Mohcine Besri is a Moroccan screenwriter, film director and producer. His debut feature film The Miscreants premiered at Karlovy Vary, Abu Dhabi, Göteborg, São Paulo and Cairo, where it won Best Arab Film.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Mohcine Besri discusses Nietzsche, the plague of certainty, extremism, and the importance of education.
FILMATIQUE: The Miscreantsis a beautifully made film with a powerful and original story. When in the process of writing the script did you imagine this confrontation between the artists and the terrorists? Was that the starting point of the story or was it a more abstract idea that led later on to an imagined encounter?
MOHCINE BESRI: I am Moroccan, Arab and Muslim. I grew up in Morocco and lived there until the age of 23 before leaving for the first time and discovering Europe. Since 9/11, I have been shocked by the way the media talk about us. This myopic, stigmatizing image over the years. The Miscreants is therefore a kind of reaction, motivated by my desire to respond, to propose another point of view.
As for religious fundamentalism, it must be remembered that this is a plague of which we are the first to pay the price. It therefore seemed urgent for me to speak. Admittedly, this is a daring, even risky premise for a first film, but I like challenges. I will add that defending ideas we believe deeply is often a powerful driver for overcoming difficulties.
As far as I am concerned, since the beginning of the writing, what interested me the most was the human side of each character, on both sides. In my opinion, the "good guy" and the "bad guy" do not exist separately; one does not cancel the other. Rather, these aspects cohabit in the same person. Each of our experiences and our circumstances in life can bring out the good or the bad, and can in any case reverse over time.
During the writing stage, I tried as much as I could to question myself, to review my own prejudices. The film is positioned against prejudices, so I had to protect myself against mine as well. Of course, the 'religious' have preconceived ideas about us but so do we about them.
We must not forget that The Miscreants is a film that deals above all with certainties. Religious extremism is just one example. On the front page of my screenplay I had noted this beautiful Nietzsche sentence: "It's not the doubt that drives you crazy, it's the certainty!"
FLMTQ: The film's eight characters are all nuanced, complex, and defined, especially the terrorists. Their motives are elusive, their lives are revealed to us in bits and in a devastating manner, which somehow defines the three mens' choices. What were your sources of inspiration for these characters, and how did you develop them?
MB: Since the beginning of the writing, I wanted my characters to be anchored in Moroccan and Arab society in a general way, and far from all the usual clichés, be it the actors of the theater troupe or the terrorists. As the film is enclosed around these eight characters, I had to work to make the film theirs. I was inspired by my experience.
FLMTQ: During the first part of the film there is an abundance of closed spaces (the van, the rooms in the house), extreme close-ups, and a shadowy atmosphere. Half through the film, the camera moves away from the characters opening the spaces and creating a different, more luminous perspective that enhances the arid landscape around the house. It is, however, no less oppressive. How did you seek to communicate the internal landscape of the films' characters through cinematography, geography and space?
MB: I wanted to capture the feeling of a person held hostage. This feeling must certainly evolve over time. The great strength of the human being, and any living being, is his ability to adapt. So I tried to share this evolution with the viewer through my staging and framing choices.
FLMTQ: Unlike many movies that explore the clash of secular and religious values,The Miscreantsemphasizes not only the differences, but also the experiences the actors and the terrorists have in common. One of them, Mustapha, wears a T-shirt that says "punk forever;" all of them are keen on technology and media use. They are, after all, young. Given these commonalities, what factors do you believe primarily causes to young men in Morocco to be led towards violence and terrorism??
MB: For me, the character Mustapha did not take the time to read what's written on the back of his t-shirt, or at least he doesn't know what it means. I think this is the key: a lack of education and culture, which are becoming less and less accessible for children in Morocco.
School can play and should play a key role, teaching children to develop a critical sense which they can use later to deal with politicians or religious figures or the media. In my opinion this is an absolute necessity and not just in Morocco, but the whole world.
FLMTQ: The story unfolds in seven days. Each day there is a conflict which slowly destroys any sense of certainty on both sides. In that regard, the editing work of Naima Bachiri is very compelling. Was that a joint decision or it was something you established in the script beforehand?
MB: This structure was already in the screenplay; however, Naima, who is very talented, was able to highlight it with her editing choices.
FLMTQ: There is a powerful dialogue between Mustapha and Amine in which Amine tells his captor that both of them are the same and want radical change in the country, but if transformation through art doesn't work because nobody dies. Even if at that point the differences between both groups become more clearly delineated, the film keeps going back to the connections and resemblances between them until the end. How has this nuanced approach to terrorists' subjectivity been received in Morocco?
MB: I was both curious and anxious to see how the film would be received in Morocco; when it was presented during the national festival in 2012, there was an Islamist government in power. To my great satisfaction, the audience reacted very well, the film won the prize for best first film and most importantly, I had no problem releasing it in theaters.
Interview by Paula Halperin Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and History SUNY Purchase