Sunday, December 05, 2010

Of Gods & Men filmed at Toumliline, Morocco

The movie, Of Gods and Men, that has won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and is now the French Oscar entry, was filmed last year at Toumliline near Azrou in the Middle Atlas mountains.

Xavier Beauvois' movie tells the true story of nine Cistercian monks working at a monastery in Tibhirine in the Atlas mountains of northern Algeria. In 1996, seven of them were abducted by the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) and held as hostages. The captors claimed to have executed them, but more recently it has been suggested that they were accidentally killed by the Algerian army during a botched rescue attempt.

The movie begins by establishing the routine of the monks as they go about their prayer, work and service in the austere monastery. The next to oldest, Luc (Michael Lonsdale), is a kindly, experienced doctor, who holds daily clinics for the villagers with the assistance of the eldest brother, the ancient Amédée. Others work in the garden, assist a labourer to build a wall, help an old lady to apply for a passport to visit her son in France, and bottle honey from their open hives to sell in the nearby market as "Miel de l'Atlas". Their elected leader, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), aged around 50, is the intellectual of the group, seen at his desk, writing, surrounded by books.

Scene from Of Gods and Men

They mix easily with the Arab population, and we see them attend a Christian service conducted in Maghrebi. This quiet, undemonstrative existence of contemplation and useful activity of the community is disrupted by an escalating series of events that put the monks' lives in danger and forces them to examine the nature of their vocations, turning the film into a kind of thriller.

From then on, until their inevitable abduction, the monks' resolve is steadily strengthened as they stand trapped between an oppressive Algerian government and increasingly threatening insurgents. As an army helicopter hovers menacingly above their chapel, they chant prayers and cling to each other for solidarity. When, towards the end, they're joined by a ninth brother who's been absent in France, they celebrate communion, followed by what feels like a re-enactment of the last supper as they drink wine together and listen to a cassette of Swan Lake, laughing and smiling together for the last time.

"It is a very current film," comments film producer Etienne Comar. "It's interesting to look at this atrocity as it happened before 9/11 - all the signs of what was to come were there.

"When I re-read again the last testimony of the monks' leader, Brother Christian, he was very aware of the co-habitation of Muslim and Christian neighbours. He seemed to have a sense that it was going to become a talking point.

"Now it is an important issue wherever in the world you live - the USA, France, the UK, the Middle East. I want this film to ask, 'what is the next step?' How can we live in peace with each other? What dialogue should we have?"

Of Gods and Men was filmed last year at Toumliline in the mountains above Azrou, close to Fez. Toumliline was the location of a similar monastery of Benedictine monks. This particular group of monks was well received by locals and visited by King Hassan II and his family. They stayed in Morocco for around 11 years, before leaving in the 1960s.

Boujemaa Boudaouad, whose family lives in the monastery now and has taken care of it since the Benedictines left, is a registered guide for Morocco with a particular love of the Middle Atlas. Currently in London, Boujemaa reports that he's seen the movie and found it very sad, though he enjoyed it.

One other person who's seen the film is one of the surviving monks from the Algerian monastery. Brother Jean-Pierre, now 87 and living in Midelt, was sent a DVD of the film. "It brought me peace", he said.

Of Gods and Men is being shown at the Marrakech Film Festival this week.

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