03 March '13

Documentary Filmmaking in Morocco by Saeed Taji-Farouky

There is a saying in Arabic that translates as “I see the stars at noon.” We use it when everything in life is turned upside-down, when things are not as they should be. I first heard it in the tiny Moroccan village of Sebt Jahjouh, travelling with a man named Abdelfattah, a man whose world was upside-down; a man for whom things were definitely not as they should have been.


I was filming my first documentary, and it was an experience that taught me more than I had expected – not only about Morocco, and perhaps the relationship between the Arab World and Europe in general, but about documentary filmmaking. All my preconceptions about the objectivity of documentary films, and the detached perspective of the journalist, were shattered. At the time, it was difficult to deal with, now I appreciate it immensely and realise that early experience shaped the way I would make films, photograph and report from then on.

Abdelfattah was a Moroccan clandestine, a man trying to cross illegally into Spain, and I met him on the balcony of a cheap Tangiers hotel. After living and working in Morocco for 12 months as a tour leader, I decided to make a documentary film about the clandestine – the side of Morocco that my tourists never saw. I rented a room in a hotel overlooking Tangiers port and gave myself one month to find a subject for the film. I met Abdelfattah – and agreed to follow him on his journey – after only two days. Through the documentary, I See The Stars At Noon, I wanted to understand what would make someone risk his life for an utterly uncertain future in Europe, and what he expected to find there.

Over the course of filming, I came to understand that there was something other than simple greed driving Abdelfattah to reach Europe. He was, of course, interested in what he believed Europe could offer him, but he was motivated as much by a hatred of Morocco as an appreciation for Europe. Like many Moroccans, and – I now believe – many Arabs of his generation, Abdelfattah seemed to love and hate his country in equal measures. He loved the fact that he came from such a rich and proud culture, but hated the fact that in recent years, that culture had spiralled slowly into poverty and violence, and had built a rich tourist industry that existed in a parallel universe to the one he inhabited.

The country -particularly under the reformist king Mohammad VI – has promised them so much, but with stubbornly low wages, high unemployment and few opportunities for economic empowerment, many feel the country has abandoned them, and they in turn have given up on it. For many, illegal migration has become their last resort. And it is a national obsession. It has entered the cultural lexicon of Morocco, simmering just beneath the surface and ultimately coming to represent the nation’s loss of faith in itself.

When I first started filming, I assumed this situation would be a disaster for Spain, but the controversial truth I later learned is that they actually do quite well out of undocumented workers. If your cheap supermarket oranges or tomatoes are imported from Spain, there’s a chance they were picked by a clandestine. The Spanish public occasionally hear about the clandestine when a dead African body washes up on their beaches, or when someone is found soaking and delirious stumbling through the streets of Tarifa, but otherwise they go on exporting their cheap produce and we go on buying it.

In October of 2004, Spain’s government offered amnesty to around 800,000 illegal immigrants working there, thousands of whom are employed in seasonal agricultural work. Though I would like to believe it was out of concern for their rights and working conditions, I suspect it had more to do with collecting income tax and, even more importantly, bolstering Spain’s agricultural labour deficit.

Similarly, while Morocco’s official position is that they are doing everything they can to stop illegal migration, their economy also benefits immensely from remittances from overseas workers. I suspect the Moroccan government also secretly appreciates that a porous border is a very easy way to get rid of the poorest and most desperate elements of society.

This relationship of mutual exploitation that exists between Morocco and Spain is, I realised during the process of filming, uncomfortably similar to the relationship between documentarian and subject, both in journalism and documentary film. In my case, I needed Abdelfattah as an interesting and willing participant in the film, and he needed me both as emotional, and later, financial support. “I think you might be taking advantage of me,” he once said. “If you pay me, then it benefits both of us.”

This was the overwhelming dilemma I faced in making the film, something that I had never anticipated, and something that the editor Gareth Keogh and I eventually chose not to ignore because it was so central to the experience of filming. Not only does it more accurately reflect the atmosphere of illegal immigration than a detached expose, but it raises an issue that few documentaries are willing to touch: the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject. Abdelfattah and I often talked about what it was like for him to be followed constantly by a camera, how I could continue filming without influencing his decisions, and ultimately, about whether I would pay him or not.

I was, I know now, naïve in my initial approach to the film. I thought I could record Abdelfattah’s life while remaining entirely disassociated from him, but in the end, it turned out to be impossible simply because we are both humans who understand the value of relationships, money, opportunity and the media. I found it impossible to be a neutral observer, to pretend that my presence had no influence on the events I was recording, and in the end, that tension became the central theme of the film. In other words, it was no longer a film about the journey of a hopeful illegal immigrant, it became a film about the process of me and my camera recording Abdelfattah’s experiences.

The film is in limbo, in much the same way that Abdelfattah was in limbo, and it is intended to fill in the gaps between daily news, tabloid journalism and reality as I saw it. Abdelfattah wasn’t looking to live on welfare or in government housing. He had no illusions that everything would be handed to him on a plate when he reached Europe. Instead he talked about the future in terms of opportunity, pointing out that he was willing to work as hard as any European if he was only given the chance. He believed that in Morocco, people like him who were honest, hardworking and intelligent had been abandoned in favour of corruption and nepotism, and he was ready, in return, to abandon Morocco.

Saeed Taji Farouky joined the Board of the Arab British Centre in September 2008. Click here to read more about him.