The wonderful thing is that the people of Mafrouza are representatives of no group, no community, no country, and no nation – they are representative only of themselves. We have the sense that the film-maker has not made a film about a shanty town, a settlement, a community, or an environment, but instead constructs a world. The film invents a world, which is both closed and completely porous, open to all winds and countless ramifications. It is a world that is both defined and unlimited. And the film invents this by way of cinematography: framing, lighting, leitmotifs, and the return and reappearance of characters over time.
The character of a man whose home is flooded is a pure example of how things are inseparable from duration in this film. The process of repair and plugging holes is repetitive, interminable even, with quick fixes that fail every time; without it seeming forced, the film opens out to a mythological, almost heroic dimension beyond realism. This Sisyphean aspect is not tackled directly by the film, but emanates discreetly from it. And this is only possible because we follow the man – with his exhausted face, his sadness without resignation, his fatigue, and his obstinacy – over such a long period. There is, in Mafrouza, it seems to me, a deep affinity with what Pasolini called “the sacredness of the real”. The movement of existence takes on a sacred aspect that the film-maker captures not only in terms of daily life, but also raises to monumental dimensions.
Each person in the film, by way of a thousand vicissitudes, embodies the joy of existing, a belief in the sacredness of life that to me seems distinct from any idea of destiny, of ‘mektoub’, of fatalism or of abandonment to “God who will do the right thing.” For me, this is closer to Nietzsche than to any religious sentiment: an acceptance of the fact of existing along with the lucidity of its ephemeral and precarious character. Hence everyone’s capacity to turn everything into song, dance, or a tale – storytelling in the true sense of the word. Adel gradually transforms into a courtly poet, a troubadour. At the end of Mafrouza/Coeur, the seductive bad boy, who is looks for fights, hates orders, more or less gives up, and gets scarred at one point, takes on an elegiac dimension when he speaks of his deceased girlfriend. One has the impression that they are all the – secular – pupils of Sheikh Khattab, who in fact gives a discourse on his rhetorical method at the end of the film: “You have to know how to construct a narrative, captivate the audience, raise their anticipation.” You have to possess the art of telling, because otherwise there’s no point, especially when there’s a camera.
The nature of the relationship between the film-maker, the camera and the people she is filming itself evolves as the film goes on. This is not a rapid dip that takes place only once: things happen with a progressiveness, with stasis and setbacks, by way of fits and starts. The integration is in no way idyllic, nor is it progressive or linear. There is neither the cold critical distance of the observer, nor the carelessness and familiarity of the camera under the nose or around the neck… I recall Rohmer’s preface to Balzac’s La Rabouilleuse (The Black Sheep), where he turns to rehabilitate the devalued notion of the ‘natural.’ For him, the natural in a work stems from an authorial position that is neither overly exaggerated presence, nor clinical or voyeuristic distance. Neither a spy nor a close friend, instead taking a place amidst the other characters like an adoptive brother. This is precisely what I felt in seeing the Mafrouza series. Emmanuelle Demoris becomes a kind of adoptive sister, by way of a slow process, with questions that are more or less benevolent, resistances that tumble before our eyes, relapses, and finally, in the last episode, a sense of sadness experienced by all at seeing the shared adventure come to an end. In terms of the overall construction, this process is absolutely linked to the question of time. This is why, even if each part can be viewed in isolation, it is essential to encounter the larger arc of the series, to experience the duration of the shoot and that of the film in its entirety. And the feeling of time passing is not only given by the visible rhythm of the seasons, one after another, but is more subtly distilled, by way of people who themselves are transformed between the beginning and the end. Whatever the tea ceremony is for, whatever the occasion or the moment, the sugar has to dissolve.