Wednesday, December 05, 2012

L’Amante du Rif -- A Film by Narjiss Nejjar

This 2011 film is based on a novel L’Amante du Rif by Noufissa Sbaï. This novel was published in 2004 in Paris in French with the support of the Moroccan Ministry of Culture. Barrie Wilson has written an interesting paper on the film. Barrie is Professor, Humanities and Religious Studies, York University, Toronto. As an academic historian and philosopher of religion, he specializes in three centuries: the 1st century BCE and the first two centuries CE. Here is a short extract from his paper presented Nov. 30, 2012 at the Toronto Psychoanalysis & Film Study Group and a link to the full text.

The title of this film, L’Amante du Rif, is intentionally ambiguous. When you see it in print, its meaning is clear. It can be translated as “The Rif Lover” or “Lover of the Rif.” That’s one meaning. “Rif,” by the way, is not a person but a poor, largely rural region. It’s an area dominated by the Rif mountain range in Morocco as that country sweeps northwards towards Gibraltar and Spain across the narrow entrance to the Mediterranean. So “Lover of the Rif” means someone enchanted by this region of Morocco.

Secondly, “Rif” is also a Moroccan nickname for the drug trade. That’s the main industry of this poor area where the main choice for employment for men is processing cannabis. So “Rif Lover” can also mean lover of weed.

Thirdly, If we only heard the words, “La Menthe du Rif” -- La Menthe, m-e-n-th-e, in English ‘mint,’ we could construe L’Amante du Rif as mint tea -- the mint tea of the Rif region. Mint tea is the beverage over which the women of this area congregate to discuss their poverty-stricken fate and to lament the ravages of the drug trade. Indeed, chapter 2 of the book on which this film is based has this title, the Mint Tea of the Rif Region. In this film we see the elderly women of the village recount their personal experiences and this reflects that tradition.

All these elements – love, drugs, fate -- are built into the film. The ambiguity is intentional.

It is a series of vignettes in the life of a young Moroccan woman. the film moves back and forth between Aya in the present as well as Aya in the past, 7 years ago, growing up and eventually landing in prison.

The film begins with Aya. The scene is haunting: Aya is half in darkness, half bathed in light. The black and white contrast is suggestive: good versus evil, freedom versus imprisonment, independence versus confinement. Aya sings a line from Bizet’s opera Carmen: “Love is a rebellious bird ... love me not, then I love you; if I love you, you'd best beware!”

`We hear this refrain four more times:
 seven years earlier when Aya and her friend, Radia, play on the roof tops;
 on their carefree way to the bakery;
 when Aya plays a DVD of Bizet’s Carmen;
 and when she dresses herself elegantly to take a parcel to the Drug Lord, “The Boss” as he is

The oft-repeated words set forth one of the recurrent themes of the film -- that love cannot be tamed, that it knows no law, that it is rebellious and that it does what it wants. Aya is the untamed bird.

Everyone is trapped in this film and each seeks his or her own method of escape. The father faced a bleak future: poverty or to go to Spain. He chooses the latter and sends money erratically for the family to live on. There is irony here: in a traditional, patriarchal society, the patriarch of this family is absent....except for his red pickup truck which appears when the girls discover their sexuality and when Aya commits suicide.

The mother, too, is trapped, perhaps one generation out from traditional ways, dependent upon her husband, but also earning extra money sewing. She has little power but she is more modern and tolerant than the black burka-clad woman who appears periodically and disapprovingly. Islamic traditionalism, too, is never far from the scene. The mother has dreams, though, wanting her two sons to become “real men.” She tries to do the best for her daughter, repairing the hymen and so helping to restore her honor. Hers is a shame-honour culture.

The brothers themselves have little choice in what they do. As Ayed asks, “How do you think we get by? By selling seashells on the beach?” Ayed wants a piece of land on which to grow weed and was prepared to barter Aya for real estate. He has little choice as does Hafid who eventually leaves Morocco for Spain to work on the fishing boats. They are both trapped.

Ethical theory that stems from the Greek Aristotelian tradition emphasizes decision, deliberations, some knowledge of the range of alternatives, an understanding of at least some of the consequences. It presupposes the rational person who engages in an internal debate, examining the pros and cons of various forms of action and then selecting one to enact.

But the model of the rational human being mulling over a smorgasbord of alternatives does not apply here. Aya does not mull over alternate courses of action. She is not depicted as going over in her mind one course of action over another, weighing the pros and cons of each.

Aya’s choices are restrictive. To marry a cousin or the man from Spain? To be like her mother? To be like the black clad woman? None of these appeal. They are all too horrible to contemplate.

Disconnected somewhat from reality in her playful, non-serious adolescent world, her way out is fantasy. That is, she entertains the illusion that she can live life like Carmen, fiercely independent, in control, seeking romance and love. That she is Carmen imaginatively empowers her. This is not a conscious decision but something she opts for on an unconscious basis, something that expresses her deepest wishes, the alternatives being too terrible to confront.

She hooks up with the Drug Lord – partly out of her own Carmen-inspired desire to experience love and romance and partly because her brother has pimped her to him. In spite of his rape, lack of comforting words, she holds on to him throughout the prison ordeal. Even in prison she and the other female inmates participate in a Carmen make-believe, costumes and music, all disassociated from the terrible primitive and oppressive environment in which they have been thrust. The scene is surreal. Carmen is the way out. Or so they think.

Only at the end, when Aya reunites with the Drug Lord, does fantasy bump up against reality. Hoping for romance and love, Aya quickly realizes as he silently zips up his pants that she really doesn’t matter to him. Traumatized and stunned into awareness that he really doesn’t care, sensing that the Carmen fantasy is not going to work out, a script she had played for much of 7 years, she opts to set the car in motion to ride over the precipice. Death, the final way out of an intolerable situation. The fantasy that had sustained her, given her power, hope and determination, is shattered. And she opts – it’s hardly a conscious act of deliberation – she opts for death.

A few final words.

A fourth meaning of “L’Amante du Rif” is as a lament, L’Amante sounding like the French word for lament, a cry of desperation, a sad account, a wish that things could be different. A lament occurs when there is no solution from within a situation ... it represents a cry of desperation, a cry for help. It’s an attempt to raise consciousness, that the plight of women in at least this part of Morocco needs urgent attention.

L’Amante du Rif – Presented Nov. 30, 2012 at the Toronto Psychoanalysis & Film Study Group. Barrie Wilson, PhD. 

Note this is a short extract only. You will find the full  (PDF) text here.  L'Amante du Rif


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If only this "professor" could read Arabic script. There is no ambiguity in the Arabic title that one can barely see in white. The Arabic title says "A lover FROM Rif".
Another gross error is the statement "Rif" in Morocco is equivalent with drugs, especially cannabis, and the drug war the government is engaged in. This "professor" mistook "Rif" with "Kif".
Rif is a region in northern Morocc. Kif is the Moroccan word for cannabis.
This kind of "Professor" should stick to his textbooks. Venturing out like this just exposes his ignorance of things Moroccan.