In making the epic coming-of-age tale “Horses of God,” there was no detail too small for director Nabil Ayouch to dwell upon. Not a hair is out of place, literally.
“We did some trials with false beards before shooting and it was so obvious [that it was fake] that all the reality I wanted in the film went out with that,” says the French-Moroccan filmmaker. “So I spoke with the producers and told them I really wanted to have the natural build of the boys growing up.”
While the three-week hiatus Ayouch was granted by the producers so his actors could grow the proper facial hair would be unthinkable for most budget-conscious productions, it wasn’t for one as committed to accuracy as this year’s official Oscar entry from Morocco, which uses 2003 Casablanca bombings in which five suicide bombers struck at the heart of the city to launch a larger investigation about what creates and cultivates terrorism.
Yet “Horses of God” doesn’t begin with the bombings in the big city. Instead, it travels to the shantytown of Sidi Moumen and follows brothers Yachine and Hamid from the time they’re young boys to when they become twentysomething men, watching as the two who are deprived of both basic comforts and any kind of father figure in the slums fall into the clutches of radical Islamists. Not all that different from another generational crime saga in “The Godfather,” Ayouch approaches the subject with both style and sophistication, but also an inherent sadness as these children are failed by a lack of societal infrastructure, something he reminds the audience of time and again with soaring overhead shots of the city. In fact, it’s telling that over the ten years Ayouch had spent bringing the story to the screen, the actual Sidi Moumen was destroyed and rebuilt by the time he started shooting, requiring him to move to another shantytown nearby to get the look just right.
Ayouch has since set up a charity with Mahi Binebine, the author of the novel “The Stars of Sidi Moumen” on which “Horses of God” is partially based, to create a cultural center in Sidi Moumen, and clearly, it’s a place that hasn’t left his mind, even during a recent trip to Los Angeles where he spoke to me about the difficulties of shooting the film where the crew was routinely threatened with the same kind of violence in the film, treating his subjects without prejudice and how he got the support of Jonathan Demme, who has since made it a mission to present the film in America where it picked up a Best Director award at the Seattle Film Festival earlier this year.
Were you inspired to make this film by the events themselves or the book this film is partially based on?
Actually, I wanted to do a film about how those ten-year-old boys could’ve turned into suicide bombers, trying to understand what could’ve happened more than about the attacks themselves. What I’m interested in is more the genesis of violence because I believe that violence doesn’t come out of nowhere. Violence has a source. And I knew this area, the shantytown of Sidi Moumen, because I’ve been shooting some documentary films there since the middle of the ‘90s, so when I heard about the attacks and the fact that the boys were all coming from Sidi Moumen, it was a shock for me.
The shock was not only the attacks themselves, but knowing also that these were not suicide bombers coming from Iraq or Afghanistan, but 20-years-old boys coming from the slums. I felt very bad, as if during all those years I’ve been in this shantytown, I was blind. So I decided to go back there and to work more than as a director, as an anthropologist on the ground. It took me years of interviewing those boys and their families. Then came the book in the middle of that and I had started a screenplay, but when I read the book, I stopped and decided to adapt it.
Shortly before this film, you actually finished your first documentary “My Land,” about Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Did that experience change how you wanted to approach this film?
I don’t think so. The documentary was on the Middle East conflict, a topic that’s very sensitive, and it’s something I really wanted to do for many years because of my personal background. I’m half- Muslim, half-Jewish, and there was no way I wanted to make that into a [narrative] film. But since the very beginning of “Horses of God,” I thought the best way to tell the story of the suicide bombers was to make a strong plot, strong storytelling, and this very, very realistic point of view of being inside their heads, inside the shantytown, like a locked place. I knew it was going to be very hard to shoot, but artistically, there was only one way to do this film.
You’ve said there was violence around you as you were shooting. Did that reinforce your ideas about the story you were telling?
Yes, because every day, violence was in front of us all the time, so somehow it affected us. Sometimes it was just between [rival gangs], sometimes this violence was towards us and sadly after a certain time, we became used to this violence, so it began to be part of our daily life in the slum. We had to deal with it, so it became part of the project itself.
Was there a particularly tough day you were relieved to get through?
There were many things. There was this burning of the main set the day before the first day of shooting. We received some stones in the head. But still, the majority of the population in the shantytown were with us. They understood why I was telling this story and they wanted the story to be told. So they helped us as extras, as part of the crew, for settings, for anything. The rest? It’s part of any project, especially when you’re looking for such a realistic aspect.
Was the fact that you’re also half-Morrocan and half-French give you an interesting perspective on this story?
Being born in France, I saw Morocco with different eyes when I moved there. If I was born and raised there, it would’ve been during a very politically [turbulent] period under King Hassan II during the ‘70s and ‘80s, so maybe it would’ve been more self-censured and I would’ve seen a phenomena like this poverty differently. In France, I was born in raised in a suburb of Paris called Sarcelles. It is a very violent city and I think that somehow gave me the feeling of how it is to feel cut off from the rest of the society, to feel that there is two speeds in the world where you live – the big city, Paris, that is very close but inaccessible, and where you are in the margin. That’s why I think in all the films that I’m doing I’m very attracted by the people at the margin.
You actually get that feeling through the way you’re able to shoot this film, which has some incredible shots of Sidi Moumen both overlooking the city and throughout its streets. Was it difficult to accomplish those tracking shots?
Yeah, especially in the slum, it was a challenge to do those shots. But they express so much that it was important for me to have also this point of view — the film feels as if it’s in an open sky jail and we’re stuck in the middle of their life. There’s no way to get out and at a certain moment, those aerial shots give us another perspective that they are not alone and this situation that we’re talking about is that huge. That’s why I was dreaming about those shots, and I found a guy in Belgium [Emmanuel Prévinaire] who specialized in that. He received an Academy Award for that technical achievement [for the Flying Cam] and we shot with some little helicopters with no pilot and this was the only way for me to go up on the shantytown and film it as I wanted to.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, so much of the film centers on what you can’t see – the boys lack resources and no fathers are ever seen. How do you show what’s not there?
It was necessary because as long as we’re talking about violence, radical Islamism and terrorism, we cannot continue with a black-and white-scheme. We have to get into the family background and the micro trauma that affected them. If poverty equaled suicide bombers, there would be millions of suicide bombers in this world and there are not, obviously. So the first thing that appeared to me very clearly when I was there is that there are so many reasons why a 10-year-old kid can turn into a suicide bomber that I had a duty to be sincere about that, especially because in the media, whether it’s the Western or even Arab media, we don’t take the time. We want to make everything simple.
So I had to have a strong will to express the complexity of their personal background, how they’re uneducated, cut off from the rest of society and that the family structure exploded. All those things give religion a place [in their lives]. Because this is not a question of Islam in the film.You could replace Islam with any kind of [group] and the result would’ve been the same. Islam was only the tool that they used, smart people used to brainwash them. When those radical Islamists arrive, the fruit is already mature. They just have to pick it up from the street. That’s why I wanted to go into the middle of this family.
Even before Morocco selected the film as their official Oscar selection, the government was supportive of the film at a production level. Is that interesting to represent your country when it’s not depicting the country or at least a part of it in the best light?
Representing your country for the Oscar is always a great experience. I experienced it before with my first two features, but it was a long time ago and I didn’t have the support that I have today from Jonathan Demme and the many people of good will who believe in the film. It’s given me some hope that maybe today more than ever it’s time for a new voice to be heard in America on this specific topic. When the studio films are talking about radical Islamism, it’s always the same story. You always have this guy with a beard, you don’t know what’s his name, you don’t know what’s his background and you don’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing. In [my native] France, he represents violence. I think the American audience deserves another voice. So all those people believing in the film and the reaction that we have had [at festivals] in Seattle, Austin, and New York when we screened the film is giving me lots of hope. Representing Morrocco is a big responsibility and as you said, the state was helpful in the film and for them, it’s also brave to support the film, so I’m thankful for that.
How did you learn Jonathan Demme was a fan?
I felt that as a blessing because for me, Jonathan Demme is one of the greatest masters of American contemporary cinema. Some of his films really influenced me a lot and as a human being, he’s simply such a big-hearted man. He saw [the film] at the Marrakech Film Festival last year where they paid tribute to him. It was surprising, but I was there during the screening and at the end, Jonathan was looking for me in the theater. People told him, “That’s him, that’s the director!” And he came to me without saying any words and he just hugged me. I felt he was very touched in his eyes. So was I. He thought that it was important [for the film] to be seen in the U.S. and it means a lot for me that he believes so much in this film.
How did you get interested in filmmaking in the first place?
I just had too many things to express about where I come from, about these two identities, two cultures, two citizenships and I kept that stuck for a long time. I decided to become an actor, so I did some theater as a way of expression, but I was not good. I discovered there was some other means for me to say what I had to say and soon discovered cinema because it allowed me to rediscover my country Morocco with new eyes. It allowed me to go deeper inside the country and meet the real people, go to the real places – it was probably the best way for me to let those thoughts, to let this pain, to let this look to the world get out.
“Horses of God” is now playing in New York at Film Forum. A full schedule is here.