The opening sequence of The mother of all lies shows director Asmae El Moudir fitting her grandmother with a hearing aid. The old curmudgeon obviously doesn’t want to help and she pretends the device isn’t working until Asmae asks, “Why don’t you like the pictures?” The question elicits an immediate reaction, as the woman turns sharply, sneering at the camera. “Look, you can hear,” Asmae replies.
The brief moment is a microcosm of the entire film, El Moudir’s exploration of the lies, deceit and bad memories of his family, and by extension his country, surrounding the Casablanca bread riots of 1981. Protests over rising bread prices turned into a bloodbath with, by some estimates, more than 600 people killed. One was Fatima, a neighbor murdered in the same streets where El Moudir, born after the riots, remembers playing in the 1990s. But that story is rarely discussed, publicly or privately. In El Moudir’s family, memories seem to be deliberately erased. In the overvoicing of her in the film, El Moudir mentions that there is only one photo of her as a child, and he has never been convinced that it is really her.
“Paintings were always prohibited in the family home, my grandmother said it was for religious reasons,” says El Mourdir. the hollywood reporter. “But in the movie, I found out that that wasn’t the truth, that there was a deeper, more personal reason related to the trauma and something that happened to my grandmother.”
With no physical evidence to work with—no family photos, no video footage of the riots—El Moudir rebuilds his Moroccan neighborhood and his family’s former apartment, on a scale model, from memory, with hand-made figurines, sculpted by her father and dressed by her mother, her family and friends. With this dollhouse in place as some sort of therapeutic tool, he begins to bring in eyewitnesses, coaxing out long-dormant stories of him.
The approach is not without risk. Under its new king, conditions in Morocco have much improved since the “Years of Lead,” as the period of repression from the early 1960s to the late 1980s became known. But the country still has a shaky relationship with human rights. and what happened during the bread riots is almost never publicly discussed.
“I was trying to understand how we make up stories when we don’t have any concrete or visual proof of what has happened. How do we reconstruct the past? she says. “I tried to create this space to bring together the real elements, my family and neighbors, and these built elements. That is why I insist in the film that I am a filmmaker, not a journalist. As a journalist, I would go into the details of what happened, with the names of the people involved. But as a filmmaker, I don’t need to name names, and maybe put people in danger. I can just create a space for me and my neighbors and my parents to talk about what happened to us and what happened in our country. Even if the bodies are hidden and the images are missing, we can create memories. This movie might be the only memory we can have.”
The mother of all lies premiered at Cannes, where El Moudir won Best Director, as well as Best Documentary, in the Un Certain Regard section. The film is screening in the Horizons section of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this week.