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iffr: les chevaux de dieu

A highlight at the IFFR, Nabil Ayouch's 'Les Chevaux de Dieu' ('Horses of God') is a chilling investigation of the motives of Muslim extremist suicide bombers. Based on the real events surrounding the 2003 Casablanca bombings, it gives an impressively nuanced account of how the desperation of poverty and the explosive polarization following 9/11 can lead a group of young Moroccans to become “horses of God galloping into paradise”.

Les Chevaux de Dieu - Horses of God - 1

The film follows a group of young boys growing up in one of the sprawling slums of Casablanca, where the only way out of the squalid poverty seems to be a life of crime. This changes when, after the attacks of 11 September, a radical Islam appears in the slums with a seductive proposition of order, discipline, self-worth, brotherhood and a sense of belonging – in fact everything the boys have been lacking.

To Ayouch's great credit, the film continues to sympathize with the boys even when they take the path of radicalism. It shows this to be a slippery slope where the positive influence of discipline and purpose is slowly poisoned by the violent rhetoric of radical imams and the sinister forces lurking in the background in whose plans they are all just puppets.

Les Chevaux de Dieu - Horses of God - 2

By the time they are “chosen to become martyrs” they have been thoroughly indoctrinated to accept this as a privilege. They have also been progressively isolated from their families and the “imperialo-zionist” plot led by the infidels, to the point where the only outside influence consists of grainy videos of other chosen martyrs extolling violence.

However, here too the film invites a nuanced reading, with other, more complex motives leading the young men to follow through their desparate act of violence. The main character Yachine, for instance, seems ultimately driven to outdo his older brother, while his close friend Nabil wrestles with feelings that have no place in Moroccan society.

Ultimately, it is the inevitability with which the chain of events is presented that makes this film so harrowing to watch. After the bloody climax Ayouch cuts back to the slum where the huge explosion in the distance momentarily disrupts a football game. We are back where the film started, except that this is the next generation of boys with no future, who in a few years time will be targeted by the recruiting Islamists.

'Les Chevaux de Dieu' thus offers little hope as long as the root cause of extremism, poverty, is not addressed.

Update: In interviews, director Nabil Ayouch has emphasized the complexity of the suicide bombers' motives. In a Cineuropa interview he stated:

The intention wasn't to judge these youth, who are also canon fodder. They are turned into what they are by an economic context, by texts. They are also victims. (...) You don't become a suicide bomber just because you are poor.

In a Wild Bunch presskit interview (pdf) he says what he learned from his extensive research was:

The way the fundamentalists have appropriated the notion of solidarity. How they operate to recruit these youths who want for a father figure.

He elaborates on this breakdown of social structures in the slums, and the vacuum it creates:

The lack of access to education for these kids, the breakdown of family structures that brings with it a loss of bearings. There is also the unity of the place, which is very specific to this story, since these kids had never left their slum. There was a closing in, even if that isn't all bad. Indeed, shanty towns are horizontal structures where people communicate with greater flow than in the vertical structures of block housing complexes. But the limit to living in a vacuum of this kind is that people turn rigid. Moreover, in these slum niches, micro systems sometimes arise, like the Wahhabi fundamentalism that reached Morocco in the 1980s and 90s from Saudi Arabia. It's difficult for a kid who has never known anything outside neighborhood life not be permeated and sometimes thoroughly convinced by the idea that these new micro systems, in this instance radical Islamism, are their only future.

And summing up this poisonous mix of destitution, isolation and Islamist brainwashing:

What I wanted above all to convey was the everyday life of these kids, their environment, their parents, the lack of paternity, the strong bond between them and all of the micro traumas of life that make that at some point or another, it all transforms, as they grow up, into desperate, unbearable resentment. Their small stories forge their destiny and turn them into part of history, that of national and global geopolitics.

(The same presskit also contain interviews with Mahi Binebine, author of the book 'The Stars of Sidi Moumen' which served as inspiration for Ayouch's film, and with a surviving member of the Casablanca bombings.)


heaven's doors

Heaven's Doors ('Abwab ul-Jinnah', 2006), the feature debut of the brothers Swel and Imad Noury, has been called "absurdly ambitious". Which it certainly is - creating a kind of Moroccan ' Amores Perros ' with three interlocking s… Read the full post »

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