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Rock the Casbah

Exclusive Interview with director Laïla Marrakchi

*Interview conducted by Marie-Christine Tayah


About the actors

How would you best translate unsaid words into screen scenes? Are the actors’ roles mostly based on emotions?

The movie is based on unsaid words. It was important for me to highlight this family, who, despite what people may think, finds it difficult to talk and communicate. Emotions emanate from silence and it’s in silence that the souls of these contradictory characters are revealed.

I tried to create an exclusive atmosphere for this movie, through gestures, sensations, and music. All characters are driven by their own emotions; emotions they cannot control emotions they hardly deal with.

They either withhold their emotions or exceed them. They find it really hard to find the right balance.


Between the director’s message and the spectator’s reactions, how easy or difficult was it for ‘Rock the Casbah’’s actors to fulfill their roles?

It is really hard to get the audience’s feedback in advance. I have been very fortunate to find a very good cast who enriched much the movie characters. I rewrote based on some actresses and even added scenes during the filming.


What was Omar Sherif’s input on set? And in front of the camera?

Omar Sherif is Docteur Jivago, Lawrence of Arabia, and so on. He is a living legend… The first time I had to run on the set, I was just like a little girl intimidated by this great actor. Right from the start, he was the only actor I could imagine embody that role. His elegance, presence, and sensitivity burst from the screen. I was very lucky he agreed to star in this film.


Was it hard to direct other renowned directors who were starring in your movie, or was the communication and cooperation smooth? 

I was engaging with directors Nadine Labaki, Hiam Abbas, and Lyes Salem. Never did they position themselves as directors. On the contrary, there were fully present in order to make the best movie possible. Whenever they get involved in a human adventure, they fully invest themselves. Each one of them has been a great support, always questioning me, always making me think more about each and every aspect of a character or situation.



How would you best describe the most apparent traits of each of those four women?

Four Women, just as Nina Simone’s song. I wanted to bring to life portraits of women through different generations. I needed to find a good balance between those four women’s personality traits and a snapshot that represents the Moroccan society. Morjane Aloui who’s playing Sofia’s role is the one who left her country in order to have a life of her own far from her family. She’s the rebellious one.

Nadine Labaki (Miriam), thinks that her happiness goes through her physical appearance. Lubna Azabal (Kenza) is the most rigid and conservative one among all. However, she still reveals a strong desire to reach beyond herself.   

The mother (Hiam Abbas) is into sacrifice because she needs to preserve her family… Finally, the grand-mother is the freest of all social constraints. All those women who are apparently liberated and educated are seeking to free themselves from the father’s authority and from people’s eyes.


Life and death

Do you believe that pain and death give a new birth to people who are still alive?

We owe it to ourselves to live more for those who are dead. Pain and death lead to self-challenge and questioning in life and choices. That simply brings us back to the evidence that we’re not immortal.

Within big oriental families, we learn to live with dead people. In this Arab world, we don’t ship the mourning. We take the time needed to gather around the rituals through which family members support each other.


In your movie, we witness grief, giggles, drinking, as if, all at once, beyond death, life blossoms. Do you believe that death puts off all masks?

During the three days of Gnaza, where the whole family is reunited, the characters are in a closed session where emotions are culminating. In my movie, the death of the patriarch questions everything and girls start to speak out.

In this society under control, transgression is the only way to exist. People say the opposite of what they think, do the opposite of what they say. They find refuge in bars, smoking, and alcohol.


Life after death: a child who sees his grandfather. Still, they don’t share terrestrial and earthy drinks. Is this connection beyond languages a religious message or does it transcend all religions to be a message of hope?

This relationship between the grandfather and his grandson was already there from the script writing beginning. It is the idea of transmission between a grandfather and his grandson. They don’t know each other but they instinctively understand each other beyond words and language.

This is also a way for the grandfather to accept his succession and his daughter Sofia’s union with a foreigner. The tenderness he holds for this kid is what he couldn’t express to his daughter.      



Throughout the movie, communication evolves and reveals a kind of women liberation with no censorship. All characters are revealed in all their nudity and authenticity, beyond the surgeries of life. What are the limits of your own freedom of expression?

In Rock the Casbah, my main focus was to observe the transition to adulthood among women who remained infantile. They are disillusioned. Their fight is over. They live in nostalgia.

They are not whole. First, because the society forced them to undertake many stuffs. Moreover, they didn’t fight for what they really wanted: love the way they want or lead their career the way they wish to. Instead, they kept imprisoned in a culture where it is hard to state their differences and find an in-between equilibrium. 

Personally, I left home at a very early age in order to pursue my cinema studies in Paris. Today, I feel really free in expressing what I am. I hope to be freer and freer in the future…


Beyond generation gaps, you highlight generation bridges beyond gaps, through life’s simple details such as a Mc Do meal. What in your opinion is the ultimate bond between generations?

It’s important there are differences between generations and their various lifestyles. It is the usual evolution of a society. Still, it is essential to give voice to the elders in order to know where we come from and be aware of our history roots.


‘-Tu fumes maintenant?

-Oui je fume. J’ai 40 ans et je fume.’

To which extend do you think the women of today assume their independence?

Women’s independence starts first and foremost with their financial independence and that happens through work. This is what differentiates us from older generations. I think that we still need a bit more time for women to really emancipate as women and especially in their emotional lives, these efforts need to be done throughout several generations.


Ne fais pas pleurer une femme, parce que Dieu compte ses larmes. Vous allez tous me manquer.’

Defending women’s causes, would you describe yourself as feminist, feminine, or simply a woman? 

I first define myself as a woman and a mother. I am not particularly feminist. I stand by women and by men.


 … and men


Do you believe that communication between men and women is similar to the one between living people and dead ones?

In our societies, communication isn’t always easy between men and women. Bridges exist, and yet, from both sides, we can feel a kind of decency and restraint of making the first move. I believe men are eager to speak and develop their feminine sensitivity. It’s time to break the image of macho men and go beyond the clichés.


Do you think there would be any parallelism between the father’s absence in Rock the Casbah and Freud’s ‘killing the father?’

Sometimes, it is a must to cut one’s bonds with the father and the family in order to build one’s life and come back to one’s family more serenely.


Images, words, and music

Insomnia, fear, and loneliness. And then, life’s triumph over death. In what ways do you reflect that through the frames, colors, and music?

Life is stronger than everything and one should go on. Death and life walk in pairs. I have chosen to proceed with my film upon a three-day period. Three days out of time, in a kind of paradise. I wanted the flora to look luxuriant, with a well-lit dark light to mirror this atmosphere. We seem enclosed in a cocoon, even if apparently, everything is soft, there is a real violence in the familial relations. That duality is a unique characteristic of the Moroccan society.


–‘You could be my friend eternally.’ Did the choice of soundtracks go in pair with the scenes, did the choice of songs influence the script, or was it done the other way round?

The music was a key element from the very first start of script writing. It is the movie soul. The album The Great White Ocean by Anthony and The Johnsons accompanied me throughout the movie writing. Moreover, the original music for Rob gave the movie a different dimension.


Space and time

‘Tanger ne sera plus pareil.’ How do you translate your response to ‘empty spaces’ in the movie?

It was a way to reflect the melancholia related to the city where we have filmed: Tanger, where I directed my first short movie. This place is full of ghosts: Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Francis Bacon, Jimi Hendrix, Henri Matisse, many artists found their inspiration there… In this movie, this light reflects the nostalgia I feel towards Morocco. I don’t live in Morocco anymore, for years now, even if I often go back there. It has become my lost paradise. This light summarizes that.


Love and freedom

‘Toute une vie à se hisser au sommet pour finir seul avec un chien qui vous pisse dessus. C’est agréable au moins. On est tous égaux dans la poussière.’

Do you believe in everyone’s equity?

We are not born equal, but we are all equal when we face death.


Do you believe that the woman who married the man she loved and the servant who served him all her life were equal?

They both did the same sacrifices, but they don’t have the same life. It is harder for the servant because neither her son or herself are socially recognized.

Love and freedom

‘-Tu l’aimais?

-Il n’est plus la.

Is this movie a crystallization of love or do you believe love really has no boundaries?

I think that love has no boundaries, and that it should be lived in total freedom.


‘-N’ayez pas peur de la liberté qu’il vous a laissée. Ne laissez personne la prendre.’

‘-Et toi, Zakkaria, ici c’est chez toi

Is freedom this movie’s ultimate message?

Freedom, acceptance of oneself and of others is necessary in order to move forward. These women can finally live their lives. They have their mother’s approval and their father is not there anymore to dictate to them what they should be.


Connections and reflections

Death is revealed in all its aspects, alone, suicide, death of love, of past traditions/bonds. In what ways does this dark aspect reflect a concrete (or) abstract personal experience?

Je préfère etre la-bas toute seule plutôt que de vous ressembler.

-Tu te crois différente de nous mais la vérité c’est que tu nous détestes parce qu’on te rappelle trop qui tu es.’

And you? In what ways do you believe your culture influenced the director you are today?

Is Rock the Casbah a reconciliation with life… with death?

I grew up in Morocco, in Casablanca. I am very attached to my Moroccan culture which is at the same time Arabic, Berber, and African… I am very influenced by the Occidental culture as well. What catches my interest are people, beyond their belongings.

 I like to observe, listen, and learn. Rock the Casbah is my second movie about a particular Moroccan society. Marock talked about the youth impertinence. This one is more related to the transition to the adult years and the return to basics. Just as Sofia’s character did, it is important to come back to one’s sources for a reconciliation with one’s family, in order to be able to move forward in one’s own life.  


Does poetry help fill the ‘Gnaza,’ a suspended time between death and life?

‘La mort m’a frappé sans me laisser le temps de solder mes comptes avec la vie.’ –Is making movies a way to settle your accounts with life?


Do you believe that humor is born out of pain? ‘Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs. He alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.’ -Nietzche.

Humor is essential in my culture and my life. Humor is a must to keep emotions at bay when they are too strong!!