Much Loved or Much Humiliated?

in 53rd Gijón International Film Festival

by Bojidar Manov

Much LovedThis film was screened in Cannes 2015 in the Quinzaine des Realisateurs and was noticed in a particular way: with a nomination for the Queer Palm, which has been awarded by the LGBT community since 2010. Furthermore, Much Loved came into this focus along with another 11 feature films, including Carol (USA, dir. Todd Haynes), Love (France, dir. Gaspar Noé), Dope (USA, dir. Rick Fameuyiwa), Mustang (France, Germany, Turkey, dir. Denize Gamze Ergüven), and 7 shorts. The Queer Palm went to Carol, but the little Moroccan film proved to be an important step for the director Nabil Ayouch towards international success, mainly because of the selection in Quinzaine des Realisateurs rather than the nomination, which is “peripheral” for the movie and refers to a peripheral storyline and only one gay and one lesbian episode. Thereafter, the film was selected in the Contemporary World Cinema section of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

Much Loved is about a group of women in Morocco who make a living as prostitutes in a culture that is very unforgiving toward women in that profession. They are elite representatives of the oldest profession in Marrakesh: they do not hang around the streets at night for small money but have luxurious and rich clients from the circle of friends of a Saudi sheikh and businessmen provided by their experienced procurer. Their life is a non-stop party with all the inherent attributes like dresses, jewellery, cosmetics and expensive gifts. Of course, in such a storyline the sex episodes abound; erotic orgies rock the screen, and the sign “18+” determines the censorship category for the film, although this is not essential to the message of director and scriptwriter Nabil Ayouch. Working on the film, he interviewed hundreds of prostitutes about important details of their profession and its practice in Morocco.

In his homeland, the film was banned by the authorities for “serious contempt for moral values and Moroccan women, and for flagrant violation of the Kingdom’s image,” because it tells about the daily life four sex workers in an environment of absolute patriarchal dictation, corruption in the administrative hierarchy and of the police. Because of its subject-matter and the issues brought to the forefront, the film stirred a debate in Morocco before it was released, when only a few video clips were broadcast on the Internet. The lead actress Loubna Abidar received death threats in her Twitter profile and was sued for “defilement” (especially because of a nude sex scene). On 5 November 2015 she was violently attacked outside a club in Casablanca due to her appearance in the film. She posted a video online talking about the attack and its subsequent belittling by the authorities.

The religious authorities condemned the film “for portraying a negative image of Morocco, with its supporting of extra-marital sex and sympathy for homosexuals.”  Thus, the main message of the film for equality of women and guarantees for their individual independence is read in a biased and retrograde way.

Certainly, prostitution is not an alternative to the restricted female freedom in Islamic society, nor is it an acceptable form of emancipation. But beyond the storyline, the film in fact talks about the double morality of corrupt institutions tacitly encouraging European sex tourism on the one hand, and concealing prostitution under the veil of shame and honour for the holy family on the other.

Director Nabil Ayouch has definitely sought to emphasize the spectacle and therefore included striking, even shocking sex scenes. However, at the end he goes for a melodramatic denouement that is typical for Arab cinema, and he almost declaratively imposes his message by making it sufficiently legible in the tradition of the regional culture and in the narrative of a peculiar moralité. Therefore the title can be read in at least two ways: Much Loved, or Much Humiliated.

Edited by Birgit Beumers