Paris-based Moroccan author Abdellah Taïa has come to prominence as a literary voice of post-colonial melancholy and gay exile. The author of books such as An Arab Melancholia, Mon Maroc, Le Rouge du Tarbuche, and The King’s Day, which won him the renowned Prix de Flore in 2010, Taïa is now realizing his dream of becoming a filmmaker. In his novels, he’s consistently exercised a commitment to simplicity that refuses the depressive tone and linguistic playfulness of so much French literature. For his first directorial endeavor, an adaptation of his autobiographical novel Salvation Army, he remains devoted to that poetics of plainness (his prose is at once humble and poised, delicate and unapologetic), while finding an authentically cinematic language. Photographed by the great Agnès Godard, Salvation Army decidedly doesn’t feel like a literary adaptation of a particular book, but the visual rendition of Taïa’s general ethos. It’s a discreet, gracious, and scorching piece of introspective cinema—and it feels more universal than his literature, if just as intimate. He recently spoke with me from his Paris apartment about the importance of rendering cinematic homosexual acts public, Egyptian soap operas, being 41, and siding with the subaltern.
It’s impossible to begin without asking you about your feelings about the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
What’s the right adjective to describe living these days in France? I would say, maybe this is the most difficult time I’m living here since I arrived in France. Suddenly, questions I never asked myself about France and me, Paris and me, are coming out. It’s not a question about supporting or not supporting Charlie Hebdo, because, obviously, for someone like me, who’s gay and coming from the Arab world, I understand the need for freedom of speech. I am now 41, which means that I reached that level where I totally understand why some groups behave that way and feel the need to discriminate some people in order to make themselves feel good. I’m in the middle of many, many crossroads these days. Of course, “I am Charlie,” but I don’t want the expression “I am Charlie” to become an excuse for another kind of discrimination. Because I’m gay and Arab and Muslim and I share more with people like my family and Muslim people than people from the West. It’s not that I separate myself from the West. It’s just that I understand who are the people that need me most. And these people are my nephews, my nieces, my sisters. I don’t want the expression “I am Charlie” to become a pill you take. Just to be aware of this impossible position where you cannot satisfy anyone puts me, again, in another isolated room. Which is mainly the topic of the film.
Since you spoke about identity categories and the impossible position of occupying so many of them at the same time, would you consider your writing sensibility closer to a gay sensibility or to what we may call a queer one? I also wonder if these are differentiations that even occur to you.
Now, at 41, I understand the issues you’re talking about, and I see their complexity. But I lived in Morocco until the age of 25, and until that time I had no idea about these topics. They were just for people that were living in another world, in the officially free world: America, Paris, London, San Francisco. For many, many years, the idea to write or to make a film, or to see my projections of myself in something we could call artistic, the meaning of that was to save myself. To save myself from something that was trying to oppress me and, at the same time, to say: “This is for your own good.” Michel Foucault, Jean Genet, even Paul Bowles, were just names that were so far away from the world I lived in. And every time I try to write, and I insist on the word “try,” because to write isn’t something that you can do, even for a published writer, I have to go back to that place where it’s all about how to stay alive by hiding, and appearing, disappearing, appearing, disappearing, appearing again. That world in Morocco, in the city of Salé, was a totally poor one, abandoned by the king, by the political people. But it doesn’t mean it’s a world with no complexity, with no aesthetics, with no profound things happening. It’s just that those things were not recognized by other people. But I can recognize them today. The questions of salvation weren’t theoretical. They weren’t discussed in Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris. The things were real, sometimes matters of life and death. I never ever think about Michel Foucault, or Jean Genet, or Marcel Proust, or Rimbaud. Just the fact to think about that, it means for me that what I’m going to do is false.
In Salvation Army, you were clearly able to retain what makes your voice so singular in the literary mode without making it feel like a film that came out of a book. It stands alone as a very cinematic experience. Can you talk about the process of translation from one mode to another? What was lost, what was gained?
First of all, there was no translation at all. I didn’t even re-read the book. For me, it’s impossible to re-read anything I write after it’s published. It’s like I vomited, and it’s impossible to eat what I vomited. To be able to have cinematic ideas, I had to forget that I was a writer, and I had to go back to the origin of the desire to be a filmmaker, and what that meant for someone like me. Meaning, the room where I spent many, many years with my sister and my mother and my little brother, at home in Salé, Morocco, and the TV in black and white in the beginning of the 1980s. We were all waiting for the images to appear. It has nothing to do with what the current generation experiences. At the time, TV started at 6 p.m. and finished at 11:30 p.m. This moment, we were just waiting for the image to appear, it’s in that waiting moment that I was able to think about other people’s images and to recreate them in my mind, and to make connections between these movie images and my reality. And always with the feeling that this ability of creating personal images were not only egocentric images. It was always this feeling that I was surrounded by other people, by other people’s bodies. Before I started writing the screenplay, I had to go back in time and to bring back all these feelings with me, with my sisters around me, and waiting for the images to appear. That’s very, very important, because what I’m talking about is where exactly was I sitting when I saw this image and how I thought again and again about the same images. It’s a question of position, a specific place where we were. And we talk about place and position of the body, we talk about the distance we have with the thing and what’s happening. This was the main origin of the film. It’s all about the origin and about the place where you were in the origin.
Speaking of aesthetics, I want to mention one particularly unforgettable scene from the film, which is one of those rare moments in cinema when being transported into the world of the film takes on an eerily intimate dimension. This is the moment when the boy is in a construction site, I think…
It’s a market, it’s a vegetable market. It’s its ruins near the beach.
And he goes down on an older man, he goes so far down that he disappears from the frame. You’ve spoken about this scene in the past as being very “choreographed.” Did you mean this to be a choreography in the sense of your method for sketching the image out, or in some other way?
The choreography isn’t only in that scene; it’s in the whole film. I needed to find real people, most aren’t real actors, and I had to be familiar with them in order to give them the way to be, which is, for me, in order for me to make something look real, it doesn’t necessarily have to be like we see it in reality. In Moroccan daily life, people are screaming. There’s hysteria everywhere. But that hysteria is just a mask. We had to erase that mask. We have to sit, we have to look. This is what we can call the director’s vision. In order to avoid clichés, you have to invent some choreography. Everything in the film is choreographed: The way they sit, the way they look, the way they fight. It’s all me. Whether we live in Algeria, Brazil, in Egypt, we are all masked. Although we speak daily with people, the real communication rarely happens. In order to express this impossibility of communication I had to erase what is just disturbing. In that scene, the choreography had to be very faithful to my idea of the love-making, the sex-making, the gay sex-making, and at the same time to meet something that concerns Morocco as a whole as well. That was another very important point even before the screenplay. They always say homosexuality is not us. I was aware of the fact that in order to accept the idea of homosexuality it had to be in the middle of Moroccan daily life. Because it’s already there. I had the duty not to put in my film their rejection. This boy is a victim, but also clever and hard.
For a first-time director, your hand is so full of self-assurance.
Lack of hesitation. What cinematic works have shaped…
Or conscious ones.
When you’re on set, whether you’re influenced by Rossellini, or Douglas Sirk, or Werner Herzog, it was impossible to tell myself, “Okay, I’m going to do like what happens in…” It was impossible. I can tell you the films I talked about with Agnès Godard before shooting. For me, it all started with Egyptian movies I used to watch on Moroccan TV with my sisters. The desire to become a filmmaker came from that, so I had to show Agnès I Never Sleep. It’s a film that’s very much loved and popular, and at the same time very subversive. It’s like a film on fire. Even in the colors, it seems like there’s fire everywhere. The whole film is a girl in love with her father. It was important to make this burning link between people in the same family, and speaking Arabic. The second film was Black Narcissus, by Michael Powell. In the whole film they’re wearing veils and the director puts among them an Englishman, who’s wearing shorts and sandals and is shirtless. The conscious inspirations are these, and a painting I saw at the Norton Simon Museum, in Los Angeles. It’s a painting by Zurbarán, the 17th-century Spanish painter, called The Birth of the Virgin. You see the mother of the virgin and the whole bed is red, red, red. It’s like blood. It’s as if they’re in reality, but in another level of reality. But for me it was about distance, and being concrete, not to lose something with too much movement with the camera. After I made the film, I realize there was another inspiration that I wasn’t at all aware of, which is Robert Bresson. The concreteness of the thing, the distance, and the poetry of the concreteness. Bresson is so adventurous and free. I’m also obsessed with the films of João Pedro Rodrigues. Everything in his films—the color, the poetry, the bodies, the melodrama—speaks to me. But until now I still watch Egyptian soap operas. That’s something very important to me. To be connected to that. Not just the cinema d’auteur recognized by cinephiles and movie critics.
Your most recent novel, Un Pays Pour Mourir, was just published in France this month. What are your next filmmaking plans?
Some people have a problem with the way I use the French language. I don’t think of it like I’m using the French language, because I don’t want to be in some history of French literature. It doesn’t interest me. They say I master French language, but what I feel inside me, I’m always running after French words, running to catch them. It’s never ever satisfying. The new book is about a Moroccan prostitute and a transsexual Iranian who was forced to run from his country when Ahmadinejad was reelected in 2009. They cross each other in the heart of Paris, in the heart of this post-colonial world. They’re rejected in their first country, but they’re also rejected in the heart of the country of human rights. It’s a novel about where there’s no territory left for you anymore. And you’re just stuck in this official place called the place of the human rights, but where no one sees you or recognizes you. The only way to exist is to long for another place where to die doesn’t necessarily mean death. There are a lot of movie inspirations in the book. There are about 10 pages about Isabelle Adjani. There’s another character who’s obsessed with this extraordinary Indian actress from the ’40s called Nargis. She’s the Meryl Streep of the 1940s. I have several film projects in my mind. Three stories, so I will see which one will come first. I have to say that cinema is something really difficult. People who never made films they don’t know how difficult it is. It’s not only about following the screenplay. It’s about the possibility to have a miracle or not. Every day, every shot, every scene. Although it was really hard, and I was sick for many months after I finished, physically sick, because cinema takes so much from you, it was at the same time the most ecstatic experience of my life, the most mystical, and the most political one at the same time.