TIFF Encounters: Meryem Benm’Barek, director of Sofia


From the 1st till the 11th of November, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival (TIFF) took place. Balkan Hotspot was there to talk to some of the movie makers. This second article is about our encounter with Meryem Benm’Barek, the director of the movie Sofia (2018).

The movie is about 20-year old Sofia, who lives in Casablanca, Morocco, with her parents. After suffering from pregnancy denial, she breaks the law when she gives birth to a baby out of wedlock. The hospital gives her 24 hours to provide the identification papers of the father. Sofia and her cousin Lena fight to resist the structures of their patriarchal society.

Sofia won the Best Screenplay Award in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2018. It also won  an award in the International Competition of TIFF, given out by the International Federation of Film Critics.  Sofia was written and directed by Meryem Benm’Barek. We sat down with her for a conversation about the movie and Moroccan society.

Meryem Benm’Barek in conversation with Filip

In the past few months, you have presented your new movie on numerous festivals around the globe. What kind of reactions have you encountered from audiences in various cultural environments so far? 

It is a very enriching process. I could notice that when I talk to Greek people, Spanish people or Italian people… Actually, in all of the Mediterranean culture, we have kind of the same codes and same familial issues. That’s why I think that also the audience over here is very warm. People probably recognize themselves in the story. I did not want to make a movie just for Morocco. I wanted to make a universal movie, which can touch everyone. 

On the one hand, there is the universal theme of your movie, but on the other hand, this movie is also very personal for you, because you have based it upon several different stories of your friends and relatives that have experienced something similar. How personal does the movie feel to you now that it’s finished?

What is very personal for me, is not exactly the story of Sofia. The personal dimension expressed in the movie is mainly the way I experience Morocco with my family and with my loved ones. Most of the people around me share this similar feeling about the culture that we live in. We all perceive that there is a kind of hypocrisy. There is also something that is oftentimes suggested but almost never said explicitly. People in Morocco are not used to talk frankly about their problems. This situation often times makes problems much bigger than they are and the atmosphere around them super heavy.

I think that you captured this problem with a lack of proper communication successfully captured in different moments in the movie. For example, we can see it very nicely in the beginning when both families finally meet to discuss the child. In this scene, Sofia’s family is trying to address the problem, but instead of answering them, Omar’s mother tries to avoid the issue just by staying polite and offering the visitors some tea.

Yes, everything is suggested, as people in Morocco are not used to talk directly. For this reason, I have also decided to not put that much dialogue in the movie, because in Morocco, we do not talk much. I mean, we talk about superficial things, but when we have problems or when we have to talk about feelings, people usually try to find a way to avoid addressing them. It bothers me a lot and that is why I also decided to make a movie about it because this situation is not healthy.

Promotion poster for Sofia

What were the reactions of the press in Morocco?

Well, in connection with the press, you have to know that in Morocco we have two types of the press: one is in Arabic and the other in French. The Arabic press is mostly read by the people from middle and lower classes. The French press is more focused upon the elites, the bourgeoisie and the upper class. Even though the French press has a much smaller amount of readers, its power is still quite strong.

As for the Arabic press, I was very happy and proud. They completely got my point and the main topic of the movie. They were talking about the social fracture, as well as about the powers that oftentimes drive people to remain silent or passive in order to move upwards within the social hierarchy. Additionally, they wrote about how my movie deconstructed some of the common clichés that we often see in the Arabic cinema. So they talked about all that and I was really happy. A lot of people read the Arabic press and I wanted to touch people – the common audience. 

In connection with the press written in French, I should say that they did not really talk much about the critic of the bourgeoisie, social fracture, the power of money in the society and all the other important topics that my movie proposed for the public discussion. Apart from one or two short articles, the French press was mostly unnecessarily analyzing the character of Sofia. They asked why she is wearing the jellaba, why she doesn’t speak French well and so on. Unfortunately, this reaction made me pretty disappointed, because I was expecting them to write about real questions, about society and about cinema and I did not find it.

But it is OK. The public came to watch the movie, and many people loved it. A lot of young people also went to support the movie, so I was very happy with that.

Still from Sofia

It seems like this tradition is making the whole society suffer. Do you think that the law might change in this area in Morocco?

The movie says that everything is a bit stuck with a system that works like this. It makes people crazy. I am not very optimistic about the system changing right now. But I am very optimistic about the future and the next generation, which is why I called the baby of Sofia Emel, which means ‘hope’ in Arabic.

May I also ask about one very specific scene from the movie? There was the moment when the women were discussing a problematic situation on the balcony. Sofia revealed that she had been raped by a family friend, and Sofia’s mother gave her a choice. Either she would come out with the truth or stick to the original plan of marrying Omar. And Sofia herself chooses the wedding, so I did not feel like there was pressure on her…

This scene is very important in the movie because it has been understood as a critique of white feminism, and the kind of feminism of the bourgeoisie,  which forces women to choose what others think is good for them. In this scene, Lena, Sofia’s cousin, tells her: “You are a victim, you do not know what is happening, you do not realise what has happened to you. You have to say the truth. And we have to stop all that masquerade.” And Sofia answers: “No. Who are you to tell me what I have to do.” She could find the way out with that wedding, so she chooses the way out.

For me, this is saying that the freedom of thinking and freedom of action are the most important things. And it is a bit naive to think that you can decide for other people when you do not have the context of the situation. Lena has a very ethnocentric view of the situation. And that’s why some people see it as a critique, of how western people look at our countries and conditions of women.

Did you have any problems before you made the movie, or while you were making the movie?

Some people in Morocco were scared, and even some people in France. Personally, if I would read a script like this, I would be like, ‘again, a movie like this, in which the woman is a victim of the patriarchal society in the Arab world’, but actually this is just the first 15 minutes. The story of Sofia actually talks about the social fracture. It does not really talk about the woman that cannot have a sex outside of the marriage. We don’t really care about that. That problem is resolved in the first 20 minutes in the movie. The main point is the social fracture and the power that each family uses to get themselves higher within a social hierarchy. 

I really wanted to make the European audience comfortable with all the codes they know, feed them everything they expected, but not for more than 20 minutes. Then, when I built everything, step by step, I start to deconstruct all the clichés that I gave them in the beginning. After the first 20 minutes, the real point of the movie starts: to see how society is working.

At the same time, I also kept in mind that I wanted everyone in Morocco to see the movie: conservative, modern, young people, families… I wanted a mother to take her teenager to watch the movie, because this is how we open the discussion. And when I started to write the script, I decided to put aside every provocative or shocking scene. I wanted something very subtle, very respectful. My reference was Iranian cinema, where they play with censorship, because they have no other choice. This is what I did as well. If I would be provocative with my directing and writing, the movie would start a discussion only in France, or only in Europe. But this is our problem, and we need to resolve this problem ourselves – we do not need Europe to give us the solution.

Watch the trailer of Sofia below and find more TIFF encounters here!

Interview, transcribing and writing by Filip Grác; photography by Arianna Salan; writing and publication by Sacha Bogaers

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