A Moroccan mother in trouble

A unwanted pregnancy causes a lot of trouble in Casablanca – for title character Sofia, but also for the rest of her family. Meryem Benm'Barek’s self-assured debut is a social thriller catered for Western and Moroccan audiences alike. 
Interview by Anton Damen

The film opens with an ominous text: according to Moroccan law, people who have a child out of wedlock can be locked behind bars for up to a year. So to call it a problem when 20-year-old Sofia's water breaks with her family in the dark about her situation and without a known father – is an understatement. Her niece Lena travels with Sofia to the hospital, but the birth is just the beginning of the mounting problems. Sofia will have to find the father to acknowledge and recognise the child.

At first sight, Sofia might look like a straightforward drama, but in fact this feature debut by Moroccan-French writer-director Meryem Benm'Barek is a clever study in societal hypocrisy. One that feels distinctly like a thriller, without being a thriller. "It is a social thriller," explains Benm'Barek. "I divided the script in two parts. The first part is a very attractive part catered to the Western audience. In the first twenty minutes, I give them all the codes they are already familiar with and that they expect: a young girl, a victim of the patriarchy, a good girl, close to her family. All of a sudden she turns out pregnant and has to find the father, while society is rejecting her. All that is very easy for the Western audience."

"But when we find the father after twenty minutes, we enter in the real topic of the film. Which is: the class struggle and the social fracture that divides Morocco. To me that inequality is the base of all the issues we have in Morocco. My goal was to make viewers understand how the society in Morocco works. I needed an attractive story as a means, but it's just a set-up. Step by step we are entering the real story to get an understanding of the complexity of the situation."

My goal was to make viewers understand how Moroccan society works. I needed an attractive story as a means, but it's just a set-up.” – Writer-director Meryem Benm'Barek

The complexity means that not everything is as it appears to be at first sight. "Something that really hit me are the representations of Arab women in cinema. They are always portrayed as the victims of the patriarchy. But Morocco is a matriarchal society too. I also show in the film that the effects of the patriarchy aren’t confined to women. Men also suffer. With Sofia I wanted to show a different character: that of an Arab woman who refuses victimhood. Some viewers see her as a manipulative character. For me, she is not. Sofia is just playing the cards she has been dealt. The story is not a criticism of her, but of the system."

  • Still from Sofia

  • Still from Sofia

  • Still from Sofia

It was also a conscious decision not to make the main character too likeable. "I wanted to break with this image that women on screen have to be pretty, sweet, nice. During the development of the screenplay, the constant feedback from the script committee was that the main character was not sympathetic enough. "The comment was: you have to work on that." But did she listen? "No! What's happening to her is awful, she has a right to act the way does."

As someone who lives in two cultures – in the summer months in Paris, in winter time in Morocco Benm'Barek is perhaps more aware than others how her films plays on different sides. "The way I wrote the script was very mathematical. All throughout the writing, the shooting and the editing processes I had this notion on my mind that I didn't want to feed into Western expectations and I didn't want to feed into Moroccan wishes. The Western audiences expect you to paint a picture of exoticism, while the Moroccan public wants you to provide them with a beautiful image of the country, as a tourist destination. So the question that was on my mind the whole time, was: is this fair, or not?"

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Photo in header: Still: Sofia