"Samira's Garden": A Moroccan Garden of Desires By Hynek Pallas

in 30th Montreal World Film Festival

by Hynek Pallas

In contemporary European and American films Arabic Muslims usually inhabit a set of stereotypes that are limited to terrorist and wife beaters — for men — and veiled and subdued, alternatively as an exotic other, for women. Considering these narrow clichés of the Arab-Muslim world the Moroccan film Samira’s Garden (Samira Fi Adayaa) is a rare treat that offers another point of view as well as a universal critique of patriarchal structures.

Women’s voices and desires, especially these of a sexual nature, are seldom heard in the discussions about men and women in the Muslim world — whether in- or outside of the cinema. Samira’s Garden is told from the perspective of Samira, a modern, urban woman in her late twenties. When Samira’s boyfriend doesn’t want to get engaged — and she is determined to remain a virgin until she is married (which breaks off the relationship) — her father, with the apparent approval of his daughter, arranges a marriage with an acquaintance of his, a widowed man in his sixties. But whereas Samira is looking for a marriage involving kids and a sex life, her new husband wants her to attend to his dying father while he is off at work. As soon as Samira moves to the isolated house in the Moroccan countryside, a household that apart from the Alzheimer-ridden father includes Farouk, a nephew in his early twenties, things go wrong. Samira soon finds out that her husband has been impotent since the death of his wife (who he clearly misses). As Samira tries to caress him — thinking that the impotence is all in his head — his avoidance of Samira’s advances gets more and more violent.

At this point Samira’s Garden could easily have fallen into the stereotype of the Muslim male who beats his wife for “cultural” or “traditional” reasons. However, veteran Moroccan filmmaker Latif Lahlou shows that the husband’s reactions are by no means “cultural” or “traditional”, they have more to do with an old impotent patriarch who is scared of losing face than Islam or tradition. Even more surprising are the actions of Samira. She starts laying her eyes on the shy young Farouk who tends to the garden. One day she finds a copy of “Hustler” in his closet and decides to seduce him. From here on the film is a study of a woman taking charge of her sexuality and her desires in a male-dominated environment. Here Lahlou uses flashbacks in an economical but effective way to show how Samira’s strength comes from her sense of sisterhood with her mother, sisters and friends. The flashbacks serve as a kind of feminist backbone to her character.

The film steers clear of any nudity, but this only makes Samira’s actions even more explosive, as when she masturbates under a blanket next to her sleeping husband. This scene, from the moment Samira takes off her panties and hides them under her pillow to the close-up of her face as she has an orgasm, is all the more explosive considering the subtlety of emotions in the rest of the movie.

The real dethronization of the traditional patriarchal society in Samira’s Garden however is not that of the husband — who on one hand accepts what happens, and seems to understand Samira’s needs, but can’t let it happen — but the way that Lahlou portrays the dying father. To Farouk and Samira the man is nothing but a vegetable as they exchange glances and touch over his immobile body as they feed him, bathe him and stroll around with him in the garden. They do not even bother to close the door to the bedroom as they make love, and in the last shot of Samira and Farouk together, he is positioned sitting in his wheel-chair in front of them, trying in vain to turn his head to see what they are doing. His eyes follow them impotently throughout the film, adding a silent but strong character that serves as the perspective of the older, traditional patriarchy.

Samira’s Garden is conventionally filmed, but Lahlou knows how to frame the actors to get the most out of their performances. Sanaa Mouzianas as Samira does a fine job in every aspect: playing a determined woman looking for a husband, then the sexually frustrated seductress, eventually portraying Samira’s quiet but desperate acceptance of her faith. The isolation of Samira grows almost tangible as the camera isolates her in the house and its beautiful surroundings (enhanced by the contrast to the flashbacks where she is constantly surrounded by friends, family and city life). These isolating shots culminate in a very pessimistic last zoom-out that leaves Samira completely alone. Unfortunately something is technically off at this moment, and the shot looks like a zoom-out from a TV-screen. Lahlou also uses sound to add another fine layer to the film: to enhance the isolation and the silence of the countryside, there is a constant sound of a water sprinkler in the background. (Intentionally or not, one can’t help but be reminded of the sound of film running through the projector.)

In its portrayal of a woman determined to follow her desires and dreams, whether sexual or marital, Samira’s Garden is a powerful film that speaks out with a feminist voice that derides traditional and cultural boundaries.