Majid tells the story of a Moroccan orphan’s journey through life towards remembrance of his parents, with encounters of kindness, abuse, poverty and friendship along the way
“Why are there no pictures of Mum and Dad? …I want to see them.” These were the sentiments of ten-year-old Majid, protagonist of the eponymous film, eliciting his worst fear in not being able to remember what his mother and father once looked like. Both having died some years ago in a house fire accident, Majid is left to navigate the world with only his somewhat indifferent older brother, Driss, to look out for him.
Filled with moments of such comic interludes and dramatic arcs, Majid’s journey takes us through the daily realities of the poor and orphaned in urban Morocco. Instead of concentrating on shots that beautify dramatic scenery, we are subjected to the grime, dirt and basic living conditions faced by the majority. This film has courageous intentions and aims to depict reality rather than a tourist’s ideal. This said, and despite Majid’s predicament, it retains a sense of goodness because, when it comes to it, the people in that milieu care about other human beings. Heated surface emotions and dismissive attitudes towards the rights of minors are ultimately over-ridden by the underlying obligation which members of that society have towards each other. It never descends into the despair which people in comparable circumstances in Britain would face; our detached culture means that someone could be lying dead in their own house for weeks without even so much as a neighbour noticing their absence. In this portrayal of Moroccan society, there’s the sense that that sort of thing just wouldn’t happen.
From a film-maker’s point of view, the regular pattern of dramatic anticipation set up at the start of a scene which becomes dashed, only to achieve a happy resolution a little later on, serves to make things slightly contrived. What would also have been interesting is more backstory; Majid annoys a man at the mosque, who chastises him for not praying enough and becomes abusive towards him, but his reasoning then, or marked about-turn later on, is never explored. Similarly, when Majid finds his parents’ friends, the man of the house is positively hostile but his wife showers Majid with affection, and the audience is left guessing why there’s such a gulf of reactions. From a western sensibility, this lack of joined-up narrative parachutes the audience into a series of somewhat abruptly juxtaposed montage-like scenes. Although antithetical to the naturalistic conventions of Hollywood and European films, it nevertheless all holds together because of the compelling nature of Majid’s plight.
The two boys are played by non-actors; Brahin Al Bakali who portrays Majid, was discovered by the Director, Nassim Abassi, as he performed acrobatics in the street with his siblings for money to help their parents. Lotfi Saber, who played Larbi, was in an orphanage and picked up by the police for begging on the street after being abandoned by his mother. In the film, they are surrounded by various professional actors well acclaimed in Morocco, playing a series of small and cameo roles.
Made in 2009 with grants from the Moroccan government, Majid has enjoyed numerous accolades worldwide and support from the British Moroccan Society, which enabled a recent charity screening at London’s Notting Hill Coronet. Present at the viewing was the Director, who explained that current Moroccan cinema and theatre is not geared towards depicting a child’s perspective and what does exist is “very patronising”. As a result, he wasn’t sure he would manage to find child actors who could fulfil the roles of Majid and Larbi, because this film sought to tread uncharted territories.
Against this, however, is the more prominent position that films now enjoy in the Moroccan palate, due to the patronage of the present King Mohammed VI (who backed the Marrakech International Film Festival). Technological progress has also helped to open up the possibilities, as the cost of shooting Majid in HD digital was a fraction of the old 35mm route: “Technology has made film-making more democratic and we could afford to do many more takes with the children than if we’d used film, so it improved the quality” explained the Director.
Sadly though, cinema outlets remain limited, with only about 45 operating screens across the whole country, of which only a handful are of an acceptable quality. So much so that Majid has yet to be shown in Abassi’s home town, Mohammedia, where it was shot.
A familiar face who gave his support for the film at the screening was former EastEnders actor Nabil Elouahabi. Now on projects close to his heart, his career has encompassed theatre and the big screen (he had a small part in Katherine Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty), as well as maintaining a presence in TV drama. Keen to ensure the integrity of his work, he’s lent support to this grassroots project because of its character portrayals: “It puts across character without being didactic” he says, “and I believe it deserves an audience and bigger platform, because it evokes and entertains.”
Abassi, who mastered his craft in Britain, says he was driven by a love of telling good stories for and about his native audience. “I felt there was a lack of films that give our perspective” he explained, and instead of going down the route of bringing on board a French producer (as is common with many Moroccan films), he took on the role of producer and script writer himself, fearing it would otherwise “inevitably have kept the French audience [mostly]in mind.” Abassi instead wanted to utilise his links to Moroccan culture, at the same time as reflecting on his English training in order to touch the British mind-set as well. Above all, his personal belief in the project was paramount, likening film-making to cooking a meal: “You invite your friends, but you have to eat it yourself as well, so I had to make a movie that I myself liked.” Judging by its recent reception amongst Notting Hill’s cosmopolitan audience, Majid has managed to please several camps pretty well.
Watch this space.
Images provided by Nassim Abassi
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