To meet the people of Mafrouza is a powerful experience. I have rarely seen people who seem to resist fear and sadness in the same way. In the middle of a setting that embodies disaster, they find ways to laugh and find the time to take a true interest in others. It is as if the characters in Beckett decided it was better to laugh it off. They seem driven by an incredible life force, something like a mad capacity for happiness. It is comforting to encounter this, and it is this that made me want to make the film.
I discovered the district in 1999. I had come by car from Paris, I was on the road scouting for a film about the relationship the living have with the dead. I first went to Mafrouza, for the simple reason that the neighborhood was built on a necropolis. But, from these first encounters, I was stunned by the freedom of the district’s people: freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and even freedom of body. I went back several times, then again a year later. We talked archeology, metaphysics and personal memories. We laughed a lot. And I ended up giving up on the dead in favor of the living. I felt the need to make a film in Mafrouza, in order to share this vitality, to understand it, and also to understand my reasons for feeling so comfortable there. I did not want to pre-empt the final form that the film would take. I needed time to construct it according to what I would discover while filming. I did not want to impose a predetermined grid of interpretation – no ‘format’, no ‘message’; these would have determined the end of the story before it had been written.
So I stayed and filmed in Mafrouza for two years, with a translator as my only team. It took time to get to know the people of Mafrouza, for them to get to know me, and to chase off all the generalizations (‘Arabs’, ‘Muslims’, ‘The West’) that crippled our encounters. I explained that I wanted to film people in all their uniqueness, just as, when I myself film, I am not acting in the name of any group. The people of Mafrouza responded that the film would not be a documentary, but a normal film, with stories. We spoke of cinema as much as we spoke of life, their cinema and mine, here and there. We voiced our outrage, our desires, and our concerns. This exchange continued over the months and travels through the film by way of the chosen situations and themes, by turns it is about love, about freedom or about the passage of time. This opened up a space of freedom and play in which the film was able to be conceived, made with, and not about, the people of Mafrouza.
And then came the choice of an unusual duration for the film, which emerged during filming. It became clear to me that time passed in unique way in Mafrouza. The fact that people live from day to day was a given, considering their precarious material situation. But there was more to it than that. They possessed a way of making the present last, which gave it an unusually high density. Everything was always prolonged a little bit. I had thought of calling the film ‘Lessa schwaia’, which means “Not yet, in a little while…” People often say that. It is not evidence of nonchalance, but, one might say, is instead a refusal to break away from the present moment, from the pleasure of being in the here and now. The idea of the film is also to share with the viewer this experience of time, since it is an openness to the world that seems to make the people of Mafrouza happy.
To tell of the neighborhood and of the encounters taking place was to remain open to the often contradictory and unpredictable complexity of local life. This is another essential aspect of Mafrouza: the heterogeneity of its various lifestyles, its beliefs, and its conflicting and multiple practices. The people of Mafrouza do not employ rigid principles to seal off the disorder of the surrounding world. They tinker and make adjustments, in material and moral terms, displaying astonishing inventiveness. And the film is a tribute to this endless inventiveness, which accepts the unpredictability of the world and makes do with it. Because this inventiveness echoes my own concern, a preoccupation with a cinema that can show the complexity of the world; a cinema which, rather than protecting us from it or hiding its disorder, can allow us to see and understand how this complexity is a condition of life .
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I am reminded of a moment from the adventure. One morning, in his grocer’s shop, Mohamed Khattab asked me what the film would give the viewers, and, more specifically, if it would help people to live. “Like what, for example?” I said to him. “Like tea”, he said. “Tea helps me to live. It allows me to invite people for tea. They come in, we talk, we spend time together. That helps me to live. Television, too, when I’m alone in the store at night. And my wife, above all my wife, she helps me to live, a lot. Will your film be like that?” His question for me contains its own response, or at least a fairly accurate expression of the purpose of this whole affair.