Last week, I attended the Marrakech Film Festival. I had never been to a film festival before, but the experience was in some ways no different from what I had imagined about Cannes or Sundance, albeit with a somewhat lower glamour quotient. The opening gala, complete with red carpet and paparazzi, was staged in a swanky convention hall surrounded by five-star hotels. The requisite stars made appearances: Jury chairman John Malkovich spoke acceptable French to his TV interviewer, while Keanu Reeves, displaying some alarming facial hair, didn’t bother to try. Some of the stars may have toned down their usual style of dress in deference to their Arab hosts (the festival was sponsored by Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, whose patronage was gratefully and frequently invoked): Marion Cotillard partially obscured her décolletage with feathers, and Susan Sarandon went so far as to wear long sleeves. But Eva Mendes strutted for the photographers on opening night in a backless lavender gown, and later appeared in an above-the-knee strapless concoction.
The festival had an international (if largely French) orientation, but one of its goals was clearly to highlight the indigenous Moroccan film-making community. Among the actors and directors being celebrated was the Moroccan film-maker Mohamed Abderrahman Tazi, whose work I wasn’t familiar with. While other festival guests, together with the stars on the jury, were watching competition films in a vast auditorium, I attended a screening of Tazi’s 1989 film Badis in a smaller hall downstairs, sparsely filled with a mainly Arab audience. This remarkable film takes place in the year 1974 in the fishing village of its title, located on Morocco’s northern coast. The village has only one distinction: It was part of Morocco’s Spanish colony, and the Spanish army maintained a small base there, evidenced mainly by the presence of a single soldier tasked with crossing the village each morning to draw water from its well.
When the film begins, a schoolteacher and his wife have just arrived in the town from Casablanca. Their big-city sophistication immediately contrasts with the villagers: Both are dressed in Western-style clothing, and the wife has an aura of particular cultivation. The teacher, we soon learn, suspects his wife of infidelity and has brought her to this remote location as punishment. (Whether she was actually unfaithful or not is never clarified.) Here she won’t be able to deceive him, he tells her, because the entire village will be keeping an eye on her. No tenderness is evident between these two: He speaks to her gruffly and forbids her even to go out for lunch in the local café, while she sulks in response to his orders.
Solace for the teacher’s wife comes in the form of a local girl named Moira, whose father, a fisherman, rules her with a similarly draconian hand. The two have lived alone ever since Moira’s mother, who was Spanish, escaped back to her native country, an act for which the father continues to punish their daughter. Moira, who dresses up in her mother’s old gowns and sings Spanish songs to herself to escape the drudgery of life as her father’s housemaid, soon begins a flirtation with the Spanish soldier at the well. Meanwhile, she catches the eye of the schoolteacher, who suggests that his wife teach her how to read and write as a stratagem for getting her under his roof. It soon becomes clear that the two women are more interested in pouring out their miserable hearts to each other than in studying the Koran. Together, they come up with a plan to escape the village, which they finally become desperate enough to put into action.
When the men awaken to discover the women missing, the entire village is mobilized to hunt them down. Their escape route, which runs along the beach, is entirely exposed, and they are brought back in a fishing boat. Watching the men of the village gather around the two women in a circle on the beach, I ought to have realized what was about to happen, but somehow it did not process. Not until the first stone was raised did I understand. The stoning of the women was staged tastefully, without excessive gore, but it was among the most shocking things I have ever seen on a movie screen. As the scene ended and I sat back in my seat, shaken, something even more astonishing occurred. From the audience around me there came a smattering of applause.
Until that moment, really, I had forgotten where I was. Seduced by the glitz of the film festival, by the charm and warmth of the Moroccans I had met, by my vision of Morocco as one of the most free and open countries in the Arab world, I had forgotten that there is also a different reality here. Engrossed in a beautiful, sensitively made film about the sufferings of two women under the constraints imposed by male society—a kind of Moroccan Madame Bovary—I had somehow failed to realize that the rest of the audience might not interpret the movie with the same sympathy for the women involved as I did. And which reading did the director intend? Signals throughout—the loving and gentle portrayal of the two women, their luscious beauty and their tender treatment of each other, in contrast to the unkindness and brutality of the men—suggested that Tazi, an accomplished director, meant his film to be sympathetic to the women and critical of the strictures of Islamic law. (Another of his films, which I saw a few days later and which dealt with polygamy in a way that was both humorous and gently deprecatory to the husband, reinforced this impression.) But a companion suggested that parts of the film might have been deliberately ambiguous—not necessarily because Tazi himself believes that wayward women ought to be stoned, but in concession to a public for whom that does not constitute an atrocity, or a revelation.
When we read about stoning in the American media, it is usually in the context in which Bernard-Henri Lévy presented it in his recent TNR piece about Sakineh Ashtiani, an Iranian woman accused of adultery and murder who is currently in custody awaiting her execution. Stoning, in the Western imagination, takes place deep within the Muslim world, in a country known for its extremism, as a sentence handed down by a court of shadowy clerics—not in broad daylight on a sunlit Mediterranean beach, performed impromptu by a group of villagers against two women who were their neighbors.
Badis, a fictional film, was made in 1989 and set a decade and a half earlier; it cannot be understood as a report on the situation in Morocco today. And this was one crowd, on one evening, at one screening; and need it even be said that applause is not the same as stoning itself? But, as the lights went up in the theater and the men and women around me calmly gathered their belongings, I could not help but remember that in an Arab country—as Mona El-Naggar demonstrated last week in a New York Times piece on the Miss Arab World beauty pageant—liberation, at least for women, inevitably comes with limits. The glitz, the red carpet, and the celebrities might have been the same, but the atmosphere in the theater that night felt very far from Cannes or Sundance.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor for The New Republic.