INTERVIEW WITH MARYAM TOUZANI – Director of THE BLUE CAFTAN
Q1: How did The Blue Caftan come about? Did it originate from your own experience or purely from your imagination?
I work a lot based on my feelings and inspiration; I don’t intellectualise things when I write. While I was scouting for a location for my previous film,Adam, I made a decisive encounter in the medina of Salé with a gentleman who ran a hair salon for women. He greatly inspired the character of Halim (Saleh Bakri). I felt that there was, in his life, the presence of something unsaid, something smothered with respect to who he truly was deep down, and who he tried to be in order to face the world, within a highly conservative environment. I found myself imagining his life, for I never dared to ask him any personal questions, as it would have been too private. However, I spent a lot of time with him and he left a deep impression on me. One day, the story took shape, and needed to be told; it was a story that had to be written down without thinking about it too logically irrationally. Writing in of itself is a journey, and I was lucky to have Nabil’s perspective; he shares my life, but we also share a passion. Through his gaze, which is always kind, sharp and sentient, I was thus able to be confronted with myself, to receive support for my characters’ and my story’s development, to delve even deeper into things…
Q2: Why did the hairdresser become a maalem, a caftan master tailor, in your film?
I have an old caftan, which used to belong to my mother and has always fascinated me. When I was a little girl, I thought this caftan was magnificent, and I would tell myself that one day I would be able to wear it. Years went by and then, one day, I did wear it and I realised how precious such things are, as they can be passed down from one generation to the next and tell a story. The story of the person who crafted them, spending days or perhaps even months making them, as if part of the craftsman soul left its mark on it, for it to then take in the essence of the person who will wear it. The caftan thus found its place in the film’s narrative. I genuinely love the craftsmanship of many professions which, sadly, are disappearing. There is something so beautiful in the traditions that we are losing, something that recounts who we are, that is part of our DNA. This is a part of tradition that must be preserved and protected whereas other traditions deserve to be questioned and shaken up. It touches me deeply to see activities such as that of caftan tailor die out, because we live in a society that is going too fast, that no longer grants these skills the time they require and no longer values them. I, on the contrary, like to take pause, observe, take the time, and this kind ofcraft provides me with profound inspiration. That is the reason why the hairdresser from Salé became a master tailor in my film.
Q3: The film’s images are superb, extremely sensual. Can you tell us more about your work with Virginie Surdej, who was also your cinematographer for your previous film, Adam?
I love working with Virginie, she’s extraordinary as a human being, as a professional, and as an artist; working with her is always such a bliss. Indeed, she and I worked on the sensuality you mentioned, I wanted the film to have that sensory aspect. When Halim touches the fabric, I wanted the viewers to feel the touch of this fabric, to fully be in the details of tailoring. I wanted the audience to be immersed in this world, lead-ing us to Halim’s soul. Through his work, we understand who Halim is, his passion takes on a concrete form. This craftsmanship is dying and yet Halim is fighting in his own way to keep it alive. When Youssef arrives, Halim feels a glimmer of hope, sees a possible legacy. This is how their love starts – through the passing on of knowledge.Youssef is fascinated by the master tailor, and this is something that is becoming increasingly rare because young people tend to prefer jobs with which you can earn money more easily, and faster. Youssef’s love for Halim the “master craftsman” is going to turn into a true love of the man himself. With Virginie, we wanted to put the spotlight on the maalems’ work, show the beauty in the details. The light seeps into various places, helping us delve into the depths the characters’ emotions. Virginie is very receptive to the characters, to everything I strive to express, and images are obviously crucial in this film where so much happens in the characters’ innermost selves.The light helps us follow the characters’ journey as well as their relationships; the film becomes brighter and brighter as the relationships and tensions ease.
Q4: Would you draw a parallel between the art of making caftans and cinema – a similar type of meticulous work aiming for beauty?
As I see him, Halim is a true artist, but in a world that doesn’t value this artistry. Now, people prefer making caftans industrially because it costs less, it’s faster, and it’s more profitable…But Halim is a purist, someone who respects his own art, his craft. He has a profound respect for materials, for fabrics, for details, which goes as far as seeking the right words. The caftan’s blue colour isn’t just any shade of blue, it’s petrol-blue and no other… But Halim is sorely misunderstood and that is the reason why he closes himself to the world, and retreats to the safety of his workshop. He lives with his passion, solitarily, under his wife’s protective gaze.
Q5: How did your collaboration with the film’s costume designer, Rafika Ben Maï-moun, go?
Rafika and I worked a lot beforehand, choosing colours, both for the caftans and for the characters’ clothes. Halim is innately elegant, which is something I wanted to convey through his clothes. There’s also something timeless about him. As far as Mina is concerned, all her costumes were made for the film. The sets and backgrounds were important too. I love painting, and composing a sequence is a little akin to composing on a canvas: you have to think about the balance between the colours and the textures. I also spent some time with several maalems, watching to see how they worked with their stitches; I listened to their stories. One of them told me that he was ready to dounpaid work. He couldn’t live without making caftans, it was his oxygen. He hadn’t been able to find an apprentice for twenty years and that brought tears to his eyes. Another master craftsman told me how one of the maalems he’d worked with had given up, to go and sell eggs at the market instead; he was heartbroken. All these stories touched me so much that I wanted to bear witness to that dedication, weave the beauty of these crafts into the film, and pay homage to them.
Q6: Was it a maalem who made the film’s caftan and whose gestures we see in the close-ups?
Yes, and his name is Mr. Lalaami. In the film, we follow the making of the caftan from the initial fabric cut to the final result. I looked for this specific shade of blue every-where, for a long time. It was an obsession. I found all kinds of different blue hues but not my petrol-blue, it became a dizzying quest… Fortunately, I ended up finding it at the Marché Saint-Pierre in Paris’ cloth district. Then I turned my research to embroidery, to find the right design. But I simply couldn’t find what I was looking for. Then, one day, I took out my mother’s caftan – a fifty-year-old piece of garment that I keep like a treasure – and that’s when I realised that the embroidery I was looking for was that one… I took my caftan to the maalem and told him it was the motif he had to sew.The caftan that had left such a mark on me during my childhood has found its place, it all made so much sense. Mr. Lalaami was thus able to start making the caftan and coaching the actors. It was important for me to make sure they had a true understand-ing of the craft, that they learn how to handle the needle and thread, that they spend time with true maalems to experience things firsthand…
Q7: Saleh Bakri is fantastic in this role that has nearly no dialog, where everything must be expressed through his gestures, and his facial expressions
Saleh’s talent is tremendous, and he has this great sensitivity. When he read the screenplay, he fell in love with Halim’s character. He truly understood who Halim is, his innermost rifts, what an incredibly beautiful person he is, the extent to which he has things to say to the world. And he also grasped the darker side, Halim’s secret life, the fact he has to live with guilt. Halim lives in a society that execrates who he is and a religion that ostracises him, but he has a wife who loves him and whom he loves and he feels guilty towards her. I wanted to avoid any form of judgement, there are no “good” or “evil” people in this film: Halim has a parallel, clandestine life because he has no choice. However, he takes care of his wife lovingly and with devotion until the very end; he does everything one could hope for from someone who loves them.
Q8: Lubna Azabal, who plays Mina, is remarkable in a complex blend of strength and fragility. Could you tell us more about her?
Mina lives with this taboo that is her husband’s sexuality; she has accepted it because she loves this man. This does attest to true strength. Lubna embodied Mina in the most extraordinary manner. As I was writing, I already had Lubna’s face in mind, be-cause she exudes this strength of character in real life. We’d already worked together for Adam and I knew what she was made of; I knew she would understand Mina. The film shoot was really difficult for her: while Mina’s life was seeping from her, Lubna found out that her father was seriously ill. It all went rather fast, unfortunately, and her father died on the last day of the film shoot. Lubna had gone on a diet to lose weight and embody Mina as realistically as possible: she wanted to grow thinner with the character, she wanted to feel death taking over her body, and that’s just what she did. Lubna was extraordinarily courageous, going through her character’s dying and her father’s last days at the same time. It was very hard, and yet there was a sort of poetry to the situation, as though she was sharing that journey with him from a distance, accompanying him towards death. Lubna is a fantastic actress, she is all in, without reserve. There’s no such thing as half-measure with her, there is no pretending, she gives it her all. Her work for this film was extremely intense.
Q9: Now, let’s talk about Ayoub Missioui, who plays Youssef: he is young, hand-some, and talented. He too supports beautifully a role in which the dialog is rather sparse.
At first, we just think he is a handsome young man, and then no, that’s not quite it: there’s depth and sensitivity to Youssef, there are many qualities to be found behind the handsome façade. Youssef is generous as well, as in the scene where Mina accuses him of having lost some fabric when she knows very well that she’s the one who hid it; yet he says nothing, out of generosity of spirit, for he is above this type of petty nonsense, as is Halim. This is when Mina understands that Youssef is a good man, and that he means her husband well. Mina realises that it would be a beautiful thing for these two men to be together; she understands this gradually, as we – the viewers – do. Ayoub is 25 years old, and he is very mature for his age. We worked and talked a great deal before the film shoot and I was able to get a sense of his depth asa human being. He is handsome, indeed, but his beauty is far from being limited to physical beauty.
Q10: Desire, and love should not be the subject of taboo, bans or scandals. There is nothing more beautiful than love between beings. Do you agree?
Precisely. Unfortunately, in Morocco, same-sex sexual activity is punished by Article 489 of the penal code. The penalty can range from a 6-month to a 3-year jail sentence. Not only is it taboo, but it’s also considered a criminal offence! This law is disgraceful and I believe we need to rise up to have it abolished, in Morocco just as in other countries; people need to speak up and not be afraid.
Q11: Through its beauty as well as its intelligent and delicate approach, can your film change people’s perspective in societies where certain sexual orientations are condemned?
I do hope that it can. Sharing the personal experience of a film’s character, being led into a story, helps people better understand them, and perhaps that understanding can help people accept things, change their point of view. When people’s perspectives change, society changes too, and then the laws follow. That’s why it’s very important to tell stories like Halim’s, for they can change people’s thinking.
Q12: In the end, isn’t The Blue Caftan a film about freedom?
Absolutely. It’s a film about the freedom to be who you are, to love who you want to love, whether man or woman. Above all, it’s a film about love, for love encompasses all of this.
Watch THE BLUE CAFTAN with us in our March monthly showcase!
Date: Saturday 18 March
Venue: The Projector, Golden Mile Tower
Tickets are available via Peatix: https://sfs-caftan.peatix.com/
Dir. Maryam Touzani
2022 | Morocco | Drama | 122 min | Arabic with English subtitles | M18 (Some Homosexual Content)
Halim and Mina run a traditional caftan store in one ofMorocco’s oldest medinas. In order to keep up with thecommands of the demanding customers, they hire Youssef.The talented apprentice shows an utmost dedication inlearning the art of embroidery and tailoring from Halim.Slowly Mina realizes how much her husband is moved bythe presence of the young man.
Awards: Won FIPRESCI Prize – Un Certain Regard & Nominated for Queer Palm (Cannes Film Festival 2022); Morocco’s Official Submission to the 2023 Oscars for Best International Feature
Programmer’s Note: This is a rare Arabic drama that deals with queer themes. Under director Maryam Touzani’s hands, The Blue Caftan continues her penchant for a cinema of delicateness. There is a sense of quiet caress to the visual style as the camera lingers on every touch against fabric, thread, ornament and skin. It is a decidedly patient film, allowing viewers to soak into the atmosphere of warmth and empathy as it celebrates love in all forms.