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Much unseen: scandals, cultural stereotypes, and Nabil Ayouch’s Much Loved

Scandal hit just before Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch debuted his most recent film, Much Loved/Zine li fik, at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes in May of 2015. Footage of the film about the lives of three prostitutes in Marrakech was leaked online, touching off a furor in Morocco. There ensued death threats against Ayouch and lead actor Loubna Abidar, the film’s ban in Morocco, obscenity charges, Facebook calls for the director’s execution, physical attacks on actors, and soon, Abidar’s exile in France. Throughout it all, however, few Moroccans actually saw the film, a condition that persists, at least insofar as is publicly acknowledged, to this day.

Violence aside, little of this is new or even particularly surprising – least of all the pillorying of a film sight unseen in Moroccan and social media by commentators, politicians, civic leaders, and self-appointed guardians of public decency. It is not even the first time that one of Ayouch’s films has kicked up controversy or been banned in Morocco.

Yet past controversies of films unseen – and, in the eyes of some, unseeable – have evolved largely within the spheres of Moroccan media and cyberspace. What is new in this instance is that the controversy has spread across the Mediterranean to France, Europe, and beyond. Observers on both sides of the northern Atlantic are quick to attribute such virulent attacks on a cultural product to religious conservatism, cultural taboos, or even sexual “misery” (assisted in this latter by the kind of culturalist analysis recently offered by best-selling author Kamel Daoud). In turn, many of those who express the greatest surprise at the uproar of Moroccan opinion assume, as does Ayouch himself, that if only people saw the film, it would become apparent that the nudity, sex, and vulgarity of the leaked clips work in the service of exposing deeper social issues concerning the role of women in Moroccan society.

Nabil Ayouch à la cérémonie des prix Lumières 2014 by Georges Biard. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This presumes that critical blindness is exclusive to Moroccans who refuse or are prevented from seeing the film. Yet, what of Euro-American audiences? Might we not also suffer from some impaired vision?

Certainly, the attention paid to Much Loved obscures the remarkable vitality of film and discourses around it in a country where popular audiences continue to desert movie theaters in favor of bootlegs and downloads even as cineplexes attract wealthy viewers to commercial cinema. More significantly, simplistic analyses of the controversy downplay Moroccan audiences’ keen awareness of the power of globally circulating images and narrative cinema. Not least, it occults the dynamic and complex conversations taking place in Moroccan civil society around the very kinds of social issues that the film’s commercial realism purports to expose.

So, on what grounds do its critics dismiss Much Loved? As the charges against the film show, some call it obscene, an offense against public morals, but they and others also allege that it tarnishes the image of Moroccan women and that it encourages sex tourism. A picture begins to emerge, one that may even have feminist valences, especially when taken together with the critical reviews of western industry critics who have commented that the film contains “a few too many party scenes,” indulges in “the stereotype of the hard-as-nails prostitute,” is guilty of an “overly glossy finish,” and is most likely to appeal to “male viewers wanting close ups of pretty girls, naked flesh, and dirty pillow talk.” If such is the takeaway of Euro-American critics, why should Moroccans see anything different?

In expressing their disappointment that the realism of the film is not grittier (that is to say, somehow more authentic) critics abroad highlight a central concern of many Moroccans, namely that the film will be much viewed not just at home, but also beyond the country’s borders. When presented as a realistic film and framed by a one-sided understanding of the controversy it has elicited, Much Loved has the power to contribute to the long chain of one-dimensional, paternalistic, colonial, imperial, racist, misogynist, and differentially politicized images that flow ever more quickly across borders they simultaneously reinforce. Ayouch’s film, for its part, begins to expose some of these discourses through the figures of Saudi clients who emblematize transnational flows of capital that fuel sex tourism and trafficking. Still, the film’s relationship to the stereotype of Moroccan women as prostitutes that circulates to the North and East, resulting in forms of discrimination and violence both real and symbolic, remains problematic.

Certainly, violence against Ayouch and the film’s actors will do nothing to disrupt such clichés, serving only to harden stereotypes of Moroccans as, in the words of one reviewer, sexual hypocrites.

For our part, we Euro-American audiences must refrain from a certain symbolic violence by learning to see Much Loved as but one small piece of much larger, dynamic cinematic and social discourses.

And by the way, I haven’t seen the film. Yet.

Featured image credit: Jamaa el Fna in the evening, looking toward Café Argana and the covered souq by Boris Macek. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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