One of the controversial movies at the recent Cannes Film Festival, Much Loved, by Morocco's Nabil Ayouch has caused a huge furore in Marrakech, Casablanca, Rabat and elsewhere. The movie, screened as part of the Director's Fortnight, is about prostitutes, and narrates the heart-rending story of four of them who struggle to survive by selling their bodies.
The other day, when a six-minute excerpt from the film appeared online attracting two million hits on YouTube, its actors, including Loubna Abidar, received death threats and one actor was actually attacked with a knife. The Moroccan Government lost no time in banning Much Loved.
For Ayouch, such runs-in with the administration are nothing new. His 2002 A Minute of Sun Less was banned, because it contained explicit footage -- including sex between homosexuals.
Much like some of our own Indian directors who have been fighting censorship and moral policing, Ayouch has also been a strong advocate of artistic freedom. He feels that the Moroccan state needs to have faith in its people and let them judge and decide on their own.
Besides, as Ayouch avers, prostitution may be illegal, but rampant in Morocco. At Cannes, he said: "It was important for me to let people hear the voices of these women who live in complete despair."
Morocco has always marketed itself as a liberal nation -- where woman need not wear a head scarf. Incidentally, even as Much Loved was being banned, Jennifer Lopez performed a seductive dance number at Rabat that was aired on national television.But then there is a dichotomy. The Moroccan ruler, King Mohammed VI, is also a religious leader, holding the title of Commander of the Faithful, and he often finds himself bound by Islamic principles.
Some journalists from Morocco have told this writer over the years that the Government tacitly allows prostitution to exist. And Marrakech -- where this writer used to go on an annual pilgrimage to the movie festival -- is a well-known destination for sex tourists from Europe and the Middle East.
It is reported that prostitution is the pillar of Marrakech's economy. More than 50 per cent of the prostitutes in the country support their families by selling sex, according to the Ministry of Health, which conducted a study in 2012. The report was made public only last week.
Many of these women have failed in their exams or cannot find a job. They become prostitutes hoping to find a rich a husband someday and move out of this seedy existence.
Ayouch felt that it was important for him to make Much Loved, so that the world knows the kind of desperation these unfortunate women live with. He studied the subject for 18 months and was shattered by the stories he heard.
In the meantime, petitions seeking that the ban on the film be lifted are being circulated, and among the supporters are renowned masters of the medium like Costa-Gavras and Brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
But probably, pirated copies of Much Loved are already available in the souks (markets) of Marrakech and others cities -- well known for this trade. This writer remembers seeing tens of pirated versions of Bollywood movies there.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran has covered several editions of the Marrakech International Film Festival.)