex role. All the way up to the end she remains impossible to grasp, and the audience’s feelings about her once they have seen the film are very divided. I was also looking for an actress with the courage to act in risqué scenes, to fully take them on, which in our country isn’t obvious. We saw a lot of actresses before coming to a decision. Even she had had it with all the casting sessions. But for me it was also about finding the right match with Malik to form the couple, which is essential to the film.
The movie seems to be centred upon the men, but also the ways in which women are oppressed within this highly patriarchal society. I felt myself feeling sympathetic towards Dounia throughout the movie, or at least towards a point… It seemed like a very subversive way of tackling the gender politics of the region. Was this the point?
It’s a movie that women understand more easily than men, that’s something I’ve noticed with audiences who have seen the film. The complex aspects of the different female personalities – Dounia’s but also Malik’s sister who is living an impossible love affair with a married man, the mother who marries the uncle after the father dies… the mother and the aunt can understand the girl and her relationship with the married man. They try to help her, unlike her uncle who condemns her without trying to understand. Even the women who are turned away at the factory entrance have a story to tell. In the end, the women in the film are more tolerant, more courageous and more modern than the men are.
You act in the movie also, as a slightly crooked cop. This isn’t a first for you, but within the context of this film how are you able to act whilst keeping the direction focused?
I’ve discovered that acting in your own films is like being a musician in a quartet. You can play your violin, all the while keeping your ear alert to what the others are doing and directing them. I would even go further than that: it puts you in a better position to feel what’s not working in a scene from the inside and point it out. Whereas being behind the combo isn’t bad, but it’s not as strong. Something physical happens between me and the actors, something that reinforces my connection with them and allows me to better guide them towards finding the best in themselves.
Death For Sale is your third major film as director. Has the film making process changed much at all over the course of your career?
What I try to do is make films that simultaneously go against and stay close to each other. I want to explore new territory with each film, but at the same time of course, there are recurring things – which may be what’s referred to as style. The combinations of grandeur and minimalism, the intimate and the cosmic, realism and excess have always been there… and what I feel strongest about is my unshakeable belief in cinema and the unique tools it provides.
Finally, what’s next for you? Have you got any more projects in the pipeline?
I’m working on a movie that pursues the burlesque that’s present throughout my work, especially in my second film. I’m writing… so for it to work the idea has to withstand the writing process… we’ll see…
Faouzi Bensaïdi, thanks for talking to us.