Confronting Amnesia and Political Change in the Arab World

Poster for They Are The DogsThey Are the Dogs is one of the most remarkable films to come out of the Middle East and North Africa in the past decade. Directed by Hicham Lasri, it confronts political revolution in contemporary Morocco as Casablanca spills out into the screen – chaotic, unnerving and above all angry. This is the Moroccan street in the raw, but one that would be recognised by audiences in Algiers, Cairo and Tunis.  

Since winning independence from the French in 1956, Morocco has produced a raft of courageous directors who have engaged with social and political change. For the likes of Hamid Bennani, Mohamed Reggab and, more recently, Ahmed Baidou, cinema was about exploring taboo issues such as poverty, corruption, and repressed sexual desires.  However, Hicham Lasri, born in Casablanca in 1977, is part of a new wave whose work asks difficult questions about Morocco and the wider Arab World in the light of the Arab Spring. Moreover, he approaches film with a particular eye, one whose narratives deal directly with history; an emotional historian who focuses less on the facts or the veracity of the information in order to concentrate on the senses, the transcription of an atmosphere, of a human truth.

Specifically he sees himself as a storyteller:

As a storyteller, I am a soldier of history. I try to inscribe my films into a precise context in order to amplify the issues at stake. The Arab Spring, the death of Hassan II or the bread riots are only some of the possibilities of typically Moroccan events that one can use to at the same time make a film and highlight certain human dramas.

They Are the Dogs is his second feature length film. His aim was to make a film that reflected the wind of change unleashed by the Arab Spring and in particular how that wind of change impacted on Morocco: 

In 2011, I witnessed the streets protests on the streets of Casablanca and then across the Arab World on the television.  I did not want to make an opportunist film on the Arab Spring, but I was interested by the electricity in the air, the aggression and the disarray of those in power.

Set in Casablanca past and present, the film follows three members of a television crew as they set off to report on the protest movements in Morocco in February 2011. Intrigued by the strange mannerisms of an old man called Majhoul, the crew decide to focus their report on him. As they follow him through the backstreets of urban Casablanca, the crew discover the story of a man who has just been released from prison 30 years after a police raid during Morocco's 1981 food riots, and who is completely lost in a modern Morocco in the midst of the Arab Spring. 

In tailing Majhoul the camera crew also discover an unreported world of grinding poverty  - one far removed from the tourist fantasies of desert oases – and are taken back to June 1981 when Morocco witnessed large scale protests against hunger and economic deprivation that were savagely repressed by the Moroccan authorities. As such Lasri wished to show that political transformation did not begin in 2011:

Quickly I thought up a story that took me back to a Moroccan event where the people were expressing their discontent: I am speaking of 1981 and the famous bread riots.The parallel between the two moments was easy enough to establish.There was a gap of thirty years between 1981 and 2011. That corresponded to a generation. The rest was a mixture of research, inspiration and aesthetic interpretation.

Shot camera on shoulder over several weeks in the streets of Casablanca, the sense of anarchy and unpredictability conjured up by this unique port – the largest in Morocco, with a population of four million - pervades the whole film. Indeed in this way They Are The Dogs can be seen as poem to his home city.

Similarly, with the figure of Majhoul, a deeply unsettling presence throughout, the film challenges the Moroccan Equity and Reconciliation Commission, established by Royal Decree in January 2004 to investigate human rights abuses perpetrated between 1956 and 1999, the accession to the throne of Mohammed VI. From the outset the investigative process was tightly prescribed. It displayed nothing like the openness of the South African model because the Moroccan Commission could not reveal the names of perpetrators. Furthermore, although the Moroccan Commission sought to financially compensate victims, the process could neither implicate his father, the previous king, Hassan II, in any abuses nor investigate those committed since 1999 under Mohammed VI.

Within They Are The Dogs, Lasri is testing these limitations. He is posing questions about amnesia, justice and human rights not just in Morocco but right across the Arab World 

Martin Evans is currently writing a history of contemporary Morocco to be published by Yale University Press,

There is a special showing of They Are the Dogs at the Dukes of York’s Cinema, Brighton at 11.00 am on 15 June 2014. The screening will be followed with a question and answer session with Martin Evans, Professor of Modern History at the University of Sussex, Jamal Bahmad, film historian, and Imad Fijjaj, one of the actors in the film.
The screening is opening event of the British Middle Eastern Studies Annual Conference at the University of Sussex 16-18 June 2014 and is supported by the British Council in Morocco and the Moroccan Embassy in the UK.